Now Playing

Bartenders Are Going Straight to the Source

Partnering with local distillers for cocktail-ready spirits.

Testing one of Berkeley-based Mosswood Distillers' latest offerings. 


Read more about the future of cocktails.

Cocktail makers have been getting extra chummy with distillers lately, bypassing the marketing and distribution middlemen to source the products they want directly from the makers they like. Though bars have been able to purchase single barrels of whiskey (and sometimes other spirits) for years now, recently spirits buyers have been dialing up the special requests. Some order cask-strength spirits, undiluted and right from the barrel, that otherwise wouldn’t see store shelves—like a wheat whiskey made by Sebastopol’s Spirit Works Distillery exclusively for Beer Baron’s three locations, or Hard Water’s cask-strength bottling of McCarthy’s Single Malt from Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery. Other bars are directing how products are “finished”—that is, moved for a short time before bottling to another barrel that once contained a different wine or spirit. Under the direction of the Western Addition bar Horsefeather, Mosswood Distillers in Berkeley finished a whiskey in a green Chartreuse–primed barrel. Cocktail kingpin Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole, Trou Normand, Obispo) does almost the opposite, making sure that the young, high-proof brandies he purchases and imports from France leave out the typical caramel coloring and chill-filtering processes of mass-market brands.

Producers of flavored spirits are even more hands-on, with local gin makers designing custom botanical blends for bars. Belmont’s Old World Spirits created a special Dosa Blade bottling for the restaurant Dosa, and for Whitechapel, No. 209 Gin produced Whitechapel Victorian Gin, which includes era-appropriate botanicals such as lemongrass, licorice, and English hops. Individual botanical distillates were created by St. George Spirits specifically for the Interval at the Long Now Foundation, to be served by a robot programmed to blend them à la minute. Rather than gin, the East Bay Spice Company bar in Berkeley requested a flavored brandy from Oakland Spirits Co. to match an Indian spice profile. After much experimentation, they came up with a brandy flavored with fresh cilantro, garam masala, and Assam tea. EBSC’s Adam Stemmler says the spirit works surprisingly well in a number of drinks, but the first one they put on the menu combined it with gin, lime, and a cucumber shrub ($12).

Next: Simple cocktails made complicated.

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Camper English on Twitter @alcademics