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 bar that’s cocktail menu is just as lively as its environment.
NAME: Trick Dog
LOCATION: Mission District, San Francisco
ON THE JUKEBOX: Diana Ross and The Supremes, Talking Heads, David Bowie
WHY WE LOVE IT: Whimsical is the only way to describe a cocktail list that includes ingredients such as sharp cheddar cheese, malted milk balls and sandalwood. “Our drinks seem to have nonsequitur ingredients, but we don’t put them in there just to be weird” says Scott Baird, partner at Trick Dog bar in San Francisco. “We think they’re necessary.” Along with partner Josh Harris, Baird approaches making drinks the same way he would make food in the kitchen. “You need layers of flavor to give completion to something, not unlike that last little pinch of salt or that thinly cut chive that you use to garnish a dish.”
Trick Dog’s culinary-focused cocktail menus have a bit of a cult following. “They’re evocative and have taken on a life of their own,” Baird says. The menus are themed and change twice a year, in January and July. The current menu is in the form of a dog calendar. Each month showcases a dog in costume and a different cocktail. September features a Bernese Mountain Dog named Juno wearing a back-to-school backpack and a mind-expanding cocktail referred to as “September” that includes Bruichladdich single malt scotch, Pierre Ferrand cognac, ume plum, stone fruit bitters and dill. (In case you were wondering, yes, dogs are allowed inside the bar.)
“You can get a very serious cocktail here, but you can also dance around and bump into your neighbors and flirt and be as you would in a less formal bar,“ Baird says. "We want people to come in and feel lively.” They even customized the bar to survive customers’—and bartenders’—wear and tear. The colorful, two-story industrial space has a concrete floor, stone-topped bar, factory windows, vinyl-wrapped barstools and steampunk sconces. Upstairs is a 10-table dining area, but downstairs is open and free-flowing; there aren’t booths or tables. Harris says seats segment people away from each other and they wanted “to put things in place that facilitated spontaneous, convivial moments between people. It’s created this incredible energy between strangers.”
To deliver their unique cocktails to such an energetic crowd, Baird and Harris needed to cut down on the time it takes to make drinks. They decided to employ a partial batch system; all of the hard spirits in a cocktail are batched together and anything that’s perishable, such as bitters and syrups, is left out. “You get an involved, quality beverage without the delay,” Barid says.
For example, say Trick Dog is going to batch margaritas (they don’t batch margaritas). They would mass measure orange liqueur and tequila in the perfect margarita proportions, then store the mixture in blank bottles behind the bar. When the bartender was ready to make a margarita, he or she would just need to add lime juice. “Of course our bartenders know how to make these cocktails from scratch,” Harris says. “But what would normally take three steps we’ve done in two. When you get to cocktails that are significantly more complex than a margarita, and you have 12 things that go into a cocktail, if you can put five of those things into one bottle, you’ve made significant efficiency improvements by loading that work into your prep time.”
To further increase efficency and maximize bottle space, the back bar uses a sliding shelf system. The front shelves glide along tracks to reveal a second layer of shelves behind. “For customers it’s equally as exciting to watch as it is for our bar nerd friends,” Baird says.
Baird and Harris, who run the cocktail consulting firm Bon Vivants, also depend on those bar nerd friends for their side project, Swig n’ Swine. The duo throw this eating-and-drinking charity event in cities across the country, inviting their industy pals to attend and donate cash to support local schools. They also volunteer at the schools, doing whatever manual labor the institution needs. "We wanted to throw a party that was emblematic of the kind of people we wanted to be,” Harris says. “Bringing together a community of bar and restaurant people and chanelling all of their generosity to raise a bunch of money is really inspiring.”
Over the past five years the event has raised more than $220,000 for schools and donated 7,000 hours of volunteer service in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Portland, Miami and Austin. (The event in New Orleans is held in conjunction with Tales of the Cocktail and called Pigs & Punch.) To get notifications of upcoming events, follow @bonvivants_sf.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep