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Cocktail Menu – Blackbird Bar San Francisco

Submitted by on May 22, 2011 – 8:40 pmNo Comment
Everyone has their criteria for what qualities define a good bar.  I am no different except that I am open to a wide range of what “good” can mean.  I can appreciate and enjoy a wide range of styles, vibes and scenes many of which I will define as good.  Some places, like The Edison in Los Angeles, are designed to take you out of your normal world and let you escape into their sacred space.  Others, like PDT in New York, rock the speakeasy vibe and, with their small space, lend an air of stolen secret pleasure to the evening.  Each of these, like many others, have their style and vibe while making innovative and memorable cocktails.  These are good bars, without question.
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The sign at Blackbird

The higher praise for me, for which I have a much more specific set of standards, is any place that I would describe as my bar.  To garner this award, a bar  must feel friendly and be the kind of place I bring only my closest friends.  It mustn’t have a crowd or a scene and, instead, is just an easy place to be just like the best neighborhood dive bars.  Unlike a neighborhood dive bar, my bar needs to have great drinks made by creative and talented people who are also nice to talk to.  In the end, it must feel like something special.  Lately, the newest place to attain the award of a my bar designation is Blackbird Bar in San Francisco.


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The bar at Blackbird



Located at the confluence of three different San Francisco neighborhoods, Blackbird is decidedly not a scene bar.  On any given day, Blackbird pulls patrons from the Castro, Hayes Valley, the inner Mission along with afterwork professionals stopping for a belt on the way home.  This is an easy crowd to be among or to hide within.  The Blackbird is definitely a spot to begin or end a group celebration; a birthday, a promotion, a send off.  This is a common site here and is a testament to how near and dear this place is to their loyal denizens.  Blackbird can get a little loud but is only so because of the fun being had.  There is no bad techno or obscure music being blaster at you here.  Like many new bars, this place is serenaded by DJ iPod but unlike most places, the bartenders here have good taste in music.


The decor is hip but low key which is a nice change from both the ubber grungy or austere modern or the journey back in time feeling places.  Blackbird feels contemporary but easy.  The huge vintage bar is just gorgeous.  Behind the bar the antique bar back beautifully displays Blackbird’s eclectic collection of ingredients offset by a giant mirror in the middle.  Across from the bar is a long padded banquet seating covered in red that runs almost the entire length of the place providing a nice color accent off the blue grey interior.  Overhead are unevenly placed painted wood slats that provide a broken visual structure to an otherwise boxey space.  Past the bar, the walls are covered in glossed over old newspaper which lends a timeless quality.  The pool table and photo both at the back are a couple of nods to neighborhood bars everywhere.  My favorite touch is the twelve foot or so high current cocktail menu that is hand written in broad tip sharpie on a massive piece of butcher paper.


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The seasonal menu at Blackbird



The magic here are in the people who run the place.  The bartenders are very talented and, unlike the aloof few whom have given mixologists a bad name, are very friendly and eager to share.  They seem to sincerely enjoy making people happy which should be trait number one for a good bartender.  The teamwork here is also impressive.  The guy you think is the bar back or busser is often the owner, Shawn Vergara, who can usually be found discreetly removing empties from the floor and running them to the back.  This quiet and focused team work is a common site at Blackbird.  Even when busy, it never takes too long to order or receive your drink.  These kids have the service side figured out.

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Brent and Regina making magic


Cocktails at Blackbird are special.  Attention to every little detail mixed with a culinary curiosity have created a seasonally changing cocktail menu that is varied, expressive and truly memorable.  Much credit for the evolution of their menu has come from bartenders Regina and Brent Butler.  The ten year married couple are a creative force behind the bar here and their genius can be seen throughout the menu.  According to Brent, balance is not always their goal here.


“Balance is overated, I think, or at least over emphasized with cocktails.  Sometimes there is a single characteristic I want to highlight and I will create a drink around that idea.  The Chieftan is like that.  I was playing with mezcal and wanted to riff off the smoky notes.  I ended up pairing the Del Maguey Mezcal with Laphroig scotch built upon a slight orange/herbal bass note created by the Cocchi Americano, Creme Yvette and fresh orange.  The trick was in presenting smoke without hitting you over the head with it.”


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The Chieftain made with Laphroig and Del Maguey Mezcal



The Blackbird menu has evolved in the near year and a half that they have been opened and has become more adventurous as time has gone on.  Regina says that evolution has followed the acceptance of their clientele.

“We weren’t sure what we had at first, how crazy we could go with it.  Now we know our customers and their willingness to follow our journeys.  It’s nice.  It gives us a free hand to create.”


That free hand is evidenced on their Spring menu (below) with drinks ranging from the familiar sounding to the unusual.  Drinks like the Limonata sound straight forward (a lemony infused vodka drink) is made unusual and vevelty with the addition of fresh vanilla bean.


Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire also plays on mezcals signature smokiness but rounds it off with Aperol, grapefruit and lime while spicing it up with the addition of jalapeño jam.  In this case there is a nice balance between the smoke, the sweet and the spicy.


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Where There Is Smoke There's Fire



The pair was also the first to bring barrel aged cocktails to San Francisco starting first with an aged Martinez.


“We’ve had people come in and order one regular Martinez and one barrel-aged one side by side,” says Shawn. “And they always say they can really taste the difference.”


From there, the pair has introduced other aged cocktails, usually two at a time.  I have had four so far.  The first two, the Bonnie & Clyde and Cortez The Killer, were created by Regina and Brent respectively were from last seasons’ menu and were very different drinks.  The Bonnie & Clyde was cleverly built upon High West Silver Whiskey, Dolin Blanc, J Witty Chamomile Liqueur and Bar Code Baked Apple Bitters and tasted like a slightly floral and apple tinged relative of a very good Manhattan.  Cortez The Killer was a more assertive and masculine offering and was built on Lunazul Blanco tequila, Bonal aperitif, creme de caccao and an orange twist.  Both were then aged in used whiskey barrels for 60-90 days before being bottled off and held for service.   Currently, the pair is serving an aged Vieux Carré and an aged Rhum Negroni.  Both are detailed below and are just spectacular.


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Cortez The Killer (left) and Bonnie & Clyde

As a tease, my favorite Blackbird concoction so far has been The Leather Bound Book which consists of Johnny Drum Over Proof Bourbon, Cardamaro, Absinthe Rinse, Cinnamon Syrup and Snake Oil Tobacco Bitters, Finished with an Orange Twist and served neat.  Seriously, this drink makes me yearn for an over sized chair, a cigar and an English accent.  It is just a spectacular drink.


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The Leather Bound Book



I have probably said enough.  Frankly, they deserve mention among any list of innovative bartenders in the United States.  I also like these people, their place and the drinks they make.   These are honest, hardworking and creative folks who give a shit about what they do and truly care about pleasing people.  To me, that is common only to the best places.  That is why I call Blackbird my bar.  Next time you are in San Francisco make sure you look them up.  I am willing to share.  Cheers!

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The Farmers Daughter



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Related posts:

  1. Cocktail Recipe – Cortez The Killer by Brent Butler of Blackbird San Francisco
  2. 10 Del Maguey Mezcal Cocktails For Cinco de Mayo Or The Day After

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