Down at China Live, in a cloistered spot upstairs from the six-month-old Market Restaurant, there now sits a fancy, semi-hidden cocktail bar with a menu centered on scotch a spirit beloved by some and loathed by many, wrongly or not, and which has not yet formed the backbone of cocktail bar in San Francisco to date. We have the rum-centric Smuggler's Cove, its gin-focused cousin Whitechapel, the whiskey-focused bar at The Saratoga (and many others with a penchant for whiskey), the brandy-inclined Trou Normand, and a full complement of tequila and mezcal at Mosto, Mezcalito, and elsewhere. But not until owner George Chen and beverage consultant Duggan McDonnell decided to open Cold Drinks have we had a bar bold enough to build an entire menu around scotch.
In a piece about the bar in the Chronicle, McDonnell tells drinks writer Esther Mobley that he's been surprised by the reception for some of the drinks made with the more hard-to-like Islay scotches he has in stock, as opposed to the somewhat more palatable Highland varieties. "People want bold flavors,” he says. “Women want bold flavors. I think of it as parallel to this era of mezcal, and people drinking more spirit-forward cocktails."
McDonnell has played a significant role in the evolution of the SF cocktail scene over the last decade, beginning with work he did at the long-gone Frisson (anyone remember his squid-ink martini?), and then with his Latin-centric, fresh-fruit concoctions at Cantina (R.I.P.). More recently he's headed up an SF-based brand of pisco, Campo de Encanto, and written a book about San Francisco cocktails in which pisco and other spirits from the southern Pacific coast (which arrived here in early Gold Rush-era ships) play a big role.
Now he's created an easy-drinking, largely tap-based cocktail menu for China Live, and a more refined, nuanced, and expensive cocktail experience for Cold Drinks the name, by the way, comes from a possibly mythic cocktail bar in Shanghai a century ago that got the name "because it had ice," as McDonnell tells the Chron.
And topping the menu, price-wise, is a $52 cocktail called the Royal Salute Rob Roy a spin on the classic Rob Roy using the pricey Chivas Royal Salute 21-year, which can retail for upwards of $180 a bottle, and Glenlivet 12-year, along with Lustau and Chinato vermouths and bitters. It's an expense-account choice to be sure, or one for a baller type trying to impress a date, maybe, and as Mobley writes, "Would I order it again if I weren’t expensing it for a review? No."
Other drinks on the menu include the above-pictured, very pretty Long Islay Iced Tea ($22), which comes heavily garnished in a copper pineapple cup; and the Al’s Cut ($18) which Mobley describes as "a vegetal take on the gimlet with black pepper, peat syrup, and teapot and mushroom bitters."
You'll note that these lower-priced drinks are still higher priced than at most SF bars that are not in fancy hotels these are New York prices to be sure. But we always have a way of catching up to New York in these ways, and as McDonnell puts to the Chronicle "Luxury is play." And yes, this may be a reason why there haven't been more scotch cocktail bars: the price of admission to this luxe club is high.
There is a third bar/lounge space in the China Live complex called the Gold Mountain Lounge, which is sumptuously decorated like Cold Drinks but is currently only available for private events (with drinks likely arriving from downstairs). And these should be joined soon by Chen's promised fine dining venue Eight Tables, which the website says is still opening in "Summer 2017."