Rhys Alvarado/Special to the S.F. Examinerhris Wright of Elixir To Go makes drinks for attendees at the California Historical Society's "Historic Libations

California Historical Society pays tribute to SF's cocktail legacy

In today's age of advanced drinking and complicated cocktail recipes, it's nice to take a step back and appreciate the classics.

For the past eight years, the California Historical Society has hosted “Historic Libations,” an ode to San Francisco's long history with the cocktail. It's a chance for an old soul like myself to step back in time and drink the booze concoctions of yesteryear.

Every year, a new time period and theme are chosen for the event. This year's Dec. 11 gathering consisted of the drinks surrounding the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that was held in the Marina district in 1915.

The society is already looking forward to next year, when it will celebrate the centennial of the exposition by hosting cultural events about food, drink and dance alongside other historical societies across The City.

“People in this city like to think of these craft drinks and mixology as cool and hip and new, but no dude, this stuff goes way back,” said Anthea Hartig, executive director of the California Historical Society. “Especially in San Francisco and the West, where we celebrated with a little zeal and debauchery.”

Turns out that the South of Market space that is now the California Historical Society was built in 1922 as a commercial building, then became the builders and architects society where members would gather and drink in a speakeasy environment.

“We like to think that we're continuing that tradition of trouble around here,” Hartig said.

The massive storm that hit the Bay Area, though, prevented many cocktail vendors from attending the event. H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir and his cocktail catering company Elixir To Go were the only vendors to make the event. Two well-dressed bartenders were shaking Gin Fizzes and pineapple syrup cocktails to the sound of live Barbary Coast-style ragtime.

I enjoyed a Japanese Cocktail, which was created by 19th-century booze legend Jerry Thomas, credited with creating many drinks we know today. Thomas endured bar stints across the country, including two tours in San Francisco.

Funny thing about the Japanese cocktail is that there is nothing particularly Japanese about it — except that it was created for Japanese visitors in Thomas' time. The mixture of cognac, orgeat (almond syrup) and bitters — that's boozy up front and creamy in the back — was a nice complement to the ritzy evening. For Ehrmann, it's an opportunity to educate members and attendees about drink history in San Francisco, from which many cocktail books originated.

Longtime California Historical Society member Carol La Plant has been attending the event since it began. “San Francisco's always been a drinking and partying town,” she said. “It gives us a glimpse of what our great grandparents lived like. It was fabulous.”

It's no wonder that I always find myself fascinated with the things of the past. I've been told that I'm an old soul.

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