Ashley Miller would make an expert florist. As bar manager for Alta Restaurant (1420 Market St. near Fell, 415-590-2585, altaca.co), everything she creates is bright, seasonal, and radiates with fragrance. Take her recent Gatekeeper cocktail, a sly reference to the Ferry Building that combines tequila, tangerine, and chili de árbol. Before she reaches for a cocktail shaker, she’s at the farmers’ market sniffing out what’s fresh and in season. In this case, it’s tangerines, which she applies three ways: zested and dehydrated to line the rim of the glass, infused in tequila with chili de árbol, then put directly into the cocktail. The vivid and refreshing drink — a wiser, cultured cousin of the Margarita — is like a sunny afternoon at the market.
We’ve gotten blasé to restaurants preaching fresh and seasonal, but it’s actually a rarity on cocktail lists. Brown and bitter (industry jargon for the ubiquitous Manhattans and old-fashioneds that we love) still dominate. “Certainly we embrace the stirred cocktail,” Miller explains, “but we try to keep things bright and relate to what’s available to us and [consider] the weather outside.”
On the day I met with Miller, it was a perfect San Francisco day, sunny and in the low 70s. I thought I had pulled her away from the beach, but she was actually in a business meeting with a perfumologist. “Each of our cocktails has a scent associated with it,” she says. Miller’s bar top resembles a Union Square perfume counter with miniature spray bottles of eucalyptus and litsea oil used as finishing touches for cocktails.
A savory spritz of dill enhances the Curious George (whiskey, dill, lemon, smoked egg white), a surprisingly easy-drinking whiskey sour-pickleback hybrid. “It’s one of the favorites that we’ve done here,” she says. The name refers to the primary spirit: George Dickel whiskey that’s been infused with dill and pickling spice.
Miller says choosing a clever name is the hardest part of creating a drink. Hard to believe it in this case. Before it reaches your glass, the Curious George has seen a sous-vide water oven (to infuse ingredients into the whiskey), Alto-Shaam smoker (to cold-smoke an egg white), and whipped cream canister (to dispense the rich, creamy topping). Perhaps now is the time to mention that Alta is the latest project of Coi’s Daniel Patterson, a noted modernist cuisine advocate.
The result is a gorgeous cocktail with a frothy, slightly sweet topping served on the stem. “It drinks like a whiskey sour but it’s got layers and depth. It’s kinda fun,” Miller says. I cynically equate that last phrase with changing room attendants who aren’t sure how best to comment on a new pair of pants, but she’s right. It really is fun. And delicious.
By now, it’s become apparent that Alta is like the Pixar of cocktail programs: employing new techniques to produce a familiar product that will dazzle and delight beyond expectations.
Before I leave, Miller says, “I gotta show you The Carbonator.” She plugs in a canister device to a CO2 tank stashed under the bar. We could easily be at the Exploratorium. She’s about to make The Last Rose (see recipe below). The carbonator does just what you think it might: It adds a pleasant fizz. “It’s a great way to take a booze-forward cocktail and lighten it a bit,” she says. After pouring the drink, Miller lights a rosemary sprig and wisps it around the glass like a shaman blessing the journey ahead.
What does Miller hide in her home bar? Roughly 65–70 bottles of tequila. As a previous beverage director for the Tres restaurant group, she visited a huge number of distilleries whose product found a loving home back in the Bay Area. She also likes relaxing with a good, local IPA like Racer 5 or Lagunitas.
When’s she’s not sipping tequilas at her Pacifica home, she’s likely down the street bowling a respectable 140 on the lanes at Sea Bowl. And what prized possession does an aromatics obsessive roll with? A chocolate-scented bowling ball of course.
The Last Rose
By Ashley Miller (adapted for home use)
1 ounce Mezcal
1 ounce green Chartreuse
¾ ounce lemon juice
¼ ounce rosemary simple syrup (see below)
Combine ingredients in a metal cocktail shaker, shake, and then double strain. Add a splash of Prosecco to give it that warm weather feel. Garnish with a burnt rosemary sprig.
Rosemary Simple Syrup
Combine equal parts water and sugar in a small saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and steep one bunch of rosemary in the mix for 30 minutes.