Bar owner, spirits writer, pisco brand owner, and longtime friend of SFist Duggan McDonnell has just published his first book, which is titled Drinking the Devil's Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and her Cocktails. The book is at turns informative, witty, and highly personal, with a narrative that encompasses both local cocktail lore, recent cocktail history, and McDonnell's own personal journey from being a server at Mecca in the Castro to becoming the owner of Cantina and the local bar industry's poet laureate, as well as one of its biggest cheerleaders.
The book is anchored by 25 cocktail recipes, some of which were original Bay Area creations and many of which were not, and McDonnell takes pains to add more in-depth instruction than your average cocktail how-to, including making custom blends of spirits specifically for cocktail mixing, and adding on related riffs on classic cocktails, like the Boothby Cocktail and the Revolver for the Manhattan.
I talked to McDonnell about the book, how it came about, and what's so special about the drinking culture of San Francisco.
SFist: So, first of all, what is the Devil’s Acre?
Duggan McDonnell: The title comes from a real geographical place, a block at the edge of what was then called the Barbary Coast (now, North Beach). Have you been to that triangle of land cut on three sides by Columbus, Broadway and Kearny? That was known as the Devil’s Acre, the furthest edge of civilization, what was then certainly the wickedest, wildest place in the whole, wide world.
This is certainly an original book, just in form alone part history, part memoir, part cocktail handbook how did the concept take shape?
Can I confess? Ambition had me struggling with all that I wanted to say, so a hybrid form took shape. I wanted to write a book that I wanted to read; I sought something personal, specific yet encyclopedic. I sought very much to connect with not only local readers of history and cocktails, but with anyone anywhere who appreciates a specific narrative. More than anything, Drinking the Devil’s Acre is a book about devotion: to craft, to a City, to drink, to love.
In tying various cocktails to the Bay Area, there are good arguments to made for the Martinez and Irish Coffee and their roots here, and certainly Pisco Punch and Tiki drinks like the Mai Tai and Scorpion Bowl can be traced directly here, but there are some stretches here too there are some more distant connections, shall we say, to things like the Bloody Mary, the French 75, and the Daiquiri. Was your point just to celebrate 25 classic cocktails in a San Francisco context? (And yes, it’s true, it feels like San Francisco is keeping the ginger beer industry afloat right now.)
Cocktail facts are boring, and murky; I’m much more interested in celebrating that which has been heartily embraced here, the cocktails which have been a part of our lives for generations whether created here or not. However, as Northern California is one of the most creative communities in the history of the world (and, certainly in alcoholic beverages), it’s an easy case to be made. But say, the French 75, everybody should know it was created at Harry’s New York Bar, Paris. But in the late 90’s through the recent years, a French 75 appeared on the majority of cocktail menus across San Francisco and is largely thought of as the gateway cocktail, getting vodka drinkers onto gin.
There’s a lot to be learned here about SF’s cocktail pioneers. What do you think is one of the most significant pieces of SF booze history that most people don’t know?
I’ll simply say that this city’s booze history was created and driven by eccentrics, iconoclasts like Trader Vic who had a lot of character, a ton of talent and knew how to have a great time.
You include a bunch of recipes for “superior cocktail” blends of various spirits, including rum, brandy, and whiskey. This isn’t something I’ve ever seen before and I was wondering what inspired this and do you use these blends in your bar?
I absolutely vetted every single one of my ‘Superior Formulas’ and employed them for years at Cantina to make certain they stood the test of time in many different cocktails. No one whiskey is always perfect in a Manhattan, Sazerac or Old Fashioned that’s why I advocate creating blends that are actually designed to serve in cocktails.
The book goes from speaking generally about SF neighborhoods and history to getting highly personal about how you met your wife, Felicia which happened over a cocktail. Maybe tell a bit of that story, as a teaser.
You got it right: The book’s narrative starts wide, taking a long view history and then funnels to a very specific night in 2008 when a guest commented about the cocktail I’d just made for her. A woman, named Felicia, had become a regular at Cantina but this occasion was her first time tasting the Laughing Buddha cocktail. The cocktail was a special one to me, as I'd created it years before from a very unique place of inspiration. Felicia said:
"You know what this tastes like?"
"Tell me," I said.
"Those Spicy Thai Kettle Chips!"
She had no idea that her insight, and taste buds, had gotten to the heart of what actually inspired me to make the drink. A cocktail inspired by a bag of chips! Felicia was the first (and still only) person to make this connection. So, I was smitten!
How have you seen the cocktail scene morph in the last decade, or since you opened your bar Cantina?
It’s so big and pervasive now. Cantina, Alembic, Bourbon & Branch and Rye all opened within a year of each other, and that felt tremendously exciting. Now, a new joint opens every hour My only caveat is that as culture moves so very fast in this city of innovation, let us not forget the tales of our tribe, let’s remember the giants whose cocktail-shoulders we stand upon.
What would you say is the most useless or annoying trend, drinks-wise, that you’ve seen in the last couple of years?
Clarifying fresh-squeezed juice. Really? You’re gonna send something lovely, acidic and full of vitamins through a processor and strip it all away just to get it clear? Isn’t that what vodka is?!
Lastly, what’s the best cocktail town besides San Francisco?
Buenos Aires. History plus creativity, fresh produce and lovely service.