The Spirits of San Jose
San Jose’s feisty past is the backdrop to a vibrant new craft cocktail scene
There’s a sign that hangs from the rafters near the San Pedro Square Market Bar in the center of San Jose’s downtown epicenter for social gatherings. It reads:
“Let’s have a drink. Let’s have a thousand drinks!”
It’s a quote from an important—but little known—episode in San Jose’s history. That’s the one when San Jose became the first capital of California and hosted its first Legislature in the winter of 1849 to 1850.
At the end of each legislative session, Senator Thomas Jefferson Green cheerfully encouraged his colleagues to imbibe with him, and his “thousand drinks” quote became the signal for legislators to pour into San Jose’s many saloons and bars for a lively evening of refreshment.
And that’s how come San Jose’s legislative era is now forever known as “The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks.”
Fast forward to 2018. The lively spirit of those first California legislators is alive today, with pioneering bartenders creating innovative drinks that are making downtown San Jose an up-and-coming destination for craft cocktails.
With a nod to San Jose’s past, several of these new bars are housed in historic buildings. Five Points is located in the first home of the San Jose Mercury News and next door to the cellar where Paul Masson stored his “medicinal” champagne during Prohibition. Paper Plane is housed in the 1889-era Letitia building, named for the daughter of the first governor of California. SP2 Communal Bar + Restaurant is in San Pedro Square Market, situated steps from the oldest structure in San Jose, the 1797 Peralta Adobe.
History is also on display at Haberdasher, a Prohibition-style speakeasy whose owner, Cache Bouren, is credited with starting the craft cocktail movement in San Jose in 2010. His basement bar is visible from the street with only a tiny sign. Bouren himself is so knowledgeable about alcoholic beverages that he gives lectures at Santa Clara libraries on the history of cocktails.
Typical of craft cocktail bars, customers are met with a dizzying array of choices at all of these establishments. An entire wall of Paper Plane is filled to the ceiling with over 700 bottles of spirits, necessitating a rolling ladder to reach them all. Dozens of kinds of bitters can be added to drinks, in the same way a chef uses spices in culinary creations. All the bars have house-made syrups, ranging from the traditional simple syrups to concoctions featuring botanicals and fresh fruits. Haberdasher even makes its own tonic water. So many choices!
“We want people to know that it’s OK if they don’t know what to order,” said George Lahlouh, coowner of Paper Plane. “We’re happy to share our love of cocktails and help them decide. We want everyone to feel welcome here—locals, young professionals and the more tenured crowd—whether they are cocktail aficionados or newcomers.”
To help patrons figure out what cocktail is right for them, all of the bars offer some type of advice. But two bars have taken cocktail guidance to the next level. At Haberdasher, on weekends customers can reserve a booth that is served tableside by a bartender. The bartender quizzes the customers about themselves with questions such as “Are you a sunshine and beach person or a winter and snow person?” and then drills down on their personalities and drink preferences until the perfect drink can be recommended. At Paper Plane, the printed menu features a grid that plots over two-dozen drinks based on how bold, familiar, easily sipped or wild they are.
Do you like to hear that classic clink of ice cubes in your drink? Look closer. It may be one of the perfectly translucent, bubble-less ice cubes made by Haberdasher and 55 South each day. It takes three days for 55 South’s special machinery to freeze blocks of pure, crystal-clear ice that is hand-cut into cubes, which are sometimes monogrammed before serving.
Some bars are copying the beer and soda industry by serving cocktails from barrels and kegs. SP2 offers barrel-aged cocktails that take on the flavor characteristics of the small wooden casks in which they were aged for one to three months. 55 South, Haberdasher and Paper Plane feature cocktails-on-tap, where cocktails are carefully crafted in five-gallon kegs and served carbonated or still as they are poured from the tap.
Ask any of the bartenders or owners what’s unique about the San Jose craft cocktail scene and they will likely tell you that the atmosphere is casual, welcoming and unpretentious. They might also add “spirited.” Because if you try hard enough, you just might see the ghost of Senator Green over there in the corner, raising a glass to you.