City in a Glass: San Diego

Travel Features San Diego
City in a Glass: San Diego

Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in San Diego, is on us.

When bar owner Erick Castro relocated from serious San Francisco to laid-back San Diego to open a craft cocktail bar a few years ago, people thought he was crazy. San Diego won’t get it and the people won’t care, his critics said. But they were very wrong. Castro’s North Park bar, Polite Provisions, is now one of the busiest and most inventive in the country, if not the world. “The beer scene in San Diego was already really good,” Castro says. “People were used to drinking sours and double IPAs and black lagers and pretty much any beer you can think of. Because of that, their palates were refined and receptive towards new flavors.”

Brian Lee, assistant general manager and co-bar manager at The Patio on Lamont, says the San Diego cocktail scene is not only one of the most underrated and thriving in the U.S., but one of the most progressive as well. “The past few years have focused on reviving classic styles of cocktails and shunning beach standards like the Sea Breeze, but we are beginning to see a resurgence of these standards, often with a contemporary twist,” Lee says. “Lately we’ve been in love with Blue Curacao and all the practical and fun applications it has.”

On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three fun, oh-so-San Diego cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.


1. Short Stack
Where to order: The Patio on Lamont

In temperate San Diego, porch weather is a year-round event. So at The Patio on Lamont, located a few blocks away from Fiesta Bay, eating and drinking is nearly always done al fresco. Brian Lee, assistant general manager and co-bar manager, says the bar operates by the very chill mantra: relax, enjoy and share. “We focus on funky cocktails that range from very approachable and easy-drinking to slightly more bold, spirit-forward and advanced,” he says. “Due to our warm climate, beach atmosphere and heavy tourism, the scene lately has been focused on refreshing, tropical cocktails using fresh and floral juices.”

One of the funkier yet approachable drinks at The Patio is The Short Stack, a simple yet genius combo of whiskey, butterscotch liqueur, orange juice and bacon. “The Short Stack is a small, very drinkable cocktail designed to taste like breakfast for those who either need a quick appetizer before their pork belly benedict arrives or for those who just really love pancakes,” Lee says. “We replicate the taste of pancakes as much as possible, even going so far as to garnish the drink with a crisp bacon strip.”

Short Stack

¾ oz. Jameson Irish whiskey
½ oz. Bols Butterscotch liqueur
1 oz. fresh-squeezed orange juice
Bacon strip, for garnish

Combine whiskey, butterscotch liqueur, orange juice and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a small juice glass. Garnish with a bacon strip (or four).


2. Moonraker Elite
Where to order: Lion’s Share

Moonraker Elite.jpegPhoto courtesy of Lions Share

An unusual ingredient that appears over and over again on the bar menu at Lion’s Share in the Marina District? Salt. Bartenders across the country are embracing this cooking staple as a cocktail component, not to give the drink the taste of Pacific Ocean water, but as an invisible seasoning, amplifying everything else in the glass. “The use of salt in drinks can be very similar to its application with food,” Lion’s Share bartender Tyler French says. “In the right quantities, it’s a really powerful tool to help bring out certain flavors in a cocktail, or take the edge off of things like sweetness or bitterness.”

He incorporates a pinch of salt into the Moonraker Elite cocktail, a play on a traditional vesper (vodka, gin and the aromatized wine Lillet). He prefers to use a local gin that’s distilled with southwestern botanicals including lime, cucumber, cilantro and sage. And then he bumps up the flavor even more with fresh basil leaves and orange citrate, a sweet and tart alternate to orange bitters that’s more along the lines of orange cream soda than citrus piths.

As far as the name of the drink, he went for a James Bond reference. “There was a character in the Nintendo 64 [James Bond] game called Moonraker Elite that was a pretty devastating opponent,” he says. “The drink is an incredibly well balanced martini variation that is all parts alcohol, but easy to drink in any weather San Diego has to offer.”

Moonraker Elite

1½ oz. elit vodka
¾ oz. Old Harbor San Miguel gin
¾ oz. Lillet
3 dashes Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate
Pinch of salt
Fresh basil leaf, for garnish

Combine all ingredients (except garnish) and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Strain into a coupe. Garnish with a leaf of fresh basil.


3. Kentucky Buck
Where to order: Polite Provisions

Kentucky Buck.jpegPhoto by Gabe Fonseca

You’ve had a Kentucky Buck before. You may not recognize the name, but you certainly know the recipe: whiskey, ginger, strawberries and lemon juice. It’s one of those long and bubbly cocktails that of course has been around for centuries—or has it? Actually the Kentucky Buck is a five-year-old creation of Polite Provisions owner Erick Castro.

Castro came up with the drink when he was working in San Francisco, studying historic cocktails of the mid-1800s. He noticed a lack of drinks that paired ginger beer with whiskey. And few cocktails included strawberries, a fruit that’s grown nearby in California. “My whole theory on it was I’m going to take a very classic formula that’s kind of East Coast driven and I’m going to infuse it with West Coast produce, making it the best of both worlds.”

He combined strawberries, lemon juice, ginger syrup and bourbon and named it a Kentucky Buck (bourbon is Kentucky’s state spirit and Bucks are a family of drinks that include citrus and ginger beer). The cocktail was a hit immediately and it has followed him around the country ever since. It is the most popular drink at Polite Provisions. “People see strawberry and bourbon and they just go nuts for it,” he says. It’s also easy to make and substitute ingredients is a sinch. Don’t have strawberries? Float strawberry liqueur on top. Don’t have ginger syrup? Swap it and the club soda out for ginger beer. “I feel like it’s a drink you can make anywhere you’re at. Last I heard it’s on over 100 menus in the U.S. alone.”

Surprisingly enough, Castro is rarely credited for his contribution to the modern classic cocktail tome. “I don’t mind actually. I think it’s cool,” he says. “There comes a point where your drink will never become popular unless it becomes bigger than you. It’s a cocktail I came up with and then released it into the world. It belongs to the world now, not me.”

Some other classic cocktails that you probably didn’t know were actually modern include the Penicillin (scotch, lemon juice, honey syrup and ginger) and the Old Cuban (rum, lime juice, simple syrup, bitters, mint and Champagne). “You can get an Old Cuban at the Cheesecake Factory now,” Castro says. “There are people who probably think the Old Cuban is a cocktail from like 100 years ago. That’s when you know you’ve struck a good idea: The recipe feels old because it’s timeless.”

Kentucky Buck

2 oz. bourbon
¾ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. ginger syrup (3 parts sugar: 4 parts ginger juice)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 strawberry
Chilled soda water

Muddle the strawberry and ginger syrup in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add the bourbon, lemon juice, bitters and ice. Shake. Fine-strain into a glass filled with fresh ice. Top with soda water.


City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.

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