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Illustration by Polly Becker

Thousands of gold-painted half-scale human skulls stud the massive bas-relief that spans the back wall of Noble Experiment. Perhaps serving as a memento mori moment for the nightly crowds, these grinning bones encourage a morbid fascination — one which dares you to not turn away — after all, they were once as we are — while at the same time repelling — for we are not yet as they are.

In addition to irony and a quiet invidiousness, this frieze of bony visages might be expressing a certain satisfaction. For the skulls’ gaze is fixed on a fully stocked bar.

Yes, eat, drink — and drink — and be merry, my friends. Step right up and order something. And don’t worry about the skulls. They’ll be there for you when you’re done. As the saying goes, they got your back.

Put your hands on the stainless-steel bar to steady yourself against the possibilities, poke yourself with a cocktail spike to make sure you’re not dreaming, and take a long look at the amber-ranked and silver-columned shelves. Fully stocked is one way of describing this show of proof and strength. Legendary proportions is another.

Located behind a false wall that’s hidden by a plastic façade of beer kegs stacked three wide by three high, Noble Experiment is San Diego’s own modern-day speakeasy. To find it, a visitor enters a half-occluded passageway out the back side of the Neighborhood eatery.

The mystique of the bar’s entrance lives up to its promise, as even the vermouth and cocktail cherries are extraordinary finds. But it’s the liquor selection that ennobles this experiment in rarified cocktail culture: smoky scotches, peaty Irish whiskies, winey bourbons, creamy brandies, wry takes on American rye, ruminative rums, pucker-dry gins, even a blanco tequila or two — and absolutely no vodka on the premises. Waiting in the wings to take your order, a cadre of bartenders has more combinations clicking in their heads than a crack team of code-writers.

Once you’ve ordered, sit back and take a look around. (By the way, if you’re looking for somewhere to start, Noble Experiment bartender Anthony Schmidt makes nigh close to the perfect gin martini; but more about that later.)

If the walls of Noble Experiment whisper some sort of parable on the way of all flesh and spirit(s), the pictures on the ceiling provide, perhaps, a clue to what makes Noble Experiment’s noble experiment in classic cocktail service worth trying.

Look up and you’ll be convinced that this place is the joint Alice would go to were there a joint to go to in Wonderland. Defying gravity, and your own habits of seeing, prints of the Old Masters in baroque frames plaster the ceiling, landscapes and portraits staring down the long air, as if to say, “Here is art’s highest attainment.” Then, once your neck begins to hurt, you’ll note how the floor’s black-and-white checkerboard tiles provide a fundamental footing on which Noble Experiment’s masters have built their contribution to the art of the sip.

What is this art of the sip? Its object is delight; its medium, the bartender’s palette; its canvas, your palate.

Chicago, New York, San Francisco; London, Paris, Stockholm — all perfected the art of the sip and continue to write chapters in the history and recipe books.

In the past few years, however, San Diego has also put its twist (and shot and dash and splash and garnish) on this art. In a certain sense, the art of the sip has its new, if not true, home in San Diego.

It turns out that, according to the mixers who know best, San Diego provides the perfect elements: fresh local produce accessible to bars and restaurants throughout the year; a bartending corps with plenty of esprit to give innovation the long-pour, mixing it in the same tin with equal parts boldness and finesse; and, most important of all, a population with an enduring thirst.

What follows is a cross section of San Diego’s masters of the bottle and glass, a triumvirate of concoctors who are fixtures on San Diego’s cocktail circuit, each making a lasting contribution to the art of the sip (hangover not included) in a city where it rarely rains and always pours.

Noble Experiment

777 G Street, Downtown San Diego

Noble Experiment’s cofounder and head bartender Anthony Schmidt

Noble Experiment’s cofounder and head bartender Anthony Schmidt

Anthony Schmidt

Cofounder and head bartender at Noble Experiment, Anthony Schmidt looks more like a bouncer than a bartender. Sporting a cue-ball head, a jovial smile, linebacker shoulders, and a thick broom of a mustache, he speaks with the slow eloquence of an art curator, ready to guide the parched through his gallery of drams and ounces.

While Schmidt has moved on from Noble Experiment, he remains a top-level aesthete of all things mixed and neat, serving as consultant to Polite Provisions, the speakeasy’s new sister bar in Normal Heights.

Early on, this Silicon Valley native had a choice to either play football at a Division II college out in Wyoming or party with his friends at San Diego State. He chose the latter.

“I partied like I deserved a scholarship,” he deadpans, explaining how he first got interested in the social side of life. This party mentality led him to caucus as a bartender at one of the city’s many binge-and-bang nightclubs.

Reflecting on his experiences at these establishments (which he’d prefer remain nameless to protect the guilty), Schmidt says that mistakes along the way only clarified what he sought to both achieve and avoid in the cocktail scene.

“The goal [at other bars he’s worked at] was to get the people as drunk as possible so they could dry-hump on the dance floor,” he says. “It’s a profitable business model. It makes money quickly, and it’s not [meant as] a criticism of any particular bar. It was doing exactly what it intended to do very well. But in terms of the employees, we began to wonder if there was a better way to do bartending, if there was quality in cocktail service out there.”

As Schmidt’s patience grew thin for what passed as the town’s drinking culture, rumors trickled across the bar tops that a classic-cocktail movement was stirring to life. At about the same time, investors started showing up around San Diego, speculating about possible locations for higher-end cocktail service.

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