Just as a memorable soirée includes a mix of interesting guests, a craft cocktail stimulates the senses with the quality and balance of its ingredients.
1654 India Street, Little Italy
Ironside Fish and Oyster
Ironside boasts the newest crafty cocktail menu from the guys who brought us Noble Experiment and Polite Provisions. Organized into ocean-themed categories, such as Fortified and Seaworthy, a lot of thought and high-quality ingredients goes into these $9 to $12 drinks. My current favorite is in the Holdfast category: dubbed the Ghostwriter, it’s a well-balanced concoction of bourbon, Amaro Meletti, and black walnut bitters. For something less boozy and also delicious, try the Thunder Child, which has mint-julep-like crushed ice, but comprises the mildly nutty-flavored Amontillado sherry, bourbon, Licor 43 (a Spanish vanilla-flavored liqueur), curaçao, lemon, and cinnamon.
4055 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
(No longer in business.)
Crafting Fish Public's Donkey Kong
Fish Public is designed to be reminiscent of Nantucket, a remote place where there’s not much more to do than fish and drink. Here it’s fun to get a little spicy. I’m Prickle-ish! contains tequila, prickly pear, and spicy serrano pepper. The popular #HookedUp has more of a zip than a zing, with gin, cucumber, and strawberry/Sriracha purée. Recipes were created by bartender Zach Klemo and manager Jeff Nabours, whose personal recommendation is the “Donkey Kong,” a play on the classic mule with house cherry bourbon, ginger, lime, and orange bitters. All cocktails are between $8 and $10.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
A Holly Golightly is fantastic at night, but on Sunday mornings, it becomes magical. That’s when the whiskey, maple liqueur, Angostura bitters, and Carpano Antica vermouth cocktail is garnished with crispy bacon and transformed into the Breakfast Manhattan. I prefer the Kentucky Colonel over the Starlite Mule, because rather than vodka and Angostura bitters with the ginger beer, and lime, the Colonel has Buffalo Trace Bourbon and cherry-vanilla bitters (made in-house by the talented drink magician Dmitri). All specialty cocktails are $9, but look for drink deals Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays (and every day’s happy hour).
629 Kettner Boulevard, Downtown San Diego
Welcome to the land of many bitters. From orange and peach to rhubarb and chocolate, whatever your speed, there’s an appropriate bitters. My personal favorite is the habanero shrub, which, along with tequila, lemon, and strawberry, makes up the slow-burning No Esposa. For a sweet-sounding, well-balanced bourbon libation, try St. Elizabeth’s Sexy Party, which includes cinnamon, allspice, and chocolate bitters. The Hunter Thompson is on the smokier side, with pineapple-infused rum, mezcal, agave and raspberry syrup, lime, and, of course, a dash of bitters. All cocktails are $11. Ask after the Homegrown Cocktail, which changes every month.
956 Broadway Circle, Downtown San Diego
Entering Dobson’s is traveling back in time 50 years, when working men (now joined by women) stopped by to unwind before heading home. Everyone knows Alex, the veteran barkeep, and Alex knows them all right back. A few signature cocktails, such as margaritas and mojitos for $8, are offered. I requested a Manhattan with Maker’s Mark (be sure to request your liquor to avoid well defaults) a “little on the sweet side,” and it was perfect. The next time I walked through the door, Alex remembered me by my drink and asked me if I’d have the same. I did.
3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
When “Honest Cocktails” is part of a place’s tagline, expectations are set. Fortunately, at Tractor Room, they are also met.
For the ultimate classic, try the Sazerac, with rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar cube, served in an absinthe-rinsed glass. My go-to drink here is the Blue Bulleit, with fresh, sweet blueberries floating in a mixture of Bulleit bourbon, fresh lemon, and a dissolved sugar cube.
Brunch provides a completely different menu, with “morning appropriate” cocktails such as the Grapefruit Julep and the refreshing Lemon Lavender Martini, with Ketel One Citron, French lavender syrup, and muddled fresh mint.
2608 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido
Hacienda de Vega
This lovely oasis just off the freeway is home to my favorite margarita. Using tamarindo as the main ingredient, and chile-salt along the rim, the Hacienda Margarita hits all the right notes — spicy, sweet, savory, salty. All of the drinks are as luscious and colorful as the flowers and greenery that surrounds the outdoor dining area. The Laguna Azul Martini is a deep sapphire blue, thanks to main ingredient Hpnotiq, and is garnished with a bright red strawberry. Margaritas are all on the warm-colored side of the spectrum, orange peach, yellow mango, red raspberry, and more, all of them lovely.
2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant
Trained by mixologists at two of my favorite New York watering holes (Milk & Honey and Death & Co), Christian Siglin is also a veteran cocktail creationist here in San Diego, so drinkers are in good hands with this bar manager at the helm. On the sweeter side is the Sherry Cobbler, with strawberry-infused Amontillado sherry, Margerum Amaro, lemon, and cinnamon-bark syrup. For a drink with a kick, try the Stalker: jalapeño-infused tequila, lime, celery syrup, and smoked salt. LaGhost is great for summer sipping on the patio: vodka, lemon, vanilla syrup, orange bitters, and fizz.
750 W. Fir Street #102-B, Little Italy
With many cocktails, the flavor is all about the herbaceous vermouth, and at Monello, the vermouth is made in-house, using locally sourced ingredients. You can have it by itself, on the rocks with an orange twist ($8), or sample it in one of several potions that incorporate the sweet vermouth, such as the Blood and Sand (scotch, cherry reduction, orange juice), Hat Trick (dark rum, honey grappa), Agro Dolce (gin, orange/apricot liqueur, absinthe).
For a sans-vermouth option, try the straightforward but well executed Vecchio Stile, with bourbon, sugar, chinato, and an orange twist.