From chain restaurant-friendly abominations like the Chocolate Mudslide to old-school favorites like the Brandy Alexander, sugar and alcohol have been matched, and mismatched, on cocktail menus since the inception of the after dinner drink. And while there will always be a place for old-school sippable sweets at the end of a meal, several Bay Area mixologists have proven that dessert cocktails have a bright and bold future in mature cocktail programs, not simply as dessert accompaniments, but as potential replacements for the dessert course altogether.
Among the sweeter cocktails we tasted in the Bay Area, a few had some expected ingredients: espresso, liqueur, chocolate. But even those drinks contained surprising additions—muddled pear, porter foam, molasses—elevating them to a new level of complexity. In addition to the standard mosaic of flavors, mixologists are playing with body in the dessert cocktail, manipulating the weight and viscosity of typical dessert-cocktail ingredients like syrups, milks, chocolate, or liqueurs.
All of the drinks we tasted exhibited what the best dessert cocktail really requires: balance. Especially with a majority of richer or sweeter ingredients, dessert cocktails are historically prone to tragically saccharine overload. But these cocktails were so expertly composed that the sweetness acted more like a crescendo than bellowing prima donna against the backdrop of flavors in each drink.
Lulu Almaguer of Madera
Raw cacao nibs and sweet Adriatic fig preserves give this take on the classic Manhattan its dessert-appropriate lusciousness. For her version, Mixologist Lulu Almaguer starts with a spicy fig-infused syrup that marries Bénédictine, gingery Canton, dark chocolate liqueur, and port with a dose of mulling spices. The syrup is then added to cacao-infused bourbon and the finished cocktail has a smooth, full mouthfeel to match the bold flavors. And it’s that unlikely but entirely sophisticated combination of chocolate, bourbon, and fig that makes this the dessert cocktail equivalent of a grand dame out on the town.
Erick Castro of Rickhouse
Maple syrup is the marquee star of Mixologist Erick Castro’s Rye Maple Fizz, but 100 proof American rye gives it its backbone. A lower proof rye, says Castro, “doesn’t stand up.” A natural addition to an autumn or winter cocktail menu, Castro’s fizz combines fresh lemon juice, egg white, and bitters with rye whiskey and grade B maple syrup—the darker grade that imparts more depth of flavor. And ingredient-purist Castro takes his fizzes seriously, making this frothy, slightly spicy play on the classic a noteworthy addition to the fizz family.
Brandon Clements of Spruce
The Country Cobbler sounds like pie. And thanks to Mixologist Brandon Clements’ skillful combination of molasses, muddled pear, walnut liqueur, and vanilla, it actually tastes like pie, too. But where “pie in a glass” might sound unbearably sweet, this cocktail balances the fruit, spice, and vanilla of classic fruit pie flavors with a woodsy earthiness, courtesy of the Nocino della Cristina walnut liqueur and tawny dark molasses. And especially considering the dearth of fresh pear in cocktails, Clements’ Country Cobbler is a seasonal standout.
Daniel Hyatt of Alembic
For a cocktail that combines coffee, liquor, wine, and beer, the Vice Grip is aptly named. But despite its potent ingredients, it’s actually a fairly delicate dessert cocktail with surprisingly low alcohol content. That’s because Alembic Mixologist Daniel Hyatt keeps each ingredient in check, balancing their powerful flavors against one another to create this creative, creamy beer float of a cocktail. The coffee (from Venezuelan beans in the Araku Rum & Coffee Liqueur) plays against the bitterness and depth of the porter without losing its light sweetness. And the sparkling Brachetto imparts a fruity, raspberry sweetness and the bite of carbonation, giving the drink a well-rounded flavor profile. Porter beer foam—Hyatt says stouts don’t foam as well—gives the drink its body and creaminess, making this the milkshake for the beer-coffee-wine-liquor lover.
Brian MacGregor of Jardinière
Inspired by all the coffee cocktails he consumed in Cuba, Brian MacGregor’s Bon Bon Biracha arrives with a straw in an old-school soda bottle, chilling in an ice-filled shaker much like a miniature bottle of Champagne. The presentation is tongue-in-cheek playful, setting the context for the drink. MacGregor fortifies the brown-sugary heat of 12 year-old Puerto Rican Don Q rum with just a hint of local brandy—Osocalias, made locally in Santa Cruz. The dessert in the drink comes by way of sweetened condensed milk, which is balanced by the dark roast espresso. A dash of anisette wakes up the top layers of spice and the result tastes like a kid’s cappuccino. You’ll never reach for Kahlua again.
Edgar Solis of Chez Papa
Whatever the name calls to mind, Edgar Solis’ Dirty Sanchez is a pristinely sleek, playfully interactive dessert cocktail with a serious liquor backbone that includes Hanger One vodka, Frangelico, and absinthe. And Solis finds that even drinkers who don’t like absinthe take to this cocktail, no doubt owing to the surprisingly tasty combination of the licorice in absinthe with chocolate and hazelnut. The chocolate isn’t in the glass, however, but arrives as a side of cocoa that’s been sprayed with absinthe and Frangelico. Guests take a sip of the drink and then a taste of the cocoa, with an interplay of flavors and textures creating a memorable resonance of experience between glass and spoon.