Photography By: Nick Isabella
Photography By: Nick Isabella

Shake and Stir Into San Diego’s Craft Cocktail Scene

Get Crafty (Cocktails) At San Diego’s Prohibition Bar and Panama 66

Shake and Stir Into San Diego’s Craft Cocktail Scene San Diego Craft Cocktails
Photographed By: Nick Isabella

San Diego isn’t just a craft beer town; within the last few years it has also expanded into the handcrafted cocktail realm. Instead of throwing liquor in a glass with a splash of a soda, bartenders and mixologists are taking time to create elaborate, well-balanced cocktails muddled with fruit or herbs. One of the first cocktails that became popular across many San Diego menus was the Moscow Mule, containing vodka, ginger beer and lime juice, often seen with a sprig of mint or muddled ginger.

Beer cocktails are having a moment because of our plethora of craft breweries, and tropical tiki-inspired cocktails are a hot item because they pair well with our beachy lifestyle. Seasonal cocktail menus seem to be the norm, as well as customers seeking a personalized cocktail based on their individual preferences. Since there are so many cocktail lounges here, San Diegans can be selective about their imbibing environment, whether it’s an outdoor patio, secluded lounge or dive bar.

As our expectations get higher, so does the bar of excellence. Panama 66 creates its own ingredients in-house to pair with cocktails, while Prohibition’s bartenders are trained to ask guests a series of questions to decipher which cocktail suites their tastes. Here’s what both establishment’s bartenders had to say about cocktails trending this spring.  


Downtown’s Prohibition Bar Serves Up Relics of A Bygone Era

Expert Name: Leo Barbosa and Jason Breedlove
Credentials: Bartenders at Prohibition
Tales from the Crypt: Rumor has it, the Prohibition building was formerly a morgue.

A popular spot among both fellow bartenders and the food and beverage industry for handcrafted cocktails, Prohibition is hidden below street level with no visible signage. But for those who are in the know, Prohibition is representative of the old speakeasies frequented in the 1920s and early 1930s when there was a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol.

The long, narrow lounge is an intimate space that puts guests just a few steps away from a live band. It has a comfortable living room feel with a small bar area—but don’t get too comfortable, because the dimly lit lounge may add some additional blur to your beer goggles. Prohibition’s red accent lighting will make San Diego’s former red light district feel even more enticing. But the bar also has a dark side—the building is rumored to have been a former morgue.

At Prohibition, the drink menus change seasonally, so you can expect to see eight new cocktails featured in the springtime. Resident bartenders Leo Barbosa and Jason Breedlove have fun creating new concoctions and giving them unique names like Dance Party and Assume the Position. Barbosa started working at Prohibition last summer, but you can also find him slinging drinks downtown at Searsucker. Breedlove got his start in the service industry at Nicky Rottens as a barback, but quickly worked his way up, and has bartended at Prohibition for the last two years.

Q: What are the most popular cocktails on the drink list at Prohibition?

Leo Barbosa: With the Dealer’s Choice, we go through a series of questions. It’s a more interactive way for the customers to participate in their cocktail. They let us play with whatever they want their drink to be. We also have a lot of whiskey connoisseurs that come here.

Jason Breedlove: The Dealer’s Choice is the most popular. We start by asking what base spirit the guest wants—maybe vodka, gin or whiskey. Then we ask if they want something more direct, citrusy, sweet, or the flavors they prefer like mint or berry. Sometimes we only get through a few questions and we know exactly what we’re going to make.

Q: Is there a signature cocktail that you’re known for making?

LB: I’m more known for making refreshing cocktails, like what I would picture myself drinking on the beach. I really like the passion fruit caipirinha.

JB: And I’m the opposite. I like the more straightforward drinks without juice or sweeteners.

Q: Since your cocktail menu changes seasonally, what drinks can we look forward to seeing on the menu for spring?

JB: There are a few, actually. The #GetOffYourPhone is a vodka-based spirit with raspberries. It’ll probably be a No. 1 seller. The Girl From Ipanema cocktail is a passion fruit-flavored caipirinha.

LB: I think that it’s pretty diverse and caters to every want or need from the public. It brings drinks that you wouldn’t normally find on other menus, and some indigenous things that you can play with. It caters to every single palate—there are boozy cocktails, refreshing cocktails, interesting cocktails and intricate cocktails.

Q: Since the bar is a throwback to the Prohibition era, tell us what signature cocktails are reminiscent of drinks popular during that time?

JB: The Old Man River is the closest thing on the menu to a Prohibition-era cocktail. It has bourbon, crème de cacao and peach bitters. Also, the Bitter-Sweet Monk, which has gin, Campari, Benedictine and Italian vermouth. And the Italian Stallion, which has vermouth, Campari, sweet vermouth, fernet and chocolate bitters. They’re definitely more spirit forward and have unique flavor profiles.

LB: Guests can always expect to get an original, classic drink that not many other places can offer downtown.

Q: What kind of live music program do you have at Prohibition? Are the genres also a throwback to an earlier era?

LB: We’re open Wednesday through Sunday nights at 9 p.m., with live music every night. The music is a pretty good mix between jazz, blues, soul and old school rock ’n’ roll. We have different bands that rotate through on Saturday nights, and Friday nights we have a very popular blues singer.

Q: Do you think being below ground level adds an air of exclusivity to Prohibition?

LB: Yes, definitely. People come because they know we’re here, because they expect to get what they want. There’s no signage out front other than the law office. We used to have it set up so that you had to have a password at the door to get in.

Q: So is it still a process to get on the guest list at Prohibition?

JB: Right now we don’t have a guest list or reservations. It’s first come, first served. That’s why usually by 9:30 p.m. on weekends we’re already at capacity (80 people).

Q: Do guests often have trouble finding the disguised street entrance to the bar?

LB: Yeah, on occasion. We usually say that we’re glad they found us. But I guess we like it that way.

Q: I’ve heard you have a strict dress code at Prohibition. Can you tell me what that entails?

LB: Wednesdays and Thursdays are a little more lenient because they’re weekdays.

Fridays and Saturdays we enforce it—no shorts, no flip-flops, no baseball caps, no T-shirts—guys should be wearing collared shirts. We get a lot of people who come down here for 1920s-themed parties who are dressed to the nines in ’20s attire.

Q: Leo, since you’re from Brazil, how does your background affect the way you approach flavor profiles when making cocktails?

LB: Being Brazilian and Italian has definitely had a lot of influence on my secret recipe book. I feel that my two backgrounds cover the Italian direct drinkers, and those drinkers that want to feel like they just landed on the shore of a tropical island.

Q: Jason, how was your experience bartending at Nicky Rottens different from the working environment at Prohibition?

JB: At Nicky Rottens, you have sports and games on, burgers and food being ordered, and beer kegs that have to be changed. The whole atmosphere is different. Being at Prohibition is more secluded, dark and a different kind of vibe that you don’t get at other bars.

Q: What makes Prohibition unique or different from other Prohibition-themed bars?

LB: It’s the only place in the heart of downtown where you can find really good classic drinks and really good live music. It’s not your average college bar—it’s definitely a more mature setting. As far as I know, Prohibition really put craft cocktails on the map for San Diego, so it’s kind of a pioneer for the craft cocktail industry here. It’s a legacy.

JB: I would say the live music, atmosphere and the lighting. It’s just a great vibe. When you walk in, you’re transported into a different era. It’s so different from anything else that’s going on upstairs. Since we’re underground there’s no windows in here and there’s no cell service.

Biggest Bartending Misconceptions, According to Barbosa and Breedlove:

  1. All bartenders are mixologists
  2. Only some people can learn how to bartend
  3. You can ignore guests

Basic Behind-the-Bar Rules:

  1. Have fun
  2. Be passionate
  3. Make sure guests are happy and have a good time

Caught in the Cross-Hares: The street entrance to Prohibition is disguised as the law office of Eddie O’Hare. Eddie O’Hare isn’t a fictitious name, though—it’s actually the name of Al Capone’s lawyer during the Prohibition era. O’Hare later helped federal prosecutors convict Capone of tax evasion and, as a result, was shot to death.

548 Fifth Ave
San Diego, CA 92101


Panama 66 Uses Artwork as Inspiration for Mixology

Expert Name: Brandon Cardwell and Anthony Magdaleno
Credentials: Bar Managers at Panama 66
Number of Combined Years in the Bartending Industry: 12

Panama 66 opened in Balboa Park, adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art, in 2014. On a sunny day, you can sit out in the uncovered courtyard overlooking the sculpture garden. They serve lunch and dinner, and have a full bar and craft beer list. With Balboa Park attracting more than 10 million visitors annually, Panama 66 Bar Managers Brandon Cardwell and Anthony Magdaleno stay busy, as they work toward changing their cocktail menu seasonally.

Cardwell has worked behind the well at Panama 66 for more than a year, but got his start in the service industry behind the scenes, writing the cocktail menus for weddings. Magdaleno has been at Panama 66 since it opened.

Panama 66 hopes to convince other Balboa Park establishments to stay open later, and plans to bring a jazz series to their auditorium, as well as seasonal food and drink celebrations. The team feels that dining at Panama 66 is a great representation of San Diego, since they source a lot of local products and make several things from scratch, including syrups, mixes, beers (Automatic Brewing Co.), housemade bratwursts, house-smoked roasted turkey and pork loin, and house-baked breads and desserts.

Q: What are the most popular cocktails on the Panama 66 drink menu?

Anthony Magdaleno: By far the Apricot Fizz and the Braque’s Poppies are the most popular. Both are made with house-infused syrups and liquor. They’re both refreshing and appeal to a lot of people, and are especially great for the outdoor setting of Panama 66.

Q: What are your favorite cocktails to make?

Brandon Cardwell: My favorite cocktails to make usually involve amaros. I also love to use aged rums and tequilas. As far as my favorite cocktail to drink, I don’t really stray from a nice reposado or anejo tequila neat. If I do, I’ll keep it simple with Green Chartreuse and tonic with lime.

Q: What is a new signature cocktail ingredient we can look forward to this spring?

AM: One we have been working on is a lemongrass syrup that we plan on using in a variation of the Leaving Tijuana cocktail. It’ll be paired with a jalapeño-infused reposado tequila and fresh lime juice. It’s going to be awesome, and will run the gamut of sweet, sour, spicy and refreshing.

Q: I know you work closely with the San Diego Museum of Art for their various events. How do you decide on which cocktails to serve during Culture & Cocktails, Bloom Bash and other signature museum events?

AM: It really depends on the clientele and the event. We can have anywhere from a 1, 500-person event for Culture & Cocktails to a 50-person intimate discussion about the new exhibition at the museum. We work closely with the museum event planners and sponsors to make the cocktails according to the theme of the event.

Q: I noticed that many of your cocktails are named for historical figures or artists. How did you choose which notable figures to use and why?

AM: We usually just wander around the museum and get inspiration from the various paintings and sculptures. We have also worked with the docents and told them our ideas for cocktails, and they are always excited to take us through the museum towards art that they think might go along with them.

Q: How often do you change the cocktail menu at Panama 66 and what is that process like? Do they typically coincide with exhibits at the San Diego Museum of Art?

BC: We are gearing up to have the menu rotate seasonally from now on to coincide with Chef Sharon Wilson’s ever-changing menu. There will always be one cocktail on the menu that is themed around whatever exhibit is going on at the San Diego Museum of Art. We are also running weekly one-off specials on a chalkboard behind the bar.

Q: In what ways do you think Panama 66 is different from the other restaurants and bars in Balboa Park?

AM: It really is the only place where there is a balance between a place where you can sit down, without being rushed out, or having to be waited on in a fine dining atmosphere. The Jazz Jam with Gilbert Castellanos on Wednesdays is amazing, and the live music on the weekends allows a lot of local musicians a space to perform.

Q: When do you have live music at Panama 66, and what genre of music is it?

BC: We have live music every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. On Wednesday nights, Gilbert Castellanos presents the Young Lion Series from 6 to 8 p.m., featuring young jazz artists, and then his legendary Jazz Jam from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. brings out some of the city’s best jazz artists to sit in and jam. On Fridays and Saturdays, we feature music that we feel fits the space and the vibe.

Q: Since the proprietors of Panama 66 are also involved with Blind Lady Ale House and Tiger!Tiger! that are known locally for their craft beer programs, how much of an influence does that have on the beer selection at Panama 66?

BC: It has a huge influence on Panama 66. Our beer program is a little different, though, than our sister restaurants. Our beer program revolves around showcasing San Diego breweries to educate the sizable amount of tourists that come to Balboa Park. Luckily enough for us, there is a huge amount of quality beer coming out of San Diego, so our options are pretty vast.

Q: Anthony, what did you learn about mixology and crafting the perfect cocktail during your time at Craft & Commerce?

AM: Craft & Commerce was, and is still, a place where the steadfast quality of years past is coupled with the modern high standards of service. At Craft & Commerce, I learned to take the ego out of the equation without losing pride in the work I was doing. We were bartenders, not mixologists, and what we set down on the bar top reflected that classic idealism. Through people like John Holt, Vanessa Walsh and Diana Martacchio, I learned how to make the absolute best classic cocktails, and also how to take the time to explain the rich history behind the spirits in those cocktails to interested patrons. Craft & Commerce is where I went from being a skilled bartender, to a bartender with a deep love and passion for every small detail that goes into bartending.

Q: Brandon, after you had a serious motorcycle accident that gave you seven months’ worth of time to study craft beer, how did you merge your passions for mixology and craft beer?

BC: After my motorcycle accident, I was in various casts, and going out on crutches is never fun. So instead I did a lot of reading on craft beer, brewing and classic cocktails. I feel like beer cocktails don’t get a whole lot of love because they’re still pretty new to the craft cocktail scene, but why wouldn’t you merge the two? After all, we live in the craft beer mecca. Certain beers and spirits pair really well together, whether it be aged rum with a porter, or stout with a nice roasted malt character, or an herbaceous gin with a citrus-forward IPA. I’d love to see more people combining the two worlds.

Q: Brandon, what did you take away from your experiences as a mixologist at Bencotto Italian Kitchen and The Lafayette and bring with you to Panama 66?

BC: At Bencotto, I was lucky enough to learn about really high-end Italian wine, but that’s also where I was introduced to Italian apertivos and digestivos. The latter have slowly become some of my favorite ingredients to use in cocktails. I was able to take my newfound love for some fairly unheard of liqueurs and run with it. The Lafayette Hotel helped me improve my speed and time management behind the bar.

Q: I know you’ve worked the taps at Common Theory Public House. But as a homebrewer, what type of beer do you usually make during your free time?

BC: I’m fairly new to homebrewing. My favorite so far has been a fingerling lime gose, where I actually used triple sec in the brewing process. The high sugar content of the triple sec was great for priming sugar, and I wanted the beer to taste like a beer version of a margarita, so naturally I went with triple sec. It wasn’t as salty as I normally like in a gose, but it turned out OK. I constantly want to learn more about brewing—so to me even if you make a few horrible batches at home, it’s still a great learning experience.

The Bartenders’ Favorite Places to Grab a Cocktail:

  1. The Lion’s Share
  2. Ironside Fish & Oyster
  3. Turf Supper Club

The Most Important Items in a Bartender’s Toolkit, According to Cardwell and Magdaleno:

  1. An awesome bar spoon
  2. A solid Boston Shaker
  3. A great zester for garnishes

Wild Cards: Because of the unexpected nature of Balboa Park visitors, sometimes the busiest nights at Panama 66 are completely unforeseen.

Panama 66
1450 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101

S T A Y /// Classy, San Diego. These Craft Cocktail Masterminds Are Getting Experimental With Classic Recipes.


Website | + posts

Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based writer who contributes to several national and regional publications, covering travel, dining and lifestyle.


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