This column is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Hyatt, a good friend and great San Francisco bartender.
WHEN IT COMES TO COCKTAILS, I’m a bit of an accidental tourist. Their mixing, I mean, not the imbibing. In this respect, I’m highly intentional. Especially these days.
As we headed out to the West Shore of Lake Tahoe for a week’s vacation in August, I intended to make a drink or two using the ingredients I’d brought along on the trip. The tourist in me would’ve preferred to sip some punch on the dock at Chambers Landing or enjoy cocktails at Sunnyside Lodge’s lively bar, but the pandemic was doing a great job of sucking the fun out of those time-honored Tahoe traditions (we did manage to get some Chambers Punch to go—this little miracle of an adult beverage could be the subject of its own column).
Arriving at our rental cabin in Tahoe Pines, a century-old community along the West Shore that recedes back into immense groves of white fir and Jeffrey pine, we unpacked for a relaxing week and the temporary escape from reality back home. There was still plenty of reality by the lake: over the next six days, the steady stream of traffic along West Lake Boulevard would be a reminder of Tahoe’s popularity, especially during this coronavirus road trip summer with almost no one getting on airplanes.
DRIVING AROUND TOWN ON pre-vacation errands in early August, I dropped by Lawler’s Liquors to check a few items off of the liquid supplies list. This old faithful of Napa bottle shops is one of our little wine city’s go-tos for both grain and grape booze.
Since the onset of these fun pandemic days, Lawler’s owner, Peter Ibrahim, has gone artisanal on his customers. That is, the center aisle of his family’s medium-sized store is still filled most late afternoons with vineyard guys waiting to pay for their 12-packs of Bud or Miller Lite, as was the case six months ago and forever before. Lately, however, the shelves have been lined with a wider and more eclectic variety of spirits labels than I probably ever expected to see. They call out to a different audience.
Standing behind the (now plexiglassed) register, one of Peter’s employees nodded appreciatively as he rang me up for my fancy choices of rye whiskey, London gin, and Spanish vermouth. When I commented on the shop’s diverse range of spirits, he mentioned that the boss was doing his part to support the local liquor distributors. With several beer-toting, thirsty-looking customers behind me, he left it at that. But in this depressing time of closed or struggling restaurants everywhere you look, the implication was clear that retailers were picking up the pieces, some of which were rather shiny and new—or in certain cases, dull and black. More on this in a second.