Brian Means takes Fifth Floor drinks to another level 

click to enlarge Liquor leanings: Brian Means says whiskey drinks are popular at the Fifth Floor, but scotch is “on the outs a little bit.” - BRIAN MOLYNEAUX/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Brian Molyneaux/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Liquor leanings: Brian Means says whiskey drinks are popular at the Fifth Floor, but scotch is “on the outs a little bit.”

Fifth Floor Brian Means did not always want to be a bartender. Or maybe he did. The Bay Area native worked in bars while earning a business degree and while he trained to become a firefighter, working with the Bodega Bay Fire Department for nearly a year. But somewhere along the way, after three years at Chow in Danville, he realized he was already where he wanted to be. After four months learning from Joel Teitelbaum at Zero Zero, the Contra Costa County resident moved to the elegant Fifth Floor, where Union Square shoppers find a quiet sanctuary from the street-level hullaballoo, and imbibing thrillseekers alternate between the one-of-a-kind “cocktail spheres” — a drink served in an edible container — and the bar’s remixed classics and unheard-of originals.  12 Fourth St., (415) 348-1555,

What’s popular here? Gin and whiskey. We’re really focused on our whiskey and gin here, and they’re my two favorite spirits to mix with. Whiskey plays really well with teas and the seasonal tinctures we have. We sell a ton of bourbon and ryes: Manhattans, Sazeracs, Old-Fashioneds. It’s funny, we get a lot of people from the Midwest … and they want to know if we’ve ever made one or not — “Do you know what an Old-Fashioned is?”

Why is brown liquor so popular in San Francisco right now? Trends go up and down, it’s hard sometimes to figure out why. There’s been an explosion in classic cocktails. Bartenders rediscovered Jerry Thomas’ “The Savoy Cocktail Book,” and David Wondrich’s “Imbibe!” has been influential. But scotch is still on the outs a little bit. Scotch. People have trouble with scotch. There’s a lot of peat, and it can be overpowering in cocktails. You can mix with it, though, it just takes a lot of trial and error with the flavor profiles.

Could gin be the next big thing? Possibly, yes. A lot of people have misconceptions about gin, that all gins are created the same, and they all taste of juniper berries. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tell me about your “cocktail spheres.” They’re a shell of xanthan gum and calcium chloride, with a cocktail inside. You just pop them in your mouth and eat them. They pair great with the food here made by chef David Bazirgan. They’re like a Gushers fruit candy for adults.

You worked in the East Bay before coming to San Francisco, and you live there still. We hear a lot about how “different” and “special” The City is; what differences did you find? In San Francisco, people are more well-traveled. Before, I met a much more regular crowd and saw most of the same people day in and day out. Now, I meet people from all walks of life.

Compare the experience working behind the bar here versus there. It’s a totally different world behind the bar. When I got here, people were working with things I’d never heard of before — the bottled cocktails and barrel-aged cocktails Joel [Teitelbaum] was putting together. I’d never seen anything like it.

Was it daunting? It was at first. I was working with people I’d only read about. It was humbling; it was like I was a kid all over again.


Nail in the Coffin

- 1½ oz. Yamazaki 12-year single-malt whiskey
- ¾ oz. dry Madeira
- ½ oz. Licor 43
- Dash of Fernet

Mix ingredients over rocks. Stir. Pour into Champagne coupe.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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