Surveying her bar, made up of an eclectic selection of fortified wines and aperitifs, Nora Furst sighs. “I’m like a chef who’s been forced to cook vegan food,” she says. When Furst partnered with chef Antelmo Faria to open Uma Casa in Noe Valley, they dreamed of a fully stocked bar. But when they realized they couldn’t front the $250,000 needed for a full liquor license, they decided to stick with a beer-and-wine, or Type 41, license, which doesn’t allow the sale of most distilled spirits. It was, by definition, a restrictive choice. “But the restrictions have actually made me more creative,” Furst says.
Similar stories play out in cash-strapped restaurants all over San Francisco, where low-alcohol-by-volume cocktails have, to a certain extent, simply become the norm. After five years of working as the bar manager of La Folie, Jason Alonzo opened the tiny Hawaiian restaurant ‘āina in Dogpatch last year. He couldn’t afford to have a full bar, either. “Now I think more about flavor instead of just focusing on something like gin or rum,” Alonzo says. For one low-ABV brunch cocktail, he created a fantastical boozy strawberry float infused with sarsaparilla and lemongrass, spiked with Byrrh and Cocchi Americano (both wine-based aperitifs), and topped with a molasses-ginger whipped cream. Furst, who ran the bar programs at Lolinda and Delarosa, tends toward simple cocktails that are delicate and sophisticated. She does savory nicely—as with the Bamboo, made with Dolin dry vermouth, fino and amontillado sherries, lemon oil, and olives—and keeps her sweeter cocktails well-balanced.
Unbearable Lightness of Bing at Uma Casa
These cocktails are of course less boozy, which is refreshing in both taste and trend—particularly following on the heels of the Mustachioed Cocktail Era, when every bartender wielded an ice pick and a bottle of something brown and 80-proof. “I’m not saying we’re going back to appletinis, though,” Furst says. “We’re actually creating a new experience.” An added bonus? Not only do these drinks play more nicely with food, but imbibing a couple of them won’t have you on the floor before dessert.