Conversation with a Cocktail Epicure

Alberta Straub, once described as “the Alice Waters of booze,” has been mixing up sublime adult beverages made with herbs, spices, and fresh fruits and vegetables for the past six years at San Francisco’s Orbit Room Café, a casual spot near the Mission District. Straub’s mixology has even attracted the attention of Pepsi, which tapped her to help come up with new flavors. In summer, Straub might shake up a hibiscus cooler. In winter, she may mix up something with lavender and cardamom. CHOW sat down at the Orbit Room bar and asked Straub how she does it.

What’s the deal with “the perfect martini”? Is it really all that hard to make?

That’s just a bunch of b.s., because anyone can make it. It needs to be cold, and not totally diluted, but other than that, it’s not that hard. It’s ridiculous when people say “martini” and don’t want vermouth in it! I like my martini with vermouth. Otherwise, it’s just cold alcohol.

Shaken or stirred?

Traditionally, clear beverages are stirred and others shaken. It has to do with dilution.

I’ve seen people ask you to put more booze in their drink because they can’t taste the alcohol. Should they be tasting it?

Usually the people who are saying that ordered some sugary-sweet drink like a mojito. I’ll tell them, “If you want to taste the alcohol, you should get a Manhattan or a martini!” I want there to be multifaceted flavors. In a cocktail that’s well made, you’ll taste different things at different times.

How do you do that?

Aperitifs. This is probably the only bar in the city that has Pimm’s and Campari in the speed rack. Also, I like to use cucumber, which adds bitterness, and ginger to add heat. I started making my own ginger sugar by simmering ginger all day with simple syrup. I really like bitter flavors, so I also make bitter sugar.

That’s the concoction in an unmarked bottle I see you using. How do you make bitter sugar?

I’ll first muddle sugar with leafy vegetable things, like mint and cucumber. This last bunch I tried using—what’s that red lettuce vegetable called that’s really bitter?

Radicchio?

Yeah, radicchio. I muddle those with sugar, and then I add the sugar to water and put in grapefruit slices, juniper berries, and elderberries. Typically you’d want to simmer that in a Crock-Pot, but we don’t have one, so I just put the pot on top of the toaster oven in the bar for a couple of days.

Haven’t you also used lavender?

Yes. I’ll find something that smells pungent and put it in the bitter sugar. But there’s a fine line between interesting and tasting like potpourri.

Have you ever made mistakes?

The most dangerous thing I did was when I started infusing my own vodka, and I filled the entire bottle up with jalapeños because they looked so nice. I almost gave a customer a heart attack!

I see you’re infusing some vodka now.

That’s for my Bloody Marys. It has fresh horseradish root, coriander, ancho chiles, bay leaves, and some lemon rind.

And you make your spice mix to dip the rim of the glass in.

We call that “edging.” It has ancho chile powder, garlic powder, black pepper, horseradish powder, sometimes cayenne…I just experiment.

What’s your favorite forgotten drink?

I brought the Aviation (a mixture of gin, maraschino cherry liqueur, and lemon juice) to the Orbit Room. I also really like the Negroni, equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. Few bartenders know how to make it. I think they’re afraid of the vermouth. I had a customer who asked me to make a card for him to give to bartenders, telling them how to make the Negroni.

Sounds risky

I tried to think of how I could design it so that the bartender wouldn’t spit in his drink. Finally, I made him this card that looked like those cards that deaf people hand out on the subway. It started off saying, “Hello, Bartender. I’m a deaf cocktail snob.”

The Orbit Room Cafe 1900 Market Steet San Francisco, CA 94102 (415) 252-9525

Photograph by Paul Trapanni; hair and makeup by Lindsay Arnold/Koko