With many consumers keenly interested in where their food and drink comes from and who makes it, the cocktail list of Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco is in tune with the times.
The list roams through key eras in the history of the cocktail, citing famous figures of the bar and offering examples of their work. The leadoff section, The Beginning – Punch, presents “the original mixed drink” and seafarers’ tipple of the mid-1600s. A contemporary version is the Seasonal Punch, made with apple cinnamon gin, Calvados, lemon, honey and allspice dram.
It goes on to visit the Jerry Thomas Years – 1860s, when the legendary barman crafted cocktails that current generations are discovering, like the Pisco Crusta, a combination of pisco brandy, red lychee tea and lime.
Ultimately the list arrives at the Present Day, known for freewheeling exploration of tinctures, infusions and the gadgetry of molecular mixology. One of the featured drinks is the Carbonated Negroni, a version of the gin, sweet vermouth and Campari libation fizzed with a handheld carbonator and bottled in house by Joel Teitelbaum, bar manager of the elegant spot owned by Kimpton Restaurants.
“Maybe this list is a little over some peoples’ heads,” Teitelbaum said. “But they are always interested when you talk about it. It encourages them to trust the person behind the bar. We do get people who appreciate it and are excited to try the drinks.”
Another notable stop is the Dry Years of Prohibition – 1920-1933, which includes a drink called Humos Locos made with mezcal, jalapeno-infused green chartreuse, lime and agave. Teitelbaum explains that the latter is his impression of what an expatriate barkeep might have dreamed up at the time.
“During Prohibition, there were a lot of really great bartenders in the U.S. that couldn’t work here, so they went to Cuba, South America or Europe,” Teitelbaum said.
The Martini Heyday – 1950s was a relative bright spot, featuring the classic 50/50 Martini of equal parts gin and dry vermouth. However, eventually the Dark Times – 1980s arrived, a period when professionalism declined and shortcuts and artificial flavors came into use. Here Teitelbaum offers a modern mixologist’s remake of an old favorite, the Cosmopolitan. His version, dubbed Colorado vs. Hunter S. Thompson, mixes Russian vodka, orange curacao, house-made hibiscus cordial, lemon and seltzer, a decided step up from the original.
The section dubbed Beginning of the Revival – 1990s recognizes visionary bartenders like Dale DeGroff, Tony Abou-Ganim and Gary Regan, among the first to bring fresh juices and quality aged spirits and cordials out of obscurity and back into regular use, helping to initiate the cocktail renaissance. Their contributions are symbolized by a drink like Brazilian Burrow, made with cachaca, Velvet Falernum, elderflower liqueur, ginger beer and bitters.
“These are the guys who got us back on track and the U.S. pointing in the right direction,” Teitelbaum said. “We thought it was appropriate to pay homage to the people who did all the legwork that allows us to do what we do today.”