Sacramento’s cocktail industry has bubbled over with acclaim during the past year, and Andrew Calisterio’s line of POP beverages captures the excitement in a bottle. The bartender’s sodalike cocktails include ingredients such as grilled blackberries, peaches and local herbs, and are capped inside quaint 187-milliliter bottles. The flavors change all the time.
Working during a recent happy hour at midtown’s Hook & Ladder, Calisterio found a window between pouring beers to work out a new POP. On a far side of the bar, he tended to a tank of carbon dioxide and a keg filled with jasmine tea, peach and white wine vinegar. He fused the ingredients inside a bottle to create a semi-fizzy soda from scratch.
“I get kind of fixated over things, and right now I’m getting a bit obsessed over carbonation,” said Calisterio. “I’m always trying to find something cool and new, but at the same time having an absolute respect for the rules.”
Calisterio’s line of POPs are among the most novel drinks in a city that’s receiving national recognition for its cocktails, which will be celebrated Tuesday through Aug. 24 at Midtown Cocktail Week (see sidebar of events at right). And at 26, just a few years past the legal drinking age, Calisterio has emerged as a leader in the city’s latest generation of bartenders.
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Sacramento’s ascendant cocktail scene – as noted by Esquire magazine, with its recent inclusion of Shady Lady Saloon in its top 25 bars in America, and Imbibe magazine, with its multipage spread dedicated to Sacramento in its July issue – can be credited to a core group of veteran bartenders.
Over the past decade, crafty bartenders such as Chris Tucker (Hook & Ladder), Ryan Seng (Grange), Matt Nurge (Red Rabbit) and Chris Dooley (Ella Dining Room & Bar) have helped to set Sacramento apart from other drinking cities by coming up with concoctions reverent of tradition but also unafraid of subverting it. And like the city’s chefs, these progressive pour jockeys have embraced seasonal ingredients to heighten flavor and connect people to place.
The cocktail industry here needs audacious up-and-comers to continue its momentum. Along with Calisterio, the latest generation of craft bartenders includes Satori Dewitt of Shady Lady, Grange’s Brett Heyer and Baron Stelling of Hock Farm.
“I’m so excited about the new batch of bartenders, and Andrew is a shining beacon,” said Jason Boggs, co-owner of Shady Lady. “I go to places specifically because he’s behind the bar. It’s not just his skill, but who he is.”
‘A true expression of an individual’
Calisterio never went to bartending school. The Sheldon High graduate entered the food-and-drink world as a Starbucks barista. He snagged a job busing when Grange opened in 2009, but had his eyes on the bar and its array of spirits and intriguing flavors. Wine seemed one-dimensional compared to the endless recipes and flair for experimentation that could be found behind the stick.
“It’s a true expression of an individual,” Calisterio said about mixing drinks.
He got his break after a bartender at Grange failed to show up for duty. By then, Calisterio had used his busing gig as a kind of crash course in bartending. He learned how to make infused spirits and such signature house cocktails as the Bacon Maple Manhattan. More important, the consistently cheery Calisterio had the gift of gab to make customers feel at home.
“He’s a creative guy and great at connecting with people,” Seng said. “Some of the younger people have a hard time admitting we’re there to take care of the customer. A good bartender can walk that line. You make awesome drinks and post the pictures to Instagram, but in the end it’s not about you, it’s about (the customers).”
Calisterio created POP when he was splitting time between Sacramento and the Bay Area. He had left Grange to tend bar at midtown’s Golden Bear, a less buttoned-up spot than Grange, but one that prizes good food and drink nonetheless. He’d also started a stint of commuting and couch surfing to work at Maven, an acclaimed bar and eatery in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood.
That meant closing up Golden Bear’s bar on a Saturday night and catching a 6 a.m. Sunday train to San Francisco. He’d stay in San Francisco through Thursday, then get back to Sacramento in time to work weekends at Golden Bear.
Calisterio ultimately moved to San Francisco for a year, but still felt loyalty to his hometown.
“Everyone’s so tight over here and everyone shares,” he said. “It allows the cocktail programs to grow exponentially. There’s not any kind of secret recipes with the younger bartenders.”
Around this time, he found an outlet for his creativity in small-batch “ready to drink” products, be it soda, juices or cocktails. He was intrigued by the sheer variety, the colorful branding and big-taste profiles stemming from a small can or bottle. He launched POP as an extension of this fascination, and a way to spread cocktail cheer in two cities simultaneously.
“I just wanted to make sure Sacramento knew I was still here,” said Calisterio, who moved back to town in January, landing a job at Hook & Ladder (though he still tends bar at Golden Bear on weekends). “While I was in San Francisco … you could walk into a bar in Sacramento and still get a drink from me.”
Bottled cocktails catching on
Bottled cocktails have become increasingly prevalent around the country, and can be found at such bars as Chicago’s Crafthouse Cocktails and Distilled in New York City. A little effervescence has a drying effect on the palate, but that bit of carbonation can also enhance tart flavors and add a fun texture to the usual spirits and mixer.
Calisterio now bottles his POP sporadically for Hook & Ladder, Golden Bear and a variety of private events. His recent creations include a carbonated coffee cream soda, and rum with house-made cola. His POP cocktails cost $8 at Hook & Ladder, and non-alcoholic sodas go for $4 a POP.
He’s made his-and-her POP cocktails for wedding receptions, and bottled Super Bowl party drinks in the team colors. Calisterio, who is half Filipino, has also collaborated with the Wandering Boba Filipino food truck on a soda and plans on making a bubble tea-style POP cocktail.
He’s not looking to branch POP into a retail business or grow it much beyond a pet project.
“I like to keep it limited with a pop-up kind of appeal,” Calisterio said. “This is an inconsistent thing, a special thing. I’m going to release it via social media and the people who chase after it are rewarded.”
Calisterio is sharing some of his favorite cocktail tricks via a monthly video series on Vimeo.com. The debut episode focused on a trick for making a rapidly infused basil water, the perfect mixer for a gin Collins, or a choice addition to a Bloody Mary mix.
The key is packing a small jar with basil and ice, then filling with seltzer water and sealing. After a few shakes, the carbonation helps express the basil’s oil. It’s a more delicate approach than the traditional muddling with a stick, which can sometimes turn ingredients bitter.
He’ll also lead a class in carbonated cocktails Friday at Grange, teaching the finer points of fizz and some of the processes behind POP. But for the most part, he simply wants to be behind the bar, whether it’s pouring beers or showing off his latest creation.
“I never really wanted to be a bar owner,” Calisterio said. “They’re the ones stressing and pulling their hair out, while I’m behind the bar and keeping a smile going. Today, I want to be the guy who makes the drinks.”