I overheard a conversation between a manager and a bartender at Los Gatos' new Jack Rose Libation House that sums up why I really like this place. It seems the house-made jalapeño syrup wasn't spicy enough, which was putting a damper on the bar's tequila-based El Fuego drink.
The bartender tasted the syrup. It was agreed: There was flavor, but no heat. A new batch was infusing but, in the meantime, the decision was made to add a dash of something spicy to each drink to make up for it.
At a lot of bars, if a customer complained about a drink not being spicy enough, they'd be met with a blank stare. And not all bartenders know their ingredients well enough to tell when one isn't up to snuff, since usually, it all comes out of a mass-manufactured bottle. But not at Jack Rose, where the details are important and house-made ingredients rule the day.
The out-of-the-way roadhouse is on the site of the old La Hacienda Inn between Los Gatos and Saratoga. Surrounded by ample parking, especially by Los Gatos standards, this is a place where everything is new but feels like it's been around for decades.
Jack Rose's name also has literary roots: It was the favorite drink of author John Steinbeck, who lived nearby for a time, and it was popularized in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." This is a place that invites thoughtful drinking and conversation, even when it's packed on a Friday or Saturday night.
The outdoor patio deck gives off a Tahoe-esque liveliness, but the interior is like walking into the secret cabin headquarters of the Really Cool Drinkers Club. There are animal heads -- fake, I think -- mounted overhead, quotations and drink recipes scrawled on the wall and birds crafted out of book pages suspended from the ceiling. There are wide tables where people can sit across from each other and banter, a smaller, intimate "library" that seats three or four people and another, larger alcove that resembles a "conversation pit" from a 1970s house with better seating. One night I was there, a flat-screen TV mounted above the "library" was showing a black-and-white movie that I'm pretty sure was Rita Hayworth's "Gilda."
There's also plenty of room at the bar, and lots to see, too. Most of the bartenders wear brown leather aprons, which feels like a throwback to an Old West saloon. The bar is loaded with jars and bottles large and small, filled with bitters, sugar, nuts and brandied cherries (which, I was told, are soaked in a mixture of bourbon, cognac and amaretto).
The cocktail menu, presented on a clipboard, leads off with the bar's timeless namesake. The Jack Rose ($11) is made traditionally, with Laird's Apple Brandy, fresh lemon juice and a house-made grenadine. It's a pretty drink -- pink, served in a deep coupe glass with a notched lemon slice for a garnish -- but it packs a powerful punch, thanks to the apple brandy's 100-proof strength.
Another good choice was the Lucky Lindy ($12) -- check Wikipedia if you don't know the 1920s aviation hero it references -- which takes the house-made gin blend (half Tanqueray, half Beefeater) and adds Aperol, simple syrup and lemon for a slightly bitter, but refreshing, cocktail that has a nice zip.
Anyone ready for something even more complex should try the Oak-Barrel Aged Manhattan ($14). It includes a blend of four bourbons, combined with a blend of three varieties of sweet vermouth. The resulting mixture is aged for months, with brings out such a complexity to the flavors that it is almost unrecognizable as a Manhattan (it's better than any Manhattan I've had, too).
To go with the libations -- the drink menu includes a wine list, and there are also draft beers available -- Jack Rose boasts a menu of artisan pizzas that are certainly big enough to feed two or three people. There are bountiful charcuterie plates for sharing, and I'd recommend getting the bacon-wrapped dates ($6), which are served three to a plate.
The bar staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and so are many of the customers, who are comfortable asking about ingredients and making suggestions about liquor-to-mixer ratios. One guy recommended I come back for the "Sunday Rumday" specials, where the emphasis is on tropical classics like the Zombie and Mai Tai, as well as rum flights.
The result was outstanding, and I was happy to be someplace where they pay attention to the details.
JACK ROSE LIBATION HOUSE
18840 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road, Los Gatos
Open daily at 4 p.m. Closes at 11 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, midnight Thursday,
1 a.m. Friday-Saturday and 10 p.m. Sunday.