Bar Review – The Hotsy Totsy Club, Albany, California
I have been fortunate enough to engage in discussions of the bar arts with many a worthy bartender. Among their love of good drinks and admiration for other good bartenders lay another deep fondness; that of genuine gratitude for their favorite dive. It is understandable, I suppose, as the dive one calls one’s own is a deeply personal strand in the fabric of life. It is that place most raw, most stripped down of pretense and expectation while being the venue most likely to house moments with those most accepting of ones true self. In a very real sense a good dive is a kind of home. However, few spots in this revival of great drinks have been able to meld the magic of the neighborhood dive bar with the craft behind the rail found at the notable mixology bars. Those that do exist are often found amongst the tall buildings and dark basements of the big cites of London, New York, Los Angeles and others. There is another, however, that requires a bridge, tunnel or cab ride out of San Francisco to find. About thirty minutes later you will come upon a long standing neighborhood bar that has found new life at the loving hands of some real mixological talent. Found at 601 San Pablo Boulevard in Albany, California exists the seventy-three year old Hotsty Totsy Club. I highly recommend you make the pilgrimage.
Spend time among the homes and hangouts of Albany and and nearby Berkeley and you are bound to hear mention of the Hotsy Totsy Club. Any current or past Albany resident, University of California Berkeley Student or generic east Bay Area boozer will bust into some form of vowel filled guterral utterance upon the mere mention of its name. The likes of “Aaaaaggghhhhh,” “eueueuemmmmmm,” or “oooouuuuuoooo!” are quite common. Stories of inebriated farce, fancy and heroism generally ensue. Most will tell tale of the food available by the Tacos El Autlense truck parked just aside the place. All will conclude simply and with a glint of appreciation gained from memories earned over time and together: “I love that place.”
Slinging drinks since 1939, the Hotsy Totsy Club holds an honored and venerable place among area watering holes. It’s not a fame earned for its size, either. It’s cozy. But while not all that spacious, it doesn’t feel small. Rather, The Hotsy Totsy Club is familiar and inviting. This is a truly great venue for throwing a few back with friends old and new. A low ceiling with recently installed pressed tin adds to the intimacy as well as a subtle soft luminosity echoing from the bars sparse and evocative lighting. The main space at the Hotsy holds the bar with very comfortable high-backed bar stools, a few drink islands with leather covered stools and a legendary logo emblazoned shuffle board table, which was just refinished the day I attended. A re-felted antique pool table draws attention in back while the whole space is treated the clicks and scratches of actual .45′s working it out inside a classic jukebox. Just out back is a corral enabling those with incremental needs for nicotine inhalation to enjoy their drinks along with the camaraderie of others of their ilk. If you were looking for a template from which to model for a rumpus room of your own then this would be the place.
The crowd at the Hotsy Totsy Club is what tells you this place still has the soul of a dive. The place felt filled with friends I had yet to meet and great conversations about nearly nothing that were waiting to be had. No one here is on display or on auction. Denizens here exist to be and enjoy. Pods of friends with and making history are spread throughout all giving the place a very lively and lived-in vibe. It is a very easy place to be.
The magic here, as with the most memorable booze rooms, lay in the drinks and the people making them. The bartenders here are patient, efficient, beyond friendly and damn talented. I admire anyone who can work at speed without sacrificing beverage quality or the not too common civility. Cocktail quality is usually why I return to a bar and, by the offerings I ingested, I will return often. These kids make drinks that are memorable without appearing as a series of biotechnological experiments or arts and crafts projects I will never be able to replicate. They’re just good. Of note are the following:
The Mexican Velvet drinks far too easily and could be the start of many time shifting adventures.
The Upper East Side is a variation on an original intent Martini substituting the gin for Hudson White Whiskey and is a noble drink worthy of a cigar, a smoking jacket and talk of the weighty ways of the world.
I enjoyed the Carjack, a riff on a Sidecar using applejack, cane syrup and lemon. I enjoyed it in spite of the fact I don’t generally appreciate applejack.
Same could be said for The Paddington Bear, a curiously named quaff that includes bols genever, applejack, falernum, and orange bitters.
Under the classics, these kids make the best Martinez I’ve had in a goodly long time.
Locals all refer to The Hotsy Totsy Club as a dive and it definitely has that soul. It also seems so much more in many ways however. It is extremely clean, well decorated, damn comfortable (most plush stools in the world), and world class cocktails. In the end it just is. Feel free to classify it as you need, you need to get here. You will be rewarded for your effort.
Hotsy Totsy Club Spring + Summer House Specialties
pisco, liquore stregga and lemon served over fresh cucumber ice
tequila ocho reposado, chamomile liqueur, egg white and fresh lemon
miller’s gin, yellow chartreuse, grapefruit and lemon
la vida mezcal, tomato juice, lime juice + pacifico beer served in a pint glass rimmed
with our own chili salt
upper east side
hudson white whiskey, dolin blanc vermouth and a dash of orange bitters
a blend of cazadores reposado, chichicapa mezcal, pineapple gum, and fresh lime
in a velvet falernum rinsed glass.
rhum barbancourt, cynar artichoke liqueur, elderflower and fresh lemon.
margarita de plata
made with cabrito 100% agave silver tequila, torres liqueur and fresh lime juice
on the rocks with salt.
old overholt rye, antica formula, and angostura bitters, up with a cherry.
a variation of a classic sidecar made with applejack, cane syrup and lemon.
a cocktail inspired by a local bartender, DJ, pessimist. citadelle gin, aperol,
a splash of grapefruit and lime juice, club soda and rhubarb bitters.
a mai tai with a kick, featuring mehkong thai rum.
in the pink
tito’s handmade vodka, st. germain elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice
and a splash of cranberry.
san pablo soda
a refreshing mix of citrus vodka, domaine du canton ginger liqueur, lime juice and club soda.
the classic Jerry Thomas knickerbocker reinvented!
white rum, raspberry gum, orange liqueur and fresh lime.
Hotsy Totsy Club fall + winter house specialties
…and everything nice
what girls are made of, snow queen vodka, pear liqueur,
tuaca, sugar, allspice & everything nice.
just two wags away from a sazerac, teacher’s scotch, pernod, sugar,
aromatic bitters and a dash of laphroig, black liquorice twist.
rittenhouse 100 proof rye, cherry heering and b&b served up
with a flamed orange peel.
spanish brandy, overproof rum, honey syrup, lemon + ground spices
set ablaze. this is the hotsy totsy’s variation of the hot toddy.
cazadores blanco tequila, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit and lime juice.
the miller’s daughter
miller’s gin, dry vermouth, créme de violette, and elderflower liqueur
served up with a peel of lemon.
bols genever, applejack, falernum, and orange bitters.
a brazilian inspired manhattan made with cachaça, sweet vermouth
and orange bitters, served up with a peel of orange.
Hotsy Totsy Club Classic Cocktails
ketel one vodka, fresh squeezed orange juice and galliano
punt e mes, green chartreuse, beefeater gin and lemon juice
blood and sand
teacher’s scotch, cherry heering, antica formula and blood orange juice.
tanqueray 10 gin, dolin rouge and fernet served up with a peel of orange.
made with bombay gin, antica formula and campari, up or on the rocks,
served with an orange twist.
michter’s rye, peychaud’s & angostura bitters + sugar,
served in a chilled, absinthe washed rocks glass.
old overholt rye, antica formula + bitters, up with a cherry.
damrak gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse and lime.
created in martinez california in 1849, this cocktail of old tom gin, dolin rouge,
maraschino + orange bitters is possibly the forefather of the martini.
fundador spanish brandy, cointreau, freshly squeezed lemon + sugar,
served up with a sugar rim.
aviation gin, maraschino liqueur, créme de violette and a squeeze of lemon.
applejack brandy, small hand foods grenadine + fresh lime juice, up.
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