Scotch: too expensive, too elitist, too mossy-tasting for cocktails. At least that’s the prevailing logic among publicans in this town, who could write you a foolproof business plan for a cocktail bar themed on Tequila, gin, rum or even the Moscow Mule.
But scotch? Stuffy, gilded, paternal scotch? It’s a spirit for sipping, not for mixing — which makes it an uneasy bedfellow for our city’s obsession with cocktails. Bourbon, sure. Rye, definitely. These days, if a San Franciscan is going to geek out over a whiskey category, it’s likely to be Japanese.
Enter Duggan McDonnell, the veteran bartender and San Francisco cocktail historian who’s behind Cold Drinks, the bar in the upstairs level of China Live, the 6 month-old Chinese food emporium on Broadway.
(While it’s hard to miss China Live, it’s easy to miss Cold Drinks, whose entrance isn’t marked at street level. When you arrive at 644 Broadway, instead of turning left into China Live’s main entrance, look for a set of stairs on your right, which lead to the bar.)
Cold Drinks is a scotch bar for the cocktail generation. It takes its name from a long-ago “mythic” (McDonnell’s words) bar in Shanghai called Cold Drinks, which was popular “because it had ice” – a legend upon which China Live owner George Chen seized. The name came first; the Scotch idea, all McDonnell’s, came after.
“There isn’t a spirit that has such breadth of flavor and pairs so well with Asian flavors, and where anyone is having this much fun,” McDonnell says.
He’s right. While you can find any number of tropical thunderstorms and steaming volcanoes around town to enhance your mai tai experience, there’s no other place in town where you can throw back a single malt in a room that so perfectly enacts your drink’s lavish, hedonistic pleasures.
But this is not your dad’s leather bound-books, rich-mahogany kind of Scotch lounge. In fact, there’s not even a scotch list, apart from a short selection of sipping suggestions on the cocktail menu (which includes smart options like the Springback 15 and Compass Box’s Lost Blend).
“This is the Instagram age,” McDonnell says. Cold Drinks, whose space was designed by AvroKO, is cool – almost painfully photogenic.
Even more photogenic than the room are the cold drinks themselves. For example, the Nothin Sacred (Dewar’s 12 Reserve and Spring 44 honey vodka with mango puree, ginger beer, habanero bitters and Dolin Blanc; $16) – a svelte, canary-colored towner of a drink, as beautiful as it is chuggable. The Al’s Cut – a vegetal take on the gimlet with black pepper, peat syrup, and teapot and mushroom bitters ($18) – is icy silver, with the translucence of frosted glass, a lone radish sliver floating on its head.
And it was hard to resist ‘gramming immediately when the Long Islay Ice Tea arrived, in an enormous, shiny copper pineapple domed high with crushed ice and garnished with a terrarium’s worth of plant matter ($22). Wisely, the bartender stuck two paper straws in either end of it; my friend and I sucked it down in tandem like the proverbial float-sharing couple at the malt shop.
(Incidentally, the Long Islay Ice Tea has just been moved to front-runner in the Best Cocktail Name of the Year category. You’ve got until December to beat it, San Francisco.)
Don’t let the associations with spring-break blackouts fool you; the Long Islay Iced Tea was the most peat-forward concoction I tasted at Cold Drinks. Based on Bruichladdich and Laphroaig whiskeys with Absolut Elyz vodka, oolong tea syrup, Pellegrino Chinotto (a.k.a. the best orange soda) and orgeat, it’s intensely savory, a little spicy, barely fruity. It’s honey, it’s acid, it’s smoke. The crushed ice eases the burn of the liquor, evolving it as you empty the copper pineapple. Scotch, after all, loves water.
McDonnell figured the general population is averse to extreme doses of peat – hence the split base of every cocktail on the menu, balancing scotch with a different liquor. Hence, too, the split back bar; one side full of Highland scotch, the other full of Islay, or as McDonnell calls it, “the vegetal angry salt monster side.” He assumed customers would gravitate toward the milder, more agreeable Highland bottles – “I guessed it would be 80-20,” he says – but so far his customers have proven him wrong.
“People want bold flavors,” he’s learned. “Women want bold flavors. I think of it as parallel to this era of mezcal, and people drinking more spirit-forward cocktails.”
Drinking like this doesn’t come cheap. The least expensive menu items at Cold Drinks ring in at $16 (including the bar’s “signature” cocktail, an Old Fashioned made with Speyburn 10 that’s infused with Peking duck fat from China Live’s restaurant downstairs). Several cost more than $20.
The most expensive drink, I’m sorry to say, costs $52. It’s called the Royal Salute Rob Roy, and it’s made with Chivas Royal Salute 21 and Glenlivet 12 (it’s the Royal Salute, mostly, that knocks the pride up), two vermouths (Lustau and Chinato) and bitters. It arrives in a Japanese coupe garnished with torched-to-order star anise.
It’s a beautiful drink, for sure, not copper-pineapple beautiful, but understated, classic beautiful. It smells like dark fruit, black cherry, with roasty, rich coffee note; scotch-forward, but not herbaceous; nicely structured, with an acid backbone girding its soft, subtle fruit. It prompts a desciptor I’m normally loath to use: smooth.
But $52 for a cocktail? Would I order it again if I weren’t expensing it for a review? No. The Royal Salute Rob Roy exposes that fundamental problem of a scotch cocktail bar, and helps explain why there aren’t more of them: If you’re going to shell out $52 for a glass of scotch, wouldn’t the logical thing be to get a glass of scotch, unadulterated by bitters and vermouth?
Still, I get why the $52 cocktail exists here – at Cold Drinks, and at China Live. The bar is dealing in a certain shade of luxury that requires audacity. Yes, the ingredients cost a lot, but it’s not just that: The whole place is also just designed for you to gawk at it, a little bit. “Luxury is play” is how McDonnell succinctly puts it. It’s an aesthetic I think we can expect from the forthcoming Eight Tables, the gilded tasting menu palace adjacent to Cold Drinks, set to open later this month.
It’s also what makes Cold Drinks successful. McDonnell’s bar realizes gorgeously exactly what it sets out to achieve – audacious, extravagant decadence. For those who would seek out such a place, it’s a fine specimen.
There’s one problem, however. McDonnell, who conceived this pleasure den more than a year ago and brought it into the world a scant six weeks ago, is leaving China Live next week. It’s a work-life thing: “It just hit the wall,” he says. He’s got a family; the 10 a.m. to midnight shifts are wearing on him. He’ll be moving into a marketing role for Pernod Ricard, passing the torch to Cold Drinks’ current head bartender, Yong Zhu.
McDonnell says he loves how Cold Drinks turned out, “returning luxury to Chinatown.” Whether it will continue to justify that luxury after McDonnell’s departure remains to be seen. – San Francisco Chronicle (09.06.17)