Sacramento has been getting plenty of attention for its bars and cocktails in recent years – high praise in everything from the San Francisco Chronicle and Sunset magazine to a major thumbs-up from Playboy and extensive coverage in Imbibe magazine.
These days, the Sacramento chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild is the fastest-growing in the nation, with 55 dues-paying members and counting. Plenty of bartenders have embraced the cocktail equivalent of the city’s new “farm-to-fork” slogan by using fresh-squeezed juices, sourcing the best and freshest ingredients and making all kinds of concoctions in-house, from simple syrups on up.
But this is no overnight success story. Chris Tucker, the beverage director at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co., the popular midtown restaurant and bar, traces Sacramento’s long, steady rise back to the year 2000. He had just returned from several years in the Bay Area and became bar manager at Centro Cocina Mexicana, then a midtown hot spot for the trendy and stylish crowd.
Tucker said he walked into a bar program that was already committed to using fresh-squeezed juices, led by chef and partner Kurt Spataro’s determination to bring his take on authentic Mexican cuisine to Sacramento.
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“That commitment to freshness, what Kurt Spataro was doing by pushing the freshness and regional cooking of Mexico, that translated over to the bar program,” Tucker said. “A lot of that was really unheard of in the city and throughout the country.”
Little by little, aspiring bartenders took some of that approach and upped the ante. They collaborated. They competed. They tried to one-up their pals. In a matter of years, there was a burgeoning craft cocktail scene, and names began to emerge – Chris Dooley at Ella, Matt Nurge at Red Rabbit, Chris Sinclair of Red Rabbit, Ryan Seng of Grange Restaurant & Bar and Brad Peters at Hock Farm – as bartenders began to study new techniques, look near and far for inspiration and embrace experimentation.
By 2008, Joe Anthony Savala, general manager of Zocalo, and his star bartender, Eric Castro, had come up with the idea for Midtown Cocktail Week after seeing the success of something similar in San Francisco. The competition and camaraderie, along with plenty of attention from patrons throughout the grid, gave the local cocktail scene even more momentum.
Sacramento bartenders are doing so well that major publications come here looking for stories. In the July/August issue of Imbibe, writer Camper English visited many of the major players in the craft cocktail, coffee and beer scenes.
The magazine gave plenty of props to Shady Lady for not only bringing a new standard to town but for educating the consumer to expect more. Numerous folks have tended bar there since it opened in 2009, including Tucker and Seng, before moving on to spread the gospel of craft cocktails elsewhere.
“Whether they’re mixing cocktails, roasting coffee or pouring beer, there’s a shared sense among the assorted beverage purveyors in Sacramento that a rising tide lifts all boats,” English wrote.