Restaurant News & Reviews

Sacramento’s thriving cocktail culture lures back a hometown star

Jayson Wilde tends bar at Bottle & Barlow on R Street.
Jayson Wilde tends bar at Bottle & Barlow on R Street.

Scores of Sacramentans have faced this dilemma: Should I stay, or should I go?

Jayson Wilde grappled with this choice five years ago. Burned out from his desk job at a Roseville insurance company and unhappy that his punk band was stuck in limbo, he took a side job as a bar back at the Shady Lady Saloon on R Street. There, he found his calling making craft cocktails – impeccably prepared mixed drinks featuring fresh ingredients and dynamic flavor combinations.

While he enjoyed working at Shady Lady, he soon realized that if he wanted to take his bartending career to the next level, he’d be better served moving to San Francisco, a city in the vanguard of the craft-cocktail movement. So, like many creative types before him, Wilde left the Capital City to chase his ambition.

Now that ambition has brought him back.

On a recent evening at Bottle & Barlow, a newly opened establishment also on the R Street corridor, Wilde was “behind the stick” – industry lingo for working the bar. Since his departure, Sacramento’s cocktail scene has grown more sophisticated and respected, receiving national attention and accolades. But Wilde also was drawn home because of an entrepreneurial spirit that’s redefining the central city. He’s a partner in Bottle & Barlow, which hosted the kickoff of Sacramento Cocktail Week on Monday.

“When I left, people were still saying, ‘(Bleep) Sacramento, I want to get away,’” said Wilde, in between bites of a burger at midtown’s Hook & Ladder. “Coming back, now I love Sacto. Everybody has that vibe that Sacramento is growing. You see all this growth and it’s exciting.”

Wilde’s return and the opening of Bottle & Barlow, a hybrid bar and barbershop overseen by Anthony Giannotti, is a boost for an already thriving cocktail culture. Wilde, 33, shares similarities with Mike Thiemann, owner of Mother and the soon-to-open Empress restaurants. Both are former musicians who found success in the hospitality industry, left Sacramento to develop their talents and ultimately returned to open their own boundary-pushing businesses.

Wilde, who was raised near Rio Linda, spent five years at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, a speakeasy-style bar that’s among the defining establishments of modern cocktailing. Though Wilde’s early résumé didn’t include much more than part-time shifts at Shady Lady, he was hired as a Bourbon & Branch bartender and served as general manager for four years.

Friends attribute much of Wilde’s success to his upbeat personality and relentless desire to be the best at his craft, all with a punk-rock bent. His work outfit at Bottle & Barlow usually includes a Fred Perry polo, the de facto dress shirt for various working-class subcultures. Wilde’s arms are a tableau of tattoos, including “PMA” inked on his inner wrist – the acronym for “Positive Mental Attitude” coined by the hard-core band Bad Brains.

“I think Jayson smiles when he’s sleeping,” said Jason Boggs, co-owner of Shady Lady. “He’s quite possibly one of the most upstanding and nicest men I’ve ever met. He’s a hard worker, very talented and has the right kind of outlook on life.”

Keeping that attitude wasn’t always easy. Wilde remembers punching the clock for more than a decade at a local insurance company. It wasn’t a terrible gig; it provided vacation time for him to tour and play guitar with his band, Whiskey Rebels. Wilde figured that maybe he’d study to become a paralegal, pushing papers by day and rocking at night. But he felt his soul being sucked away with each tick of the office clock.

“I couldn’t do this desk job anymore,” Wilde said. “There’s no interaction. I would literally come into work and I’d have my headphones on all day and – clack clack clack – type away. There was no personality to it.”

Wilde found his salvation at Shady Lady, which opened in 2009 and emerged as the epicenter of Sacramento’s cocktail movement. The bar housed an all-star team of Sacramento bartenders who’ve since become acclaimed movers and shakers around the city: Matt Nurge (Red Rabbit), Chris Tucker (Hook & Ladder) and Ryan Seng (Grange), among others.

Wilde, who had no prior restaurant or bar experience, was a regular at Shady Lady before working there. On his first shift, Wilde knew he’d found his calling. “It was within two minutes,” he said. “It reminded me of playing music. You have an audience. People either like you or dislike you. It’s a social environment. I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

But less than a year into the job, Wilde wondered if another city would be better for seeking his fortune. Sacramento’s craft cocktail scene circa 2010 still was in its early stages of development, with most of the action concentrated at Shady Lady. Wilde was encouraged to apply for a bartending gig at Bourbon & Branch by Erick Castro, a former Zocalo bartender who became a star of San Francisco cocktailing at Rickhouse and Bourbon & Branch.

The classic Sacramento Dilemma came into play. Wilde considered the friends and family he might leave behind. But in San Francisco, he’d work on a national stage and perhaps find some upward mobility with FutureBars, the ownership group behind Bourbon & Branch, Rickhouse and other key cocktail spots. Sacramento was the bush leagues by comparison.

Wilde quit his office job and Shady Lady gig, and dropped out of Sacramento City College. Next stop: San Francisco.

“I knew there were more things I could learn at Shady Lady and really increase my game, but this opportunity might not come again,” Wilde said. “There was a lot happening in San Francisco and this is obviously what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ve got to go for it.”

Following Wilde’s departure, the local cocktail scene began to expand, becoming a key part of the beverage landscape. Inspired by the farm-to-fork ethos, bartenders such as Tucker and Nurge began to highlight seasonally inspired libations, but with a reverence for classic spirits and time-honored techniques. New bars opened with investment in the central city, and other bartenders embraced an artisanal approach.

The national press began to notice. Sacramento’s cocktail scene received kudos from the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset magazine and Imbibe, a leading magazine of cocktail culture. In 2014, Shady Lady was listed in Esquire magazine as one of the top 25 bars in America.

“Some of the hippest bars I know are in places like Sacramento and Rochester,” said David Wondrich, the celebrated cocktail historian who compiles Esquire’s list of the country’s best bars. “In second-tier cities, young people have the energy and can afford to execute their vision. It used to be that New York had better and more bars, but now you don’t see that. The rest of the country caught up and decided there’s a new standard and people are holding to it.”

After five years in San Francisco, Wilde was ready to return to Sacramento. He had been visiting his hometown regularly, primarily to play music and get his hair cut by Giannotti. Wilde had wanted to open his own bar, but that was a no-go in a big-money town like San Francisco. Giannotti, meanwhile, pitched Wilde with the idea of creating a bar/barbershop, a partnership that would include owners of midtown’s Hook & Ladder.

“I always had love for Sacramento and always wanted to do something big for Sacramento,” Wilde said. “I saw this as my opportunity to do something that has my mark on it. It just fell at the right time.”

Last month, local bartenders and restaurant workers descended on R Street for a preview of Bottle & Barlow before its public opening. The crowd included members of the Shady Lady team and Paragary Restaurant Group, as well as the family behind de Vere’s Irish Pub. Many of those ordering drinks such as the Machete, a mezcal cocktail with a tiki twist, were technically the competition.

Shady Lady, just a couple blocks down R Street, has more watering holes coming to the area this year, including B-Side and Amaro. But there were no snippy comments between sips. Instead, many in the crowd posted photos of support for Wilde and Bottle & Barlow on social media.

“Sacramento’s always had this underdog attitude,” Boggs said. “Everyone said this was a cow town, but the people who lived here took an ‘us vs. them’ attitude. There’s so much pride and we’re all friends. It’s not all about cash. They’re my friends and they’re making my town and the quality of life better.”

The ever-ambitious Wilde said he just might be here for good.

“I feel like the city is getting more advanced by the day,” Wilde said.

Sacramento Cocktail Week

What: A series of celebrations and educational classes for the modern mixologist

When: Through Aug. 22

Where: Various locations


A La Paloma

Sacramento’s a tequila kind of town, especially with the concentration of central city bars specialize in this agave-based spirit. Jayson Wilde of Bottle & Barlow tweaks the Paloma, a signature drink of tequila and grapefruit soda, with agave syrup to enhance the essence of the tequila. While Jarritos grapefruit soda is a traditional go-to for a Paloma, Wilde prefers Mexican bottlings of Squirt for its less cloying sweetness. For a cocktail with added depth, use aged tequilas or mezcal for a smoky touch.

2 ounces blanco tequila

.75 ounce fresh lime juice

1/2 ounce agave syrup (heat two parts agave nectar with one part water; cool.)

2 dashes of grapefruit bitters (optional)

Pinch of salt

2 ounces grapefruit soda

Add all ingredients except soda into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until well chilled. Pour into a collins glass and top with grapefruit soda.