WINE COUNTRY Bitters & Cocktails
Photos & Article by Virginia Miller
It gets easier and easier to find an elevated cocktail in Wine Country, besides the superb cocktails at Healdsburg’s Spoonbar and Campo Fina or gratifying refreshers at The Thomas (Fagiani’s) in downtown Napa. Here are a few recent cocktail highlights and one top-notch bitters shop:
NAPA VALLEY DISTILLERY’s Bitters Shop, Napa
Tiny Napa Valley Distillery (the first licensed distillery in Napa since Prohibition) makes vodka from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, bottled cocktails with retro labeling, and soon-to-be-released Hollywood Gin, while they age experimental brandies and whiskies. Husband/wife owners, Arthur and Lusine Hartunian, are also collectors of gorgeous vintage glassware, cocktail accoutrement, books, and bitters, which they sell in their Oxbow Market shop.
I’ve not seen a bitters collection like this anywhere, including The Meadow in NYC, a lovely shop with a thorough bitters selection for purchase but none to taste. Not only is the Hartunian’s collection the most extensive and filled with rarities, but best of all, almost all bitters are available to taste. It’s a rare offer: the chance to “try before you buy” from fascinating, hard-to-find bitters, like AZ Bitters Lab meaty, spicy “Mas Mole”.
The shop elevates Oxbow to new heights and is just the sort of place I wish was in San Francisco.
A Break from Wine: Cocktails
CHALKBOARD, Healdsburg (Sonoma County)
In the former, legendary Cyrus space, Chalkboard is Healdsburg’s bustling, convivial new hotspot with a strong bar and spirits collection. Alongside intriguing small plates like roasted baby carrots ($7) over caraway yogurt, accented by sesame seed brittle and dill, or maple-glazed pork belly biscuits ($10) with chipotle mayo, sip cocktails ($10) like War of the Roses, a twist on a Whiskey Sour with lemon, egg white, and subtle cherry-infused Cyrus Noble bourbon.
Smoke ‘n Mirrors exhibits soft smoke from Don Amado plato mezcal, perked up by layers of green: jalapeno, cilantro and lime. My favorite on the initial menu is the Ballyhoo cocktail, a fine showcase of Brazilian cachaca. A tart strawberry ice stick slowly dissolves in the cocktail, balanced by basil, lime and a black pepper rim. It’s savory, sweet and garden-fresh.
If you crave wine (it is Wine Country, after all), Chalkboard offers international and local flights, featuring wineries like Banshee ($17.50 flight includes 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Pinot, 2010 Mordecai), who just opened a tasting room off the Healdsburg square.
MERCANTILE SOCIAL at ANDAZ NAPA, Napa (Napa County)
The Mercantile Social bar at the Andaz Napa hotel was a welcome addition to the Valley the moment the hotel became an Andaz property in 2012. I’ve visited a few times since and it’s one of Napa’s stronger cocktail bars, displaying the rich produce of the region.
With a focused collection of mostly Northern California spirits, they showcase locally imported Tapatio Blanco tequila in a Ukiah Sour #3 ($12), herbaceous with bay leaf syrup, tart with lime, given earthy complexity from Tempus Fugit’s gorgeous crème de cacao. Local Blade Gin from Old World Spirits is put to sprightly, green use in a Sage Tom Collins ($12), blessed with lime, sage and citrus bitters.
Their lovely cocktails go well with heartwarming bar bites like cheesy queso fundido with chorizo ($7).
GOOSE & GANDER, St. Helena (Napa County)
Scott Beattie, Michael Pazdon and crew continue to craft gorgeous drinks at atmospheric Goose & Gander, a cozy basement bar below a restaurant in a historic St. Helena house, surrounded by an outdoor garden/patio.
Recent cocktail loves (at arguably the best bar in the county) include a Pisco Sour Brava ($11), a frothy egg white cocktail featuring Encanto Acholado pisco and Oro Italia pisco, tart/sweet with pür Spice (blood orange liqueur), lime juice and bitters.
Their dreamy version of classic Tiki drink, the Painkiller ($11), gains funky complexity from Appleton and Smith & Cross rums, creamy with Pazdon’s coconut cream, lively with lime, pineapple, orange and fresh nutmeg. In typical Beattie/Pazdon fashion, the floral garnish turns the drink into art.