The cover of the January / February issue of Imbibe magazine promises to introduce the 75 "People, places and flavors that will shape the way you drink in 2015." San Diego gets three mentions. Yay! Two are beer-related and one is a write-up about a juice bar. Boo! Nothing against Bagby Beer, South Park Brewing and Juice Saves, but I was hoping to see some love for San Diego cocktails. (Yes, I know Imbibe named Polite Provisions its 2014 Cocktail Bar of the Year and, yes, I know that Juice Saves proprietor Lindsay Nader was a craft-cocktail all-star before moving over to the healthier stuff.) Regardless, let this 2014 retrospective serve as a glimpse of how far San Diego's cocktail scene's come in just a few years.
Cocktail Tales' year started with a visit to North Park's Coin-Op, then open just three months, to see what head bartender Ryan Andrews was up to. Filled with '80s-era video games—which can get a little loud when played en masse—it seemed an unlikely spot to enjoy a great craft cocktail. But, as Andrews explained, the goal was to create a menu that would appeal to sophisticated drinkers and introduce less-experienced palates to new flavors. He kind of turned that theory on its head later in the year when he accepted a challenge to work some magic with Jägermeister. His tiki-cocktail-inspired Mick Jäger is still on Coin-Op's menu.
Andrews recently left Coin-Op for Heat Supper Club in Hillcrest. His new menu there focuses on good, simple drinks, many made with locally produced spirits (Henebery, Old Harbor, Malahat) and bitters (Rx, Boy Drinks World).
In May, I wrote about Nate Howell's fantastic new menu at JSix, inspired by regional spirits and flavors. A few months later, he left to rep craft spirits for Young's Market Co. and was replaced by Chris Burkett, who'd previously been doing great things at Cusp in La Jolla. Burkett was the guy behind my favorite drink at CityBeat's Chefs & Shakers Mash-Up in June. His Fear & Loathing involved trapping cassia-bark smoke under each glass before adding the rich combo of fortified wine, Oloroso sherry, hickory-smoked cola syrup and bitters.
Speaking of rich, well-rounded cocktails, in late September, Starlite rolled out a new menu, created by bar manager Dmitri Dziensuwski and longtime bartender Jack Reynolds, that included the excellent The First Third. Made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Cynar, sherry, lemon and garnished with a Castelvetrano olive, it's boozy and balanced and tops my 2014 favorites list. If bourbon ain't your thing, try the smoky, bittersweet Pola Negri, made with mezcal, Cherry Herring, sweet vermouth, sour orange and thyme syrup, or the pretty Strawberry Fjords (gin, Aquavit, elderflower liqueur and strawberry purée).
And a visit to Zymology 21, the new restaurant by Café 21's Alex and Leyla Javadov, introduced me to my favorite new spirit: Grand Poppy Organic Liqueur, a citrusy aperitif by Green Bar distillery that Zymology 21 bar manager Louis Chavez uses in a tasty drink called The Resurrectionist (gin, house-made Pimms, a cardamom-strawberry shrub, champagne and an absinthe spray). In keeping with the restaurant's chemistry theme, Chavez is doing interesting things with shrubs—fermented fruit syrups—and creating cocktails that are clean and delicious.