Peak-season produce meets fine spirits
We're used to well-crafted, artisanal cocktails year-round in our city, and some bartenders showcase the bounty of the seasons in their cocktails, using local fruits, herbs, vegetables. It's easy to take the abundance of the region for granted, but let's not and remember to enjoy what can happen when fresh produce and spirits get into the right hands. Here are a few places and drinks we recommend as winter turns to spring. (Virginia Miller)
The Alembic offers quite a selection of spirits and beer, plus some of our city's best cocktails, including New Orleans' classics done right. (Thankfully, the bar doesn't let the small space get too crowded, it regulates crowds at the door during peak hours. Even so, I prefer "off" times during the afternoon or early weeknights). The staff knows its stuff, so go ahead and ask them to make you something off menu with your favorite spirit as a base. In recent weeks, I've seen wonders worked with fresh produce on hand, whether it beets, ginger, or even galangal. A couple versions of a beet cocktail wowed me each time, the latest being a Rittenhouse Rye base with dry vermouth, red wine vinegar, orange zest muddled with sugar, and plenty of beets for a glowing red hue. Topped with a celery leaf and splash of sparkling wine, it's a tart, earthy, slightly effervescent delight. If no beets are in house, you can't go wrong with menu staple, Southern Exposure ($10), a Junipero Gin cocktail brightened with mint leaves, lime, a touch of sugar and a shot of fresh celery juice.
1725 Haight, SF. (415) 666-0822, www.alembicbar.com 
If you want to be ahead of the curve tasting a new small batch spirit no one has heard of or cocktails unlike anyone else's, Nopa is your spot. Bar manager Neyah White, who's always ahead of trends and has a pioneer's taste for the untried, has introducing me to spirits I'll later hear everyone talking about. Neyah and the Nopa bar staff create luscious cocktails try one of their sherry or white whiskey renditions for a proper use of the spirits. If you're lucky, the kumquats they've been procuring for weeks will still be on the menu for a kumquat caiprinha ($9). I've had kumquats in a number of cocktails the juicy tart is a lifelong favorite taste. Not only are Nopa's kumquats the best I've had in recent memory, but the use of Boca Loca Cachaca and fresh lime with the plump, tart citrus makes for a bracing drink: pleasantly sweet, floral, tangy. I ate every kumquat out of the glass.
560 Divisadero, SF. (415) 864-8643, www.nopasf.com 
Rickhouse has one of those dream menus for cocktailians: pages and pages of flips, fizzes, and punches. The atmosphere holds the magic mustiness of a dim old bourbon house without the must. (You just have to brave or avoid the Financial District happy hour mobs). From Rickhouse's beverage director, Erick Castro, comes a drink created last spring that has thankfully stuck around: the Kentucky Buck. A refreshing bourbon and ginger beer cocktail ($8), it is one of the best-balanced bucks I've tasted. ("Buck" is the historic name for drinks involving a base spirit, citrus, and ginger beer or ale). Bourbon is served with organic Monterey Bay Farms' strawberries, lemon, Angostura bitters, then topped with ginger beer. Refreshing and spring-like, it's nuanced, showcasing all the strawberry's best assets without overstepping into sweet territory.
246 Kearney, SF. (415) 398-2827, www.rickhousebar.com 
Range sets the standard for experimental but refined cocktails. This is one of the great neighborhood restaurants, but it's also a worthy bar destination. You can expect fresh and inventive here every time with classic cocktail sensibilities. The Evergreen welcomes spring with gusto in the form of citrus and herbs. Plymouth Gin and St. Germain accompany fresh kumquat juice, sage, and lemon. Smooth and bright, not one flavor overpowers the other, but all meld nicely. If tequila is more your speed, try the Malia with Pueblo Viejo blanco tequila, lime, egg white, cinnamon bitters, and a winning duo of quince and apple.
842 Valencia, SF. (415) 282-8283, www.rangesf.com 
Thankfully, this cocktail has been on the menu a while, a glass of layered delights from one of our city's best all-around bars, 15 Romolo. Track 42 ($12) is an exhilarating fresh garden of a drink made with 42 Below Manuka Honey Vodka, basil, unfiltered apple juice, lemon, and egg white. You won't go wrong with most anything on (or off) the menu, but this treat involves more complexity and nuanced flavor than the "vodka cocktail" label would suggest, and is a favorite among many, many delectable drinks. Other highlights: I love the Prohibition-era elegance, laid back staff, and legendary Chartreuse Gong Shows American Idol-like karaoke shows with judges, a giant gong if you suck, and, yes, shots of chartreuse for everyone. 15 Romolo is the bar I wish was in my neighborhood.
15 Romolo Place, SF. (415) 398-1359, www.15romolo.com