The Zealous Pursuit of the Perfect Cocktail

'You shake a drink to wake it up, not to put it to sleep'

Mixologist Bill Norris
Mixologist Bill Norris (Photo by John Anderson)

Thank you, readers! In the many times I've been in Fino, I never took the time to order a cocktail. Owner Emmett Fox's food always calls for wine, so I usually just head for the wine list. Then I saw the Chronicle Reader's Poll, where you awarded their Bill Norris the Top Mixologist award, and I ran over to meet the man.

Norris' grandfather owned a New Jersey speakeasy that eventually went legit. His uncle also owned a bar. That heritage helped give Bill Norris a respect for the finer points of mixing a drink. As he's spent more time behind a commercial bar, he's also become something of a spirits philosopher, spouting sayings like his opinion of how cold to get a drink: "You shake a drink to wake it up, not to put it to sleep." Or his feelings on sweet drinks: "People usually have one drink, then order wine. You don't want to start them with dessert."

In every drink, he tries to balance alcohol, sweet, sour, and bitter. He bridges the ingredients with homemade bitters. He uses only fresh juices. He even makes his own grena­dine, saying: "The bottled stuff is just high-fructose corn syrup, water, and red dye. It should be macerated pomegranates and water. The difference isn't hard to taste."

I had the opportunity to try several of Norris' inventions and was amazed at the synergy of ingredients. The Garden Party ($10) uses gin, Paula's Texas Lemon, lemon juice, a sweet strawberry, and basil. The combo sounded awfully citric, but it was just slightly sweet from the strawberry, and the basil was an amazing idea. His Girasol ($10) uses fino sherry, sunshine bitters (made from cardamom and saffron), and elderflower liqueur. The smokiness of the fino just peeked through the mix. The bitters and elderflower created incredible complexity.

Bill Norris is the real deal. And not only is he good at what he does; he's humbled by getting some attention. The award is something he is very proud of, which is obvious when he gets a little uncomfortable but still tells me, "It's just so nice to think that people like what I'm doing."

The Garden Party

1.5 ounces Tanqueray No. 10

0.5 ounces Paula's Texas Lemon

0.5 ounces fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 strawberry, hulled and stemmed

4 basil leaves

Muddle the Paula's Texas Lemon, basil, and strawberry. Add remaining ingredients, shake with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.


1.5 ounces fino sherry

0.75 ounces St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur

3 dashes of sunshine bitters

Stir all ingredients together with ice and strain into a wine glass.

Sunshine Bitters

1 cup 100-proof vodka

4 teaspoons cracked cardamom pods

1 tablespoon saffron threads

Place vodka and cardamom together for five days, agitating daily. After five days, strain out cardamom and add saffron. Let sit for one day. Strain and bottle.

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