Is the craft cocktail movement getting out of hand? 

Is the craft cocktail renaissance moving at such a fast pace that it’s becoming too intimidating? Are drinkers becoming so confused by ingredients like pamplemousse rose or creme de cassis that they resort to their comfort zone of Manhattans or gin and tonics?

These are some of the topics recently making the rounds among bartenders and bar patrons.

And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with a classic cocktail (except maybe a vodka-soda), there is much to be celebrated in the renaissance, and too many exotic ingredients could scare off a potential enthusiast.

Kevin Dowell, who recently became bar manager at Foreign Cinema, is trying to pull back the reins on the cocktail scene by simplifying menus and making them more approachable. And that’s all while staying relevant to the times and the vast range of liqueur, amaros, spirits and syrups that are available.

“A cocktail menu is supposed to be inviting, like, ‘Welcome, come on in,’” Dowell said. “Not like, ‘Here’s my cocktail menu, I wonder if you can guess what these ingredients are.’”

Dowell, who pretty much grew up right across the street from Foreign Cinema, has made a homecoming of sorts. Dowell says he’s all about making people feel comfortable, as if the bar were his own living room.

“Let me help you along the way, but if I have to change names around, then so be it,” Dowell said.

And if that means changing creme de cassis to “black currant liqueur” and pamplemousse rose to “grapefruit cordial,” that’s exactly what he’ll do.

“A menu can be crazy and super-unique and set off your ego,” Dowell said, “but what if the drinks don’t sell? I’ve had some crazy intricate drinks off of some different menus, but bartenders will tell me that I’m the first one to order that drink in weeks. There’s something wrong with that.”

Ashley Miller, who manages the bar at Alta CA near the Twitter building on Market Street, said it’s the easygoing tone she sets that gets customers to order off her complex and unorthodox drink menu (which we’ll visit in the coming weeks). Miller is always trying to stay ahead of the game, but in a way that can be easily understood.

“As a bartender you have to keep creating and staying true to yourself,” she said. “Just don’t go talking in a foreign language.”

But even Miller can be put off by snobs.

“I even get nervous ordering a cocktail at some bars in this city, like I needed to study up on my bourbons before I went there,” she said. “The bartender sets the tone, and sometimes it can be intimidating.”

Imagine how that can be for people outside of the industry who get the short end of both sticks by not being able to understand a menu and being put off by a buttoned-up bartender.

“Sometimes I feel uncomfortable asking what something is, like I’m not supposed to,” said bar patron Jessica Heller, who lives in North Beach.

By no means is the cocktail renaissance in its infancy anymore. It’s a teenager, if not a young adult. But there should always be a welcoming entry point for everyone. And most of the time, the bartender is (or should be) that person. Let’s get rid of the days of stumping and intimidating guests, scaring away future enthusiasts before even giving them a chance.

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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