Why Restaurants Don’t Need Liquor Licenses

I think people in our industry have assumed that customers want a restaurant to have a liquor license, but I think creating cocktails with amaro, Lillet, vermouth, Cocchi Americano, and stuff like that could be fun.

When we first decided to open up a restaurant in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, we were quoted somewhere around $125,000 to $150,000 for a liquor license. As a brunch restaurant that is zoned for around 40 people at max, this made me think: Do we really need to serve high-octane, alcohol-based cocktails and spend all that money?

This seemed over the top.

With all of the cask-strength whiskeys and all of these hot new liquors coming out, everybody has lost sight that at the end of the day, it is still all about flavor. I think people in our industry have assumed that customers want a restaurant to have a liquor license, but I think creating cocktails with amaro, Lillet, vermouth, Cocchi Americano, and stuff like that could be fun. Making low-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails was a challenge that excited me as a bartender.

When you don't have a liquor license in a restaurant, it really comes down to if the booze is distilled or not. You can't have anything above 30 percent ABV. If it is made the same way as beer or wine is made—such as sake and Lillet—it all falls under beer or wine. I don't want to pull the wool over anybody's eyes and pretend that I'm giving you something that I'm not. I'm not going to give you a basil gimlet made with soju instead of gin.

Even when I was making drinks at La Folie, nobody was really looking for crazy alcohol content during their meal; they were just looking for good drinks and for good flavors to accompany what they were eating. My whole background came from working at high-end liquor places. I've worked at a four-diamond hotel in Boston called The Liberty, doing high-volume and high-alcohol cocktails. I figured that if people were really looking for hard drinks, they can always just go to Dogpatch Saloon and Third Rail, or just go buy a bottle of Jameson and drink it at Dolores Park.

The last thing I want to do is have a drink be the same price as a dish.

Even with these alcohol limitations, you can still have a quality list. I'm doing things like a coconut milk punch with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Amaro Montenegro as the "liquor." I'm taking vanilla beans and mixing them with powdered sugar ground up with rose petals and hibiscus, garnished with a little bit of annatto seed and nutmeg on top. I'm doing swizzles with a blueberry extract fortified with sage, mint, and shiso—topped off with amaro. I'm doing a low-ABV egg white cocktail with kiwi juice and a tea-based simple syrup with Cocchi Americano.

Again, I'm just trying to have fun.

I've always really been excited about pairing food with drinks. There are a lot of subtleties in our chef's food. It's tough to find a back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house that really understand each other, and we really do. He really gets a lot of different flavors to come out of the food by getting into the dynamics of textures and temperatures interacting on a plate. I feel like if you throw a cocktail like a Manhattan in there, it may not be completely blowing out your palate while eating, but it is a very strong flavor nonetheless. You're getting citrus, whiskey, the herbs from the vermouth, the bitters—all these strong flavors can cut into something more delicate like a sauce. You might not be able to appreciate it if you are attacking it with this high amount of alcohol.

It's a terrible thing to say as a business owner, but we're not looking to make money hand over fist. Our main thing is to just do what we do and be really creative while doing it. We want to offer that neighborhood feel in a restaurant. We're not looking at it like, Oh, now that I don't have whiskey I can't charge $14 per cocktail. Even if we did have a full liquor license, I don't think I can charge the neighborhood that much money and feel OK and comfortable about it. I would still want to keep all of my prices between the $8 to $10 range.

The last thing I want to do is have a drink be the same price as a dish. In one regard, I do understand how that can be, because the bottle of whiskey that you are using may be expensive, but that cost seems a little absurd and wild. I feel like San Francisco lost hold of the tradition of cost-per-price ratio in drinks—it is all relative. I'd rather make up this cost by using the same ingredients that our chef is using and balance our costs there.

We are looking for longevity. We want this place to be here for ten-plus years. I'm not looking to come into a neighborhood and make a ton of money for a year and then disappear after that, when nobody could afford to eat and drink here anymore. When we were outside painting and getting ready to open, people would just come up to us and tell us, "Can you just not be overpriced, please? We'd rather come in and spend $8 on two glasses instead of $16 on just one."

I feel the same way, so making these lower-ABV cocktails allow me to do this.

As told to Javier Cabral