Where to go in Northern California, according to one of San Francisco's most influential bartenders.
While the title of Thad Vogler’s 2017 memoir, By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare and Sublime on the Spirits Trail, makes it sound like he spent the year sipping artisanal booze in faraway lands, this Santa Cruz native has been firmly entrenched in the Bay Area bar scene for decades—first as a bartender and more recently as the owner of the critically acclaimed Trou Normand and Bar Agricole in San Francisco. (His long-awaited rum bar, Obispo, is set to open in the Mission district later this year.) Here’s where the Californian spends his free time when he’s not behind the bar.
Where to Eat
“The best place to go in Oakland is the Grand Lake area. It’s really beautiful—lots of old California houses, a lake, a great vintage movie theater, and what may be my favorite restaurant in the country: Camino. It’s run by the guy who wrote the menu at Chez Panisse for 20 years [Russell Moore]. He wouldn’t tell you that, but he’s why Chez Panisse became so agriculturally obsessed. When it opened, it was a simple French place with a prix-fixe menu, but over time, it became all about agricultural origin. He’s the guy who dealt with a lot of the sourcing and relationships with farms. In terms of Northern California—the best stuff you can get cooked in the most elegant way—Camino is a mind-blowing place. At the center of it is this huge wood hearth that a French guy makes only three of each year. Anytime he cooks lamb or duck, it’s tremendous and really cool to see. There’s also a good natural wine bar on that street called Ordinaire. And Boot and Shoe Service, which is an institution—a Neapolitan-style pizza place with a good bar program. I love it all.”
Where to Drink
“Terroir is the purest San Francisco place. They’ve always got 15 bottles of natural wine open that you can buy by the glass. If you’re looking to get educated about wine, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
“ABV is in the heart of the Mission. It’s a big, casual bar that opens up to the street and makes wonderful drinks. The caliber of bartender they have is by far the highest in the city. I’ve bartended with the owners; they’re all deeply knowledgeable and at a nice point in their career where they’re not trying to prove anything. They just make really good, really simple drinks, and they’re working with mezcal in a way that’s very cool and very California. They also have a well-curated selection of whiskeys.
“Donkey and Goat is a really cool natural winery in Berkeley. [Co-owner] Tracey Brandt studied with a famous French natural wine maker named Eric Texier. She makes true natural wines—non-interventionist, with spontaneous fermentation. Really great stuff. I also like Scribe Winery [in Sonoma]. They’re very committed to what they do, and it’s a very sexy place—just beautiful. They do this New World syrah that’s a more northern rhone style, not over-extracted and jammy. It’s sort of like Osocalis [a distillery in Soquel] with the brandies, where they’re straddling the line between Old and New World wines. Finally, there’s a really beautiful pinot producer on the Sonoma Coast called Littorai. They’re great.
“For local distilleries, St. George Spirits in Alameda is one of the best distilleries in the country. Those guys are so passionate and skilled and they make all kinds of interesting stuff, like calvados-style apple brandies, rye whiskey, agricole rum, and three amazing gins inspired by local ingredients. You see that a lot now, but these guys operate at a really high level. They even make the best absinthe in the country. When absinthe became legal, [lead distiller] Lance Winters was instrumental in educating everyone on how to make it. As for the space itself, it’s an old military hanger, so you’re looking out over the water at this amazing view of San Francisco from the East Bay. It’s an absolute must.”
Where to Shop for Wine and Spirits
“There are two essential bottle shops in the Bay Area. K&L Wine Merchants sell a lot of single-barrel stuff from small producers, both domestic and foreign. They have a big wine selection, too. A guy named David Driscoll does their spirits buying. He’s a real head—a young guy who thinks a lot like I do. Get some armagnac there: It’s a brandy that’s famous for being wine-like. They also do $100 vintage bottlings that are great value, especially when some artisan bourbon is going for $150. Two producers I highly recommend: Ravignan and Boingneres. They’re unbelievable. If you really want to go for it, stuff from ’86 or ’85 is perfect right now. It costs around $150 bucks, but that’s something you can put on your shelf for the next 10 years. When you’re talking about a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for $2,000, it’s a total joke. They manufactured the idea of scarcity, and it’s a total rip-off when you can get completely handmade, single-variety, unfiltered, crazy good stuff for under $200 bucks.
“The other great bottle shop is Cask. Their staff is really knowledgeable about whiskey, which is tough to navigate. Eighty percent of it is owned by the same two companies that just put different labels on everything. Cask also has a great mezcal selection. Real Minero is a tiny Mexican-owned producer, made by this woman just outside of the Oaxaca valley. She does a number of wild agave bottlings. The most recent one I bought—twice in a row, actually—is Barril. It’s just a monster—so good. They also sell mezcals from an independent bottler called Mezcaloteca. Their specialty is supporting the tiniest producers—ones that aren’t even licensed. A lot of it’s very primitive and isn’t even certified mezcal. They’re almost like conservationists. Cask also sells Cadenhead’s cask bottlings. Anything with that label is going to be some of the best scotch you’ve ever had, hands down.”
The Perfect Getaway
“Venus Spirits is a really cool distillery in Santa Cruz. They use proper 53-gallon oak barrels, so you get great, cereal-like notes from the grain and really beautiful, honey notes from the charred oak. They’re aging a malt whiskey that’s going to be amazing; stay tuned for that. A young version is on the market in the meantime. Like a lot of small distilleries, most of what they sell is out their front door, so it’s worth a visit. They serve cocktails, too—pretty traditional stuff, like a great Old Fashioned.
“Another distillery in the Santa Cruz area—one of my all-time favorites—is Osocalis. It’s run by Dan Farber, who is probably the best domestic brandy producer. He trained in cognac; they’re all about barrel-aging, so he’s got a beautiful inventory he was able to age for about 15 years before he even started selling it. He’s growing lots of different kinds of grapes, too; some are traditional, but he’s also doing pinot noir, chenin blanc—really interesting brandies in an idyllic mountainside location. A tour of Osocalis is one of the best things you can do, spirit-wise, in the Bay Area.
“The other thing I like about Santa Cruz is that it’s an old beach town with a boardwalk. It’s kind of cheesy in the summer, but it’s got great old-fashioned corn dogs and the second biggest wooden roller coaster in the country, after Coney Island. That’s an awesome place to get lost in time, and it’s near Stagnaro Bros. Seafood. It’s an Italian fishing family that serves fried calamari right on the pier. It’s very authentic in that respect. I like that old immigrant vibe.”
Where to Stay
“You gotta stay in one of California’s old-school hotels. The big four are The Scarlet Huntington, Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, Fairmont San Francisco, and the Palace Hotel downtown. That last one’s super rad. It survived the earthquake, and it’s this huge, grand hotel—thick walls, high ceilings, and it has the Pied Piper bar, where Bill Boothby worked. He’s a very historically significant bartender in San Francisco. There’s also this old Maxfield Parrish painting behind the bar that’s priceless and a little bit creepy. I love how these old hotels connect you to the 19th-century boomtown side of San Francisco. The city has experienced a series of booms, with the current one being third-wave coffee and Airbnb.
“One modern hotel I like for value is the InterContinental San Francisco on Howard. It has great views of the whole city and in the off-season, you can get corner rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows for not that much.”