A Retro Cocktail Tour Travels Boozily Back in Time

Retro Cocktails
Classic drinks at Fauna, Oakland, courtesy of Localite Tours.

Classic cocktails do not, by any means, confine their genesis to the mid-century. But they did comprise a big part of American social life during the 1950s and '60s. And they're back in style. A retro cocktail culture flourishes in the Bay Area, and its epicenter, arguably, is in the Oakland neighborhood north of City Hall, known as Uptown. 

The blocks along Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, stretching from 16th Street to Grand Avenue, house one of the highest concentrations of vintage cocktail-focused bars anywhere, along with a heavy splash of original art deco architecture. It's the perfect neighborhood for a boozy historical walking tour, which is what Gretchen Ludwig and Serena Laing offer through their company Localite Tours.

"The way the tour works is that there are a couple really classic cocktails, and then a couple built from the idea of classic cocktails and given a modern twist," Ludwig explained of their weekly eight-block jaunt that hits four unique bars for cocktails and snacks, with stops of historical interest along the way.

But unlike bars that may crank out large batches of some signature mix, the bartenders on this tour savor their concoctions—a Jack Rose from Dogwood uses house-made grenadine, for example. "That drink is not on the menu. It's something they specifically do on our tours. Mindy, our bartender, has done a specialized version of it," Ludwig said. Tour participants get to learn some of the theory and history behind the more familiar drinks we all know.

An old-fashioned, the standard order of one Don Draper, stems from Prohibition, when bartenders used sweet ingredients such as fruit to cover up the rank taste of bootleg liquor. "The old-fashioned is interesting because you don't have to use the orange and cherry combination. The recipe is a ratio, not a specific list of ingredients," Laing said. "It's the balance of the alcohol and fruit. You could have a lime and raspberry one. And according to the knowledgeable bartenders we have on the tour, this one at Era Art Bar would be as authentic as using the orange and the cherry."

Participants learn some principles of mixology along the way, Ludwig said. "There are some basic elements to these cocktails. There are usually three ingredients, and it's a matter of creating structure and balance, and smoothness."

In addition to imbibing cocktails, tour participants get to nibble on a grilled cheese from Dogwood, and enjoy a stop in at the art deco Fox Theater to learn a bit of history and fiddle with a rack of defunct levers.

Tours meet on Thursdays at 7 p.m., cost $65 (drinks and food included), and can be booked through Localite Tours' website.