Personalities

Barbary Toast

By Christian Chensvold

At the tipsiest time of the year, we raise a glass to San Francisco’s unique contribution to the culture of alcohol. 

Duggan McDonnell is the author of the book Drinking The Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails. Portrait by Allison Webber.

Since mankind invented alcohol, there have been drinking contests. But in the early days of San Francisco, the City put its own indelible spin on this classic test of cranial and gastric fortitude. In the waterfront saloons of the Barbary Coast, you see, you wouldn’t just challenge a scruffy gold prospector or duded-up slicker in a bowler hat, but a grizzly bear on a chain, who — win or lose — was probably a pretty mean drunk.

San Francisco has come a long way since such Barbary Coast barbarity, yet strangely enough a thread of liberation — and libation — stitches its entire story together. From the days of saloons and spittoons, through Prohibition, midcentury tiki culture, the beatnik and hippie eras, yuppie ’80s and ’90s retro revival, all the way up to our present 21st-century techopolis, San Francisco’s unique approach to sauce-soaked revelry has reflected the city’s distinct joie de vivre and belief in its God-given right to a good time.

In the beginning, a good time was not so much God-given as gold-given. Long before the era of tech moguls, the California Gold Rush of 1848-55 created the Bay Area’s first crop of nouveaux riches. King Midases, who embraced conspicuous consumption well before Thorstein Veblen, coined the term. Since it wasn’t landlocked, San Francisco’s port could conveniently receive the world’s finest Port — along with every other potent potable — which began flooding the city in the effort to quench a unslakable thirst. 

“Immediately after gold was discovered we had the finest Champagnes, Bordeaux, Ports and Madeiras. Everything came, and everyone said, ‘Yeah, I’ll have some of that,’” McDonnell says of SF drinking culture. Book cover by Luke Abiol.

“The discovery of gold, followed by economic boom after boom, made San Francisco the greatest drinking city in the world,” says mixologist, distiller and SF drinking historian Duggan McDonnell. “Because what do people like to do with money? Put things in their faces. Immediately after gold was discovered we had the finest Champagnes, Bordeaux, Ports and Madeiras. Everything came, and everyone said, ‘Yeah, I’ll have some of that.’”

Like muses in a bottle, San Francisco’s copious liquor may have even helped inspire a signature literary style, a certain rollicking raconteur prosody exemplified by Mark Twain and Jack London, to columnists Herb Caen and Lucius Beebe (who considered his several kidney stone operations the price of good living) and the beat writers — all men whose prose seemed not so much written as spoken over a table full of empty bottles. “I think Twain’s writing style hyperbole was highly influenced by intoxication,” says McDonnell. “These guys talked fast and wrote fast, and were in and out of bars all day long hunting for stories. San Francisco was full of characters, and where you found them was in bars.” One of those characters was Tom Sawyer, a name Twain liked so much, he put it to good use. 

And even in the Wild West years there were other curious characters found in bars — namely, women. San Francisco was a pioneer in creating drinking spots for respectable women, such as the ladies lounge at the celebrated Bank Exchange Saloon. Many of the city’s early nightlife entrepreneurs were women, says McDonnell, whose book Drinking The Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails chronicles (via Chronicle Books) that saloon-dense time and place he calls “Bourbon Street on steroids.” 

By the Roaring ‘20s, drink was so central to San Francisco culture that the Board of Supervisors essentially voted to prohibit Prohibition. “The only reason we had speakeasies is because people wanted to run gambling rings and prostitution and not pay taxes,” laughs McDonnell. “It wasn’t because drinking was illegal, it was because they didn’t want their businesses regulated!”

The bar at Louis Parentis’ Saloon on Pacific Street circa 1934.

In the postwar years, San Francisco once again provided America with libation inspiration for America’s newfound fascination with the South Seas. Nob Hill resident Trader Vic was the legendary bartender credited with such tiki classics as the mai tai and scorpion bowl, at his eponymous Polynesian palace now occupied by Le Coloniale. 

“Trader Vic did more for 20th-century cocktail culture than probably anyone out there,” says McDonnell. 

The ’60s changed San Francisco forever, transforming every aspect of the city, including how it chose to get a buzz. The beat generation’s drink of choice was espresso, ideal fuel for fiery poetry recitations and bongo beating. But when winding down, Jack Kerouac and his crowd reached for spo-dee-o-dee, or Port mixed with whiskey. For the Summer of Love hippies that followed, altered states were typically achieved through means other than the distiller’s craft. By the ’80s, cocaine may have been fueling Wall Street yuppies, but San Franciscans had practically inherited it as part of their genetic makeup. The signature drink of the Barbary Coast-era watering hole Bank Exchange Saloon was pisco punch, whose secret ingredient — apparently the real source of the “punch” — was coca leaves. Says McDonnell, “So San Francisco was on cocaine and cocktails from the very beginning.” Also in the ’80s, famed establishment Henry Africa’s invented the lemon drop, which in turn influenced the cosmopolitan, the cocktail that helped define the 1990s. 

The dawn of the digital era, which transformed the city with another gold rush, brought with it a backward-looking countertrend as San Francisco became the epicenter of the ’90s swing revival. Reformed punk rockers and dot-commers dressed up in vintage attire, jitterbugged and swilled sidecars at nightspots such as the Hi-Ball Lounge, Cafe du Nord and the legendary Bimbo’s 365 Club. Those allergic to dance-floor perspiration gravitated to Harry Denton’s Starlight Room and art deco-themed shindigs such as Mr. Rick’s Martini Club. Which leads us up to today and a Champagne bottle that’s both half empty and half full. 

“In this current economic overload, a rising tide lifts all boats,” says McDonnell, “and there are now better bars and spirits and talent catering to this high-wealth audience with the money to support $18 cocktails. We all have to pay it, but the drinks are damn good.” That’s the light shining through the fog — of smoke, that is. 

“At the same time, people in booze are starting to wonder if the cannabis industry is going to ruin the cocktail culture,” says McDonnell. “There is certainly a lot less drinking going on right now because of legalized cannabis, but the bartenders today have really great imaginations and have never been better.”

So wherever you find yourself this holiday season, and whatever type of bear you might be trying to out-drink, raise a glass in tribute to this fair city’s great legacy. Just make sure to get home safely, and try not to do anything too embarrassing. This may be a historically tipsy town, but today everyone has a camera.

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