The Holy Smokes cocktail at Eureka! Photo: Eureka!

As we get closer to year’s end, many people take the opportunity to reflect on milestones, accomplishments and goals achieved or missed — and at least try to gain a perspective on what transpired during this particular trip around the sun. Instead of doing any of that, however, I will instead share my five favorite cocktails that I enjoyed this year. Many of these are tried-and-true classics, but noteworthy nonetheless. And I have added a bonus: a non-alcoholic drink that may spark some memories of a simpler time.I’ll lift a glass of any of these to toast the new year. As the song says: “We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne.” Wishing you kindness in 2020.

A Tiki-style glass with a straw, filled with a Mai Tai cocktail, garnished with mint and wedge of lime, sits on a bar at Trader Vic's in Emeryville.
A Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. Photo: Trader Vic’s
A Trader Vic’s Mai Tai. Photo: Trader Vic’s

The Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s in Emeryville

Earlier this year, I delved into the history of Trader Vic’s and Victor Bergeron, the larger-then-life founder of the Emeryville bastion of Tiki. Doing all that research gave me an even greater appreciation for the Mai Tai, a drink he is said to have created in 1944. Any other version of this East Bay creation pales in comparison.

The Holy Smokes at Eureka! in Berkeley

This one is a showstopper: bourbon, maple, chocolate and hickory smoke. As I reported on Nosh previously, Eureka in downtown Berkeley serves this drink in a tightly sealed jar and once the lid is removed, you are treated to a swirling plume of hickory smoke. A unique blend of sweet, smoky and just a hint of chocolate. The presentation never fails to make an impression.

The Old Fashioned at Beer Baron in Oakland. Photo: Risa Nye
The Old Fashioned at Beer Baron in Oakland. Photo: Risa Nye

The Old Fashioned at the Beer Baron in Oakland

If everything old is new again, it may be time to revisit this classic cocktail, made with sugar, bitters and whiskey and a twist of orange. Any bartender worth their salt can mix an Old Fashioned, but I do like the way they make them at Beer Baron in Rockridge. This drink is purported to be one of the oldest of all American cocktails: more than 200 years old. If you haven’t tried one, it’s probably time.

The Nighthawk at Juanita & Maude in Albany

When the drinks menu changes every six weeks or so, the clever folks at Juanita & Maude create a new list of cocktails with a theme to the names.  No spoiler here; you’ll have to figure it out for yourself. The Nighthawk is a variation on a Manhattan: made with bourbon and Angostura bitters, but instead of sweet vermouth, this features Mirto Rosso: a Myrtle berry liqueur, popular in Sardinia and Corsica, which lends a bit of spiciness to the drink. It’s garnished not with a cherry, but with a twist of orange peel. The Mirto gives The Nighthawk a unique flavor, taking it above and beyond the typical Manhattan.

The French Sidecar at Donato & Co in Berkeley.
The French Sidecar at Donato & Co in Berkeley. Photo: Risa Nye

The French Sidecar at Donato & Co. in Berkeley

Donato & Co. in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood makes this classic cocktail with an Italian twist: Apple Jack brandy, Gran Gala (a blend of VSOP Italian brandy infused with orange), lemon and sugar. The glass sparkles with sugar; the brandy warms the body and the soul. Historical note: the Sidecar is believed to have been created at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris — post WWI — for a military officer who arrived on a regular basis in a motorcycle with sidecar attached.

The hot chocolate at Homemade Café in Berkeley

Here’s that non-alcoholic bonus I mentioned. Of course, this classic needs no introduction, but I should note that I get mine with almond milk, and half the time I say yes to whipped cream. Homemade’s hot chocolate is comfort food in a mug. Nothing can top it, except more whipped cream

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Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...