Are fancy cocktails getting boring?

Famed local booze blogger Camper English recently called out San Francisco bar owners and bartenders for their increasingly generic cocktail bars and menus:

As bartenders have figured out what works here (drinks with bitter flavors and fresh ingredients, but not too many) and what doesn’t (molecular mixology), they’ve played it increasingly safe with each new venue that opens. The new cocktail programs are great but they invoke fewer original ideas. Bartenders in up-and-coming cities have no such pre-fixed notions of what works in their market yet, and often take more creative risks both in the bar design and in the drinks. Now our local bartenders need to look outside the city for good ideas to incorporate and build upon.

I’ve noticed this trend as well, but I don’t think it’s specific to San Francisco. Now that there’s a fancy cocktail bar on every corner the hipper areas of major cities, you’d expect an increase in variety and creativity. Instead, bars seem content to ride the wave of cocktail obsession by offering unadorned classic cocktails at high and rising prices. Subbing out an ingredient for it’s schmancier equivalent (like using Cocchi Americano instead of dry vermouth) seems to qualify as an innovative variation. The design and styling of each new bar consists of as much hardwood as can fit in the budget while hopefully leaving room for funny outfits.

The issue is that while customers get more educated, the offerings are getting less impressive and more generic. Adding to the problem, there is so much demand for skilled bartenders that the people making these cocktails, at least in my experience, don’t always know what they’re doing. (Tip: if your bar is designed to look like a speakeasy, don’t muddle an orange into your Old-Fashioned.) In short, there’s often not a lot going on that I can’t do at least as well at home.  It’s sad because in most cases there are a lot of creative people and not enough venues, whereas in this case there are plenty of venues but not enough creativity.

Sometimes I wonder what we are going to do with all these neighborhood bars that have been overly remodeled to look like libraries when the bubble bursts and two thirds of them go out of business. Maybe we can turn them into libraries.

[Illustration by Joan Horne]

23 Responses to “Are fancy cocktails getting boring?”

  1. Lyle Lanley says:

    I think there are limits to how “creative” I want my cocktail to be; a well-executed standard is what I’m hoping for (say, an old-fashioned or a vieux carre). The reason I’m so happy to have the burgeoning cocktail scene is that I no longer have to feel strange when I order something with more than two ingredients, not because I’m looking for a scientist-created combination.

    My problem is with the price point getting pushed too high. At Southern Pacific the other day, four of the menu cocktails were at $13. I had a beer.

  2. MrEricSir says:

    San Francisco is the kind of town where folks want to get hammered for $8, not slightly buzzed for $15.

  3. Bordash says:

    though that is the general feeling from our thirsty nature, cocktails will certainly have more booze in them than any beer or glass of wine.

    anyhow, this is a trend i’ve been noticing. the variety and individuality between many of the new wave of taverns doesn’t seem to be there, and it’s very disappointing considering this city’s drinking history.

  4. Jerquee says:

    This is why I refuse to drink anything with St. Germain. Not because it isn’t delicious (it is), but because it signifies a lazy, unimaginative bartender.

  5. Bob Dole says:

    Ocean Spray cranberry, Stoli, some ice, done.

    • moderniste says:


      and a big huge -1 to bars that are too lily pure to stock cranberry juice cocktail. Just get over it.

  6. bilbo says:

    The issue is that you’re a bunch of bourgeois motherfuckers.

    • angryyoungman says:

      Amen to that. Pretentious bourgeois mofos, in fact.

      A cocktail with more than three ingredients is like a cold remedy with more than three (active) ingredients — too complex by far. Gadzooks, I’m weary of waiting for a drink while the barkeep fiddles, flames, infuses, and muddles some gooey concoction for a ditz that is really just getting her ego stroked by being catered to. It’s like waiting behind the same ditz ordering a 27 word description of coffee at Starbux.

  7. Susan McDoodle says:

    Oh Bilbo – Dont you get it Mission = Marina. Dolores Park = Kiddy Playland for rich white kids and the new choice of food is of course the Marina Girl Salad. Love you – see ya at yoga class!

  8. yella says:

    Who gives a shit? Only teh gayz care about shiz like this. First world problems, for serious.

  9. Tuffy says:

    Bartenders don’t give a fuck. They give you what you order.

    “Mixologists” are a different story.

  10. Skidstheclown says:

    Who wants to pay $15 for drink that takes 10 minutes to make, if you’re lucky.

    • SFKix says:

      I agree, but for $10 at the Orbit Room, yum! Just get there early before it get’s crowded, you’ll wait for ever.

  11. scum says:

    Yesterday the person next to me orders a muddled $7 drink leaves a $1 tip. I order a PBR and Beam Rye and leave $2. Less then half the time and twice the tip.

  12. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

    I don’t really know what to do in “cocktail bars”. I’m a beer-and-whisk(e)y guy. When forced by circumstance to order a cocktail, I mostly stick to Manhattans. (Pro-Tip: Next time you’re in Oakland for a show at the Fox, order a “VanHattan” at Cafe Van Kleef down the street.)

    • D. Jon Moutarde says:

      “Circumstance”? What sort of circumstance?! Enquiring minds need to know!

  13. Kristincan says:

    The Orbit Room always stays seasonal and makes a VERY creative cocktail.

  14. Saftyfirst says:

    How can you hate a cocktail? Thats insane. Your taking it too far people. I hope you also dont wear pajamas on airplanes.

  15. Ben says:

    Stage 1: OMG what is this overpriced yuppie shit!?
    Stage 2: Hang on, these things are pure booze and taste good!
    Stage 3: Buy every cocktail.
    Stage 4: Now I’m broke, but my alcohol-addled brain vaguely remembers what ingredients tasted good together..
    Stage 5: Check out this sweet home bar!
    Stage 6: Get angry about paying $10 at a bar for a drink I could’ve made better myself at home.

    Yeah, I think the original post pretty much nailed it.

  16. chalkman says:

    Locanda is making the best cocktails in the city right now