Nate Howell hands me a round thing that looks like it could be a piece of candy or maybe some fancy dried fruit. Nope—it's a cedar-wood ball that's been soaked in gin, and it's the garnish for the Hunt & Gather, the Northwest-inspired drink on JSix's regional-themed cocktail menu.
Made with cedar-infused Aviation gin, grenadine, fresh grapefruit juice and egg white—with that cedar ball floating on top—it's a delicate, nuanced drink, served with a shot glass of Oregon Pinot Noir that you add as you sip. Howell, JSix's head bartender, gives the egg white a good dry-shake (without ice), to give the drink an almost meringue-like froth.
"I always like to suggest drinking it with this to your nose," he says, pointing to the cedar ball, "so you can really smell the aromatic in the wood. And then after you have a sip, sort of top it with the Pinot and it really kind of cuts through the cedar, and it cuts through that juniper quality of the gin and really rounds out the cocktail."
Earlier this year, JSix (616 J St., Downtown) underwent a major rehab, and Howell, who'd been the head bartender at Cusp at Hotel La Jolla, was tapped to head up the cocktail program. The idea of doing seasonal cocktail menus wasn't singing to him. Inspired by seeing a bartender at Aviary in Chicago use cedar in a cocktail, Howell, working with JSix chef Christian Graves, came up with the concept of regions—West, Northwest, Northeast, etc. Each of the six drinks on the menu includes a spirit, and flavors, from that region. Aviation gin, for instance, is based in Portland. Here, it's infused with cedar chips from Oregon Redwoods. In Our Own Backyard, the cocktail under the "Local" header, is made with rum from San Diego's Ballast Point (plus Marie Brizard apricot liqueur, house-made salted orgeat syrup, fresh lime and mint). It's "a really nice sort of quintessential San Diego, tiki cocktail," Howell says. The Hola Y'all, the cocktail representing the South, includes both Del Maguey mezcal from Oaxaca and Texas-made Tito's vodka that's been infused with Graves' spicy barbecue rub. If you like heat, try the infused Vodka on ice with some soda. Straight-up, it's fantastic, too, but potent.
"The whole menu's really basic," Howell says. "It's fresh citrus, herbs we grow in the yard"—JSix's rooftop garden. "It's a bunch of simple things added up to make a really great final product."
Howell also selected for the menu three well-known classics (Negroni, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour) and three obscure classics (Bijou, Brown Derby, Chicago) and plans to expand both lists. Flip over a few more pages and you come to a section called "Medicine Cabinet" that features a bar tool of the month for purchase (currently a bar spoon, it changes quarterly) and a short list of house syrups for sale—including that salted orgeat.