King of craft cocktails is back on the SF bar scene

Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. ExaminerLongtime bartender

Kevin Diedrich is putting drinks in the glass that will awaken even the most booze-jaded palate.

His résumé has run the gamut of high profile bars in San Francisco and New York, and The City is lucky to have him back, this time at BDK in Lower Nob Hill.

Diedrich’s beginnings in the craft cocktail world go back nearly a decade, when he responded to a random Craigslist ad to be part of the opening team of the famous speakeasy Bourbon & Branch.

Diedrich got the job and started working with some of the biggest names in the bar business at the time. Think Ryan Fitzgerald and Todd Smith (who now own ABV), and bicoastal bartender Dominic Venegas. Smith ended up making the drink that would change Diedrich’s life.

“It was a drink with no name, something with Chartreuse,” Diedrich said. “That’s the drink that got me into cocktails.” After three years at Bourbon & Branch, Diedrich helped Marcovaldo Dionysos (who’s now with Smuggler’s Cove) open Clock Bar at the Westin St. Francis. Then he went to New York to the famous Clover Club and PDT, where you enter through a hot dog stand into an old phone booth that buzzes you into the small, exclusive cocktail lounge.

“San Francisco gave me the passion for the industry, but it’s New York that taught me how to bartend,” Diedrich said.

When Diedrich returned to San Francisco in 2009, he came up with the concept for Burritt Room, a lounge tucked into the north end of Union Square. (Full disclosure: I now work behind the stick at Burritt Room.) After Burritt, Diedrich opened Jasper’s Corner Tap, where he is famed for coming up with cocktails on draft.

He left Jasper’s a little more than a year ago and began consulting for bar programs in The City, until he helped construct BDK.

“It feels great to have a home,” he told me. “Consulting is good in bits at a time, but I’m a routine person, so I like having my feet planted. It feels good to be behind the stick making drinks again.”

Named after Kimpton Hotels founder Bill Drennon Kimpton, the old Grand Cafe has been reborn as an American tavern in a reworked space in the Hotel Monaco. At BDK, the menu items are named with flavors, not with mystery.

“I think it’s a great way for guests to key in with what they like,” Diedrich said. “Sometimes it gets intimidating for some people and they won’t want to order.”

His drink Apples is a delicious riff off of the famous Martinez, with Old Tom gin, calvados, sweet vermouth and the Italian herbal liqueur Strega. In some of his drinks, Diedrich uses a kitchen-oriented approach, where he looks at what pastry chefs are doing so that he can incorporate that into his drinks. I don’t usually drink vodka, but when I do it’s Smokey Tea vodka from Absolut, with salted pistachio syrup and coconut-lychee milk.

“I think pastry chefs have the best flavor combinations,” Diedrich said. “I’m always finding inspiration in their ice creams and sorbets.”

Saffron-infused mezcal, Italian aperitif, charred pineapple and lime make up Diedrich’s Saffron, which was inspired by a macaroon from b. patisserie on Divisadero Street.

Ah, I haven’t had drinks this good in a while. In such a saturated cocktail scene, it’s refreshing to see a legend rise up out of a yearlong hiatus and shake up the game once again.

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