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Bars We Love: ABV, San Francisco

Bars We Love: ABV, San Francisco: Melissa Chow

Melissa Chow

Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a laid-back California spot that won best new American cocktail bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.


NAME: ABV
LOCATION: Mission District, San Francisco
EST: 2014
ON THE JUKEBOX: Burning Spear, King Khan, Charles Bradley

WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Gin & Celery cocktail: Old Tom gin, lemon juice, gum syrup, celery bitters, salt and tonic
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Mumbai Mule cocktail: saffron-, cumin- and coriander-infused vodka, lemon juice, ginger syrup, mint and soda

Dunmore Cobbler cocktail // Melissa Chow

Dunmore Cobbler cocktail // Melissa Chow

WHY WE LOVE IT: The cocktail menu at ABV bar in San Francisco is organized by spirit. Each liquor—whiskey, scotch, tequila, mezcal, rum, brandy, gin and vodka—has two cocktails dedicated to it. Well, almost every spirit does. “This is cliché, but we’re not huge fans of vodka,” co-owner Ryan Fitzgerald says. “So for our vodka cocktail (there is only one vodka cocktail on the menu), the Mumbai Mule, we infused our vodka with saffron, cumin and coriander. We sort of turned it into an Indian-spiced, DIY gin just without the juniper.” Indian-spiced, DIY gin. That’s about as cliché as ABV gets.

Fitzgerald, Erik Reichborn-Kjennerud and Todd Smith—a trio of local cocktail savants—joined forces and opened their laid-back bar last year. “The idea of the speakeasy with the password and the limited amount of seating had kind of run its course and become not so fun anymore,” Fitzgerald says. “So we decided that ABV was going to be a place that had as good if not better cocktails as a place like that and it was going to be set up in a way that we could make sure everyone was having a good time.”

Mapo Sloppy Joe // Melissa Chow

Mapo Sloppy Joe // Melissa Chow

The trio opened in the Mission District, near Reichborn-Kjennerud’s bars Dalva and the Hideout. “We wanted to be near a lot of other likeminded individuals,” Fitzgerald says. “We live and die by what our peers say, so being a bar near a bunch of other bars provides us with a lot of industry people who come over after their shifts and enjoy our good late-night food and drinks. People in the industry understand that if a drink costs $12 its because we’re pouring a bottle that costs $50 into that cocktail. They appreciate it.”

For the most part, none of ABV’s cocktails contain more than five ingredients. “We have straightforward stuff, but we use really high quality ingredients and let them shine,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a really California thing to do.” They take the same California approach to their food. They hired chef Kevin Cimino to come up with upscale takes on local street food such as kimchee fritters, fish tacos with al pastor tartar and falafel lamb dogs. “It’s elegant and delicious,” Fitzgerald says. “But first and foremost, we still want to maintain the idea that we are a bar.” Every seat in the joint is a barstool and ABV doesn’t have any utensils or ceramic plates; you have to eat with your hands off of cardboard boats. But messy fingers don’t appear to be deterring anyone: ABV won best new American cocktail bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards.

Sutro Swizzle cocktail // Melissa Chow

Sutro Swizzle cocktail // Melissa Chow

ABV stands for alcohol by volume, the standard measure of how much alcohol a beverage contains, but for the music-loving team behind the bar, "volume” also represents audio volume. “Everyone who works here has an app on their phone and at anytime they can control what song’s playing and the volume of the speakers,“ Fitzgerald says. "Some people may not notice it, but we don’t want our staff to have to listen to the same songs over and over again.” Having a happy staff is very important to the trio; they only hired bartenders to work at ABV. All of the bartenders have to work bar and floor shifts, which means waiting tables. “It gives the bar a great teamwork vibe,” he says. “They’re all in it together, and if they’re having a good time, guests will have a good time. Plus when people want time off, there’s a bigger pool of people who can cover their shifts.”

Melissa Chow

Melissa Chow


Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep


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