Winter in Northern California Wine Country is a peculiar time. Vines are dormant, which means the vineyards themselves have neither grapes nor leaves (although bright yellow mustard flowers bloom and lend a vibrancy to the landscape). The regular tourist traffic slows to a trickle, so even restaurants are emptier than usual. But visitors can still experience some of the region’s summertime buzz by heading to the area’s great craft cocktail bars. The best of the bunch are spread out across the Valley, at restaurants and bars in Downtown Napa, St. Helena, and Calistoga. Each of them has a different personality and a signature drink. Here are the spots to consider for your next trip to the region.
Miminashi, which opened in 2016, has a standout cocktail program—especially for a tiny izakaya-style Japanese restaurant. While the Downtown Napa eatery boasts a full bar, the star of the mixology program is Japanese whiskey—more than 20 different iterations. Bar manager Andrew Salazar has incorporated some of these whiskeys into specialty cocktails, and he recommends drinking them neat. Salazar also offers alternative carbonates for cocktails to highlight whiskey, including sparkling buckwheat tea and bottle-conditioned ginger beer, both of which are made in-house. Toward the end of 2018, Salazar started offering hand-roll deals from 9 p.m. to closing on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Three rolls and a four-ounce Asahi beer for $15 per person, or six rolls with a four-ounce beer for $25.
Sam’s Social Club
The mural behind the bar at Sam’s Social Club in Calistoga offers plenty of food for thought—Bay Area artist Lauren McIntosh took the colorful history of the town and painted it for all to see. Thankfully there are plenty of stellar cocktails to sip while you’re admiring the artwork at this circa-2015 bar. On hot days, nothing beats SSC’s take on a Pimm’s Cup—the drink is served in a glass goblet with ample cucumbers. Mixologists also make their own grape-infused vodka, which they mix with wine from a local winery for the summer sangria. Perhaps the most notable drink on the cocktail menu is the Agua Caliente, named after the hot springs around town. The drink is made with a passionfruit puree, house-infused habanero vodka, and sugar.
The most happening cocktail scene in downtown Napa unfolds at two different spots in the same property: Sky & Vine and Charlie Palmer Steak inside the Archer Hotel. Both bars opened within the past 12 months, and they’ve quickly amassed cult followings. Start downstairs at the bar inside Charlie Palmer Steak, where guests love the CP Old-Fashioned, with Whistle Pig 10-year rye whiskey, orange oleo saccharum, raspberry, and bitters. After 9 p.m., ride the elevators up five stories to the hotel’s roof, where the open-air Sky & Vine provides panoramic views of the city and a “Reverse Happy Hour” with half-price drinks and food specials until midnight. Mixologist Joel Pfeifle is known for a concoction he’s named the “Wilson St. George,” which consists of pear brandy, coconut, green tea, kaffir lime, and sherry. Every time someone orders it, bartenders shout, “Wilson!” in a nod to the movie Cast Away.
Goose & Gander
Mixology wizard Scott Beattie created the bar program at St. Helena’s Goose & Gander back in 2012, and the place has been going strong since then. Although Beattie is no longer working behind the mahogany—that’d be bar manager Emma Kreis—he’s still a partner in the business, and bartenders are still whipping up drinks with the recipes he created. The best seller: the Cucumber Collins, which features Square One cucumber vodka, lemon, yuzu, seltzer, and fresh and pickled cucumbers. Beattie reports that the Walters Manhattan and Bali-Spiced Old-Fashioned are popular drinks, as well. The bar itself is worth noting—it’s the centerpiece of a grotto-like downstairs that evokes the vibe of an old-school British pub. On warm days, order drinks here and take them to the expansive patio beneath the oak trees out front.
Solbar, the bar at Solage Resort, has been cranking out stellar cocktails longer than any other establishment on this list—since the resort opened in 2005. The place is known for incorporating into drinks fresh herbs, fruits, and vegetables from local farms and the on-site culinary garden. This means mojitos are made with fresh local mint. It also means the Solar Bramble, a gin cocktail, incorporates a house-made blackberry compote. On the second Wednesday of every month, mixologist Kelly Dallas offers a cocktail class that includes a walk through the garden to harvest ingredients. For a special experience, enjoy drinks on the patio at sunset; as the fiery orb fades over the Mayacamas Mountains to the west, the sky becomes resplendent with hues of reds and purples. It’s a truly dramatic end to the day.
Napa Valley Distillery
No story about Napa Valley cocktails would be complete without at least a mention of Napa Valley Distillery, the first distillery to open in the city of Napa since Prohibition (OK, it was 2009, but the historic point stands). The Distillery has a store and tasting outpost at the Oxbow Public Market, where you can buy its spirits, as well as those by other craft distillers. But it also offers public tours and tastings of its facility in the south end of town, on Stockton Street. For bon vivants who want to get a taste of NVD at home, it has a Distinguished Bar Club, which is sort of like a Blue Apron for cocktail geeks; it features four shipments of bitters, mixers, and other goodies each year. The Grand Tasting Salon is open Thursday-Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The tour and tasting experience is $30 per person.
From January 23 to January 25, 2019, AFAR Experiences is heading to Napa. Register now for exclusive, invitation-only entry to some of the region’s most prestigious and memorable places, alongside local winemakers and artisans, renowned chefs, and cultural experts.