Alta CA in SF is experimenting with your drinking experience 

click to enlarge Ashley Miller
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.f. Examiner
  • Bar manager Ashley Miller uses sous vide techniques, homemade liqueurs and a generous pour of ingenuity in crafting Alta CA’s libations.
Step into Alta CA’s mid-Market Street space and you can feel something different is going on.

The joint’s shelves of spirits and housemade liqueurs and bitters reach the ceiling in the latest, very approachable addition to The City’s drinking and dining scene from renowned restaurateur Daniel Patterson (he of Coi, Il Cane Rosso, Haven and Plum fame). Here, neighborhood folks and service industry workers enjoy a few rounds while bartenders pump carbon dioxide into tubes of booze for fizzy, carbonated cocktails.

A silky layer of cold-smoked egg whites from a pastry tool tops the Curious George, a savory, aromatic cocktail that’s like a whiskey sour meeting a pickle back.

On the more refreshing end is The Gatekeeper, a bright and lightly spicy springtime cocktail with chunks of tequila-soaked tangerines that make it seem like a sangria.

We stepped in to chat with bar manager Ashley Miller, who assured us that the labor-intensive process of putting her drinks together makes them bad for the at-home bartender. That just gives us all the more reason to come in and see her.

Tell me about your drinks. Everything we do here is the Daniel Patterson way — very artisanal, very seasonal, very sustainable — and definitely we really try to be different. I don’t like to follow trends going on in The City. There’s a big thing with bitter, stirred, brown-spirit drinks. I love them and I drink them often. But I like people to get an experience. We’re a neighborhood spot. We don’t feature anything that we don’t make ourselves. We make most of our own liqueurs, bitters, cordials.

You know of anyone else doing that? Not on our scale. People make their own bitters, but liqueurs, no.

That must be very time-consuming. Definitely. We have what we call our barrel house in the East Bay where we make our liqueurs, and all of our barrel-aged cocktails. It’s like running a kitchen, but a bar. Lots of heavy prep.

You said sustainable earlier. What do you mean by that? Here, when we use fruits, for example, we like to use the whole thing. Before we juice our limes, we skin the limes so we can use the peels for our falernum [a sweet syrup]. In our cocktail The Gatekeeper, we do tangerine three ways. I took tangerines from the market, peeled them, dehydrated them with chile de arbol, ground with salt and sugar for a rim. Took the tangerine and sous vide them with the tequila. Saved the tangerines that have been soaking in tequila and put them back into the drink.

A source told me about your use of a sous vide machine, which cooks foods in airtight bags in a water bath, to infuse spirits. What’s the difference between infusing spirits using sous vide as opposed to old-school ways of infusing alcohol with fruit by jarring it and putting it on the shelf? When you do that, you’re going to risk oxidization and you’re going to get a lot of evaporation, which is going to change the alcohol level. [Alcoholic Beverage Control] kind of jumped all over that a while back and took that out, and you couldn’t do that anymore because you’re taking a product and you’re putting stuff in and there’s no control. When you do a sous vide method, you have control because you vacuum seal it because no alcohol is going to get out, no oxygen is going to be exposed to it. It’s faster, it’s more consistent and the flavors are more concentrated. We’re doing bourbon infused with puerh tea. Meyer lemon in vodka. My favorite is the Curious George with dill, celery bitters infused into the whiskey.

What’s that long, narrow bottle behind the bar that looks like something you plug into that coiled pump? It’s a carbonator. Insert CO2, you’re carbonating the booze. I try to bring in as many cool tricks as I can. Carbonated cocktails, it’s the future.

About The Author

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado

Rhys Alvarado is a cocktail enthusiast and sucker for soul and sweet reggae music. A food and drink blogger since 2009, Rhys has sipped his way from Hawaii to Santa Barbara and up the coast to San Francisco, where he's found a glorious wave of craft concoctions and expert drink-makers.
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