Like most millennial labels, “craft cocktail” is a decidedly vague description. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on the crafted angle. House-made mixes, carefully thought-out recipes, and meticulously built beverages. Everything else—the décor, the environment, the “cool” factor—is just window dressing. But impressive window dressing, furnishings, and ambiance can definitely turn a spectacular cocktail into an epic one.
Here are a few of our favorite places to imbibe and indulge. Feel free to differ, debate, and edify, but please, always tip the mixologist generously.
- Blackbird Bar
Exquisite cocktails are lovingly made to order at this rustic, dimly lit bar on Market in the Castro. The staff is friendly and inviting, the drinks are strong, and they have a nice, long happy hour (from 5 to 8, Monday through Friday). This is an unpretentious and legitimate locals’ spot. Our favorites include Cooper’s Old Fashioned made with donut-infused whiskey, Apple Jack, Evan Williams Bourbon, and coffee, and the Femme Fatale, made with tequila, spiced orange shrub, Aperitivo, and lemon.
- The Sequoia
Deep in the heart of the FiDi, The Sequoia is tucked away in a quiet street above the venerable dining establishment, Wayfare Tavern. The most striking thing you’ll notice as you settle in is the commanding view and unique perspective of the Transamerica building through the fourth-floor skylight. Highlights from their cocktail menu include a lavender Moscow Mule and the Night Owl, Sequoia’s own recipe crafted with rye, cognac, Campari, Benedictine, Absinthe, sweet vermouth, and bitters.
- Pagan Idol
A bit kitschy, but Pagan Idol provides lovingly crafted cocktails with a Polynesian flair. It’s in the FiDi, and it’s a little less touristy than the Tonga Room. Our favorite is the Witch Doctor, made with Rhum Martinique, Jamaican Rum, grapefruit, lime, passionfruit, spices, egg white, and, according to their menu, an ancient curse.
This literary-themed bar in SoMa is known for handcrafted cocktails and punches on tap. They name their concoctions after fictional characters and the interior is classy and subdued. Their punches are made with housemade mixes using herbs, spices, fruit, and premium spirits. Favorite cocktails are the Alice White, made with gin and house watermelon tonic, and the Curious George, made with banana infused rum. They have seasonal recipes, but their house punch is Hemingway’s Code Hero, made with three whiskeys, Pimm’s, Earl Gray, and grapefruit.
- Trick Dog
Trick Dog in the Mission is one of the most creative watering holes in the city with a rotating theme that keeps people coming back for more. Their current inspiration is children’s books, and the menu is cartoony and colorful. Drinks include The Frantic Frog, Bolshevik Blog, Dramatic Pollywog, and Jurassic Fog. You can’t go wrong with fog in San Francisco, and this one is made with George Dickel Whiskey, purple yam, cranberry, maple, lemon, and walnut bitters and is served on the rocks.
Though this Mission spot can get crowded, it’s still is one of the best places to go in San Francisco for craft cocktails and delicious small bites. Another reason to go is to experience Over Proof, a reservations-only bar-within-a-bar located on the mezzanine level serving guests a preset menu of cocktails and food in 5+ courses. The food and spirits emphasis rotates every few months, and the current one is Este Oeste—a gin/sherry/Spanish theme—which runs through November 4th on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
- Linden Room
If you don’t know the exact location of this slightly hidden bar with no signage, you’re not alone. It’s easy to miss even if you’re familiar with Hayes Valley. For those fortunate enough to find it, you’re in store for a chic bar celebrating seasonal and traditional American craft cocktails. They use innovative techniques like low-temperature infusions and careful aging to transform fresh fruit, herbs, and seasonal produce into bitters, tinctures, and liqueurs used in their creative cocktails.
Wildhawk in the Mission is a looker, with a come-hither interior and an inhibitionless vibe. The quirky décor includes faux zebra skin bar stools, leather couches, and overstuffed chairs, but don’t let the façade fool you, their drinks are the real deal. Try the Life Aquatic made with Angostura Rum, Bruto Americano, vanilla sugar, pimento bitters, and club soda, or the intriguing Breakfast Negroni, a Cocoa Puffs-infused Negroni with gin, Campari, Cinzano 1757 Vermouth, and chocolate salt bitters.
Photo courtesy of Matt Biddulph
Absinthe has been a mainstay for years in Hayes Valley and it’s been a precursor to the crafted trend. Staying power is a healthy attribute in this hot-today-cold-tomorrow climate of all things hipster, and it’s a testament to their attention to quality. They’re going through some renovations, but they’ll be reopening September 7th.
- Evil Eye
Evil Eye, as the name implies, is cultish, dark, and a bit mysterious—but all in a good way. They’re in the Mission, and their food menu is full of welcome surprises while their bar menu entices with interesting concoctions. The interior is vintage old-school, and their boozy milkshakes put Evil Eye over the top. Also try the Smoked Paloma, made with mescal, grapefruit, amaro, agave, salt, and soda.
Dorian is in the Marina District and the interior has been recently renovated. It’s a classic, Victorian-themed space that’s comfortable and welcoming. Their happy hour is very popular with discount cocktails and $1 oysters, but it ends at 6:30, so plan accordingly. Some of their most popular cocktails are the Libertine, made with vodka and fresh strawberries, and the Virtue, made with Pisco, cucumber, lemon, mint, and yogurt.
So plan for an Uber and head out to explore. San Francisco is one of the best cities in the world for new and exciting nighttime experiences.