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A Brief History Of Cocktails Created In San Francisco, California
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A Brief History Of Cocktails Created In San Francisco, California

Picture of Margot McKelvie
Updated: 28 November 2016
Just like the foods we eat, every popularized signature cocktail has a history to get to the formula that we know today. While checking out some of our favorite bars around the city, we began to wonder where some of our favorite cocktails originated. Check out some of the world’s most beloved cocktails as well as San Francisco originals that all started in the Bay Area.
Martini / | ©Gabriel Saldana


Known as James Bond’s favorite cocktail (‘shaken, not stirred’), the Martini cocktail that we know today was first prepared in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of the most well-known theories is that the drink originated during the mid-1800s Gold Rush, in Martinez, California, just north of the Bay. While celebrating his recent rise to wealth, a gold miner ordered champagne at a local bar. However, the bar didn’t have any champagne, so the bartender suggested that he try another cocktail from the ingredients he had: vermouth, gin, maraschino liqueur, bitters and a lemon slice, calling it ‘The Martinez Special.’ Soon after, he ordered another in San Francisco (having to instruct the bartender on how to properly prepare it). By 1880, the drink had gained such popularity that it was published in the Bartenders Manual.

Another theory, heard from Barnaby Conrad III’s book The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic, explains that the drink was actually invented in the city of San Francisco. The theory is that when a miner, who was on his way to the city of Martinez, asked for a drink. The drink is believed to either have gotten its name from Martinez or, as more commonly believed, from the dry vermouth called Martini & Rossi. More than 100 years later, the Martini remains an American favorite and is not one to miss when you visit its birthplace.

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A Delicious Pisco punch with a Pineapple Garnish / | ©Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores/Flickr

Pisco Punch

Known as a ‘must-have’ in San Francisco, the legendary drink was first served more than 100 years ago at the Bank Exchange & Billiard Saloon by Duncan Nicol. Pisco is a traditional brandy that was first introduced in the 16th century in Pisco, Peru. It was first seen in San Francisco in the 1830s. The drink is traditionally made with Pisco, pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum arabic and water. However, it can also be made with orange juice, simple syrup and other ingredients. The drink was spread across the country and has gained popularity nationwide. Believed to be one of San Francisco’s official cocktails, the Pisco punch is worth a taste while in its hometown.

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Mai Tai, a drink that makes you feel like you’re on an island / | ©Sam Howzit/ Flickr

Mai Tai

Often associated with island life, and made in many variations, the Mai Tai was actually first stirred in Oakland in San Francisco’s East Bay. After a trip to Hawaii, Vic ‘The Trader’ Bergeron returned to his restaurant with a goal of bringing island life back to California. One day in 1944, Bergeron decided to use his 17-year-old bottle of Jamaican Rum from the bar, added rock candy syrup, French orgeat, lime juice and orange curacao. The creation was then poured over ice and handed to his friend, who exclaimed ‘It’s a Mai Tai Roa Ae!’ meaning ‘Out of this world – the best’ in Tahitian. And so, the Mai Tai was born.

Don’t miss a San Francisco classic, the Boothby Cocktail / | ©Southern Foodways Alliance/ Flickr


The Boothby cocktail is a San Francisco classic that was invented by Bill Boothby, San Francisco’s cocktail pioneer. Boothby, a well-known bartender at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco in the early 1900s, was the first known native bartender to publish a book, Cocktail Boothby’s American Bartender: The New Anchor Distilling Edition, in 1891. The Boothby cocktail became famous when H. Joseph Ehrmann was reading Bill Boothby’s obituary and discovered it as Boothby’s signature drink. The recipe we know today is basically a classic Manhattan cocktail—whiskey, sweet vermouth and angostura bitters— but with a topper of champagne. The Boothby original cocktail is made of equal parts of vermouth and bourbon, angostura bitters and topped with a champagne floater and an orange twist for garnish.

Alt="Milk Punch"
Milk Punch/ | © John Fladd/Flickr

California Milk Punch

Jerry Thomas, who is known as ‘the father of American mixology’ who popularized and created many cocktails we know today, was the first to create Milk Punch. After spending some time gold mining, Thomas became a bartender in San Francisco, which is where he invented the drink. Unlike many cocktails typically found at a bar, this drink takes a few days to make. First, pisco and rum (originally made with Batavia arrack, which can be hard to find in the States) and a variety of spices are infused for about two days. Then these cold ingredients, which are strained, are combined with hot milk, curdling the milk. This mixture then sits for a few hours or days before serving. Milk punch can be found in many variations, depending on what is infused. It is most often scented with a citrus, spice flavor, which comes from lemons, pineapples, green tea and a few spices. Try a traditional California milk punch at many locations around the city, one being Fog City in North Beach.

Fog City, 1300 Battery Street, San Francisco, California. USA