Firsts things first: I never went to Marlena's, never experienced the drag shows, and never had the pleasure to bear witness to the kitschy Christmas wall of Santas. I won't pretend and tell you about what the bar used to be like, frankly because I don't know. Not counting this one, I've written about 96 different bars in the Bay Area for this column alone -- the one thing I learned is that I will simply never make it to as bars many as I want or should make it to.
What I can tell you about the bar at 488 Hayes, Brass Tacks, is what it is now. Sleek and clean, dressed in grays, walnut, metal, and brass, it has a striking chandelier in the center of the bar that looks like it's wearing hundreds of melted champagne flutes earrings. The bar owned by Anthony Healy-London (of Churchill), Josh McAdam, and Matty Conway (formerly of Absinthe and a 2013 Bar Star), with Conway spending most of the time behind the bar. The drinks are exceptionally crafted, complex, and fast, but the pretension level is low and it has a neighborhood vibe with a wild mix of people from all walks and even some on walks (pooches welcome). Open from two in the afternoon until two in the morning, it's a great stop for an aperitif, nightcap, or anything in between.
The fantastically dark and rich Spanish Prisoner ($10, amontillado sherry, Bonal Aperitif wine, Cardamaro Vino Amaro) is named after the old con-job (rather than the David Mamet movie), but really the only grift is how much flavor there is with so little alcohol. It is a perfect aperitif, the sherry giving it rich nuttiness, the Bonal some nice bitterness, and the cardoon-based Cardamaro lots of depth. If you like stirred whiskey drinks, you'll love this.
And about that name: Conway explained that, "The name doesn't necessarily have an immediate tie to the drink beyond the obvious Spanish ingredient and that Bonal's logo is a key ('the key to appetite').
"A brief Internet search has revealed that the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned for a time in Pinerolo, which is within Piedmonte, which is where Cardamaro is made -- but I'd be full of shit if I told you I knew anything about that when I named the drink," he says.
The only thing you'll be missing after experience with The Spanish Prisoner is thirst.
The Spanish Prisoner
1 oz. Gonzales Byass Vina AB Amontillado Sherry
1 oz. Bonal Gentiane-Quina Aperitif Wine
1 oz. Giovanni Bosca Cardamaro Vino Amaro
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, and stir briefly (doesn't really need dilution nor should it be too cold). Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a lemon peel over the drink to express citrus oil, and discard peel.
Brass Tacks, 488 Hayes (at Octavia)