It used to be that, with the exception of Yountville, which has long had restaurants that boast lively bar scenes (Bottega, for example), visitors did not drink cocktails in the towns of Napa Valley. Mostly people drank wine, much of it in winery tasting rooms.
But times have changed, and as the next generation of locals and visitors comes of age, a renewed interest in urban centers has brought energy and money to downtown. In 2018, the town of Napa alone saw hospitality investments totaling over $180 million. The development of hotels and restaurants has brought new opportunities for bar culture. That’s right on time because millennials aren’t just interested in Cabernet and Chardonnay.
Luckily, there are more and more spots in the Napa Valley designed for creative mixology. One of the first of these was Goose & Gander, which took over St. Helena’s historic Martini House in 2012 with a bar program created by Scott Beattie, the author of the organically minded “Artisanal Cocktails.” Though Beattie has since moved on, the drinks here have retained their charisma.In the garden, main dining room or speakeasy-like basement bar, you can sample three dozen fascinating cocktails. Take the 86 Dignity, an earthy elixir of sarsaparilla and Japanese whiskey that’s been “washed” (i.e. blended) with butter and infused with candy cap mushrooms. Root beer aromas hit your nose, and milk fats coat the rim of the glass as you sip. Oil floats are a current cocktail trend, and the gin-based Bee Real, a riff on a classic Bee’s Knees, is garnished with dots of Calabrian chile oil, which add beauty and savory panache. A fruity, rosy Cucumber Collins one-ups the traditional highball with the addition of yuzu, huckleberry and slices of the namesake vegetable, both raw and pickled.
That Collins is great on a sunny afternoon. But perhaps the best drink in the valley when it’s hot out is at Sam’s Social Club, at Calistoga’s old-timey Indian Springs resort. With its colorful mural and leather seating, the loungelike bar that adjoins the dining room is a comfortable place to drink. But a gin and tonic on the back patio will make you feel as if you’re on the Costa del Sol. As in Spain, the drink is served in an ample goblet and garnished lavishly, here with three kinds of citrus and fresh-picked sprigs of lavender and rosemary; amplified by lavender bitters, it’s fantastically refreshing. Rosemary reappears in the garnish and bitters of the mezcal-based Guy’s Getaway, a smoky boozer with an herbaceous kick.
This being California, everyone wants to imbibe outside, and the town of Napa now boasts a host of choices for alfresco drinks, including the fire-pit-focused Mercantile Terrace, at the Andaz, or the lofty Sky & Vine, atop the Archer Hotel. The newest of the open-air lot is Avow, which launched in June. The scene-y, neon-lit rooftop of this triplex restaurant finds crowds sipping pink-hued Dusty Rose cocktails — tea-infused gin with raspberry and rose water syrup — out of hefty cut crystal, while the first-floor bar, open to the street, is more serene. Chiller still is street-side at sleepy Basalt. The seating around the big gas-powered fire pit is the sexiest place to enjoy an excellent Negroni, poured over one huge ice cube.
Traveling in a group? Pull into Brix, just south of St. Helena, for a happy hour made for a posse. The dining room’s marble horseshoe-shaped bar is nice, but the place to gather is in the garden on cushy chairs beneath wide umbrellas amid the raised beds that contain the herbs and flowers that adorn the drinks. In the afternoon, you can ladle any of five punches from wading-pool-size bowls. Charbay With Passion — vodka juiced up with passion fruit, mango, orange, strawberry and lime — is fruity but balanced. Thyme to Unwind is a Meyer lemon–and-thyme-flavored take on that valley favorite the Bee’s Knees Add duck liver eclairs, which you can order by the dozen, and you’re throwing a serious party.
At happy hour at three-Michelin-star chef Christopher Kostow’s Charter Oak, in St. Helena, mustachioed bartenders man the long, polished-wood bar beneath the high ceilings of a handsome ivy-covered brick building. As wood flames jump in the open kitchen’s hearth nearby, they shake up drinks to go with snacks like “wings of the month” (in July, they were peppercorn-crusted). The cocktails here epitomize farmhouse Napa style: house-made shrubs, oil floats, all sorts of fresh juices and, of course, paper straws. For a creamy libation called Ricotta and Peaches, the bar infuses mezcal with the fresh cheese, then strains it and shakes it with a peach-basil shrub and egg whites; a finishing touch of avocado-basil oil adds an herbal note and even more richness. Scotch and Strawberries, made with a strawberry-fennel shrub, tastes just like its name.
Another serious restaurant in a vaulted, brick-lined space, Torc, on the river in downtown Napa, offers a tight menu of expertly made cocktails. The noirish Spaghetti Western combines Old Forester bourbon with Campari and three more amari. It’s deep, dark and strong, but with floral notes that lift it above the classic-cocktail doldrums. A couple of those go great with the kitchen’s New York strip for two.
A few places get their inspiration from afar. Downtown Napa’s best margarita is at Gran Eléctrica, a valley spinoff of a hipster Mexican place on the opposite coast, in Brooklyn. Nearby at Miminashi, the drinks are influenced by Japanese mixology. They’re light on the alcohol, supremely balanced and palate awakening. Phoenix Down mixes mezcal with unexpected ingredients: elderflower, bitter quinquina and lime; the absinthe in the drink is subtle enough to add licorice flavor without knocking you out. Bee’s Sneeze, another version of a Bee’s Knees, gets spiced up with white pepper and ginger; yellow Chartreuse and fennel pollen hit it with herbs. No wonder young cocktailians love this place. And if spirits aren’t your thing, Miminashi’s extensive list of sakes is yet another alternative to wine.