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Cocktails with artistic flair

Design by Michael Schwab


Eternally preppy saloon impresario Perry Butler’s landmark joint at 1944 Union Street is a museum of all things newsworthy in San Francisco for the last 47 years, with nary a square inch of empty wall space. But he’s long felt something was missing. “I’ve always wanted a poster,” he says, “A simple, clean, classic illustration of our signature cocktail.”

Perhaps Butler was listening to his inner adman. After all, his dad was a Madison Avenue heavyweight whose newly minted Dartmouth grad son had a brief fling in the hard-drinking agency world of the 1960s. He didn’t like it.

Two years ago, Butler approached San Anselmo graphic designer Michael Schwab, possibly the Bay Area’s most prolific and passionate poster artist. Schwab turned him down, saying he was too busy. Schwab’s style — strong, simple, retro images in warm, bold colors reminiscent of the ’20s and ’30s — makes even Alcatraz look inviting. The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, which runs The Rock, has enlisted Schwab to produce a series of posters capturing the various places in the national park the conservancy oversees.

When Butler called again a year ago, Schwab had an opening in his schedule. The two men, along with 32-year-old Aldy Butler, the empire’s heir apparent, met at the newest Perry’s in Larkspur, formerly Bradley Ogden’s Lark Creek Inn, to brainstorm.

Butler wanted Schwab to capture Perry’s popular Bloody Mary, the (still) $8 hangover cure: two ounces of Gordon’s Vodka, extra thick Sacramento tomato juice, Tabasco, salt, pepper, Worcestershire, but no veggies. While it was crimson, tart and tasty to the tongue, it just didn’t dazzle the eye, opined Schwab.

The younger Butler had a suggestion: a Manhattan, straight up, smooth, sexy, seductive. Perry’s take on the venerable, sophisticated cocktail consists of four ounces of 90 proof Bulleit bourbon, an ounce of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters, garnished with a Luxardo brandied Italian cherry. It’s as pretty as a picture and another bargain at $10 for a husky pour.

“I’m a method artist,” says Schwab, whose drink of choice is Hochstadters Rye on the rocks. “I need to experience what I’m portraying. So I had a Manhattan made and photographed it.” He also drank it.

His instant digital image, photographed with his cell phone camera, captured the Manhattan’s visual elegance. “Warm, exotic, copper-colored, with a brandied almost brown imported cherry, not some cheap artificially made maraschino,” waxes Schwab.

Strained into a stemmed martini glass, the drink silently screamed “Perry’s” to regulars or anyone familiar with the landmark thirst parlor. First-timers wouldn’t have to guess at its heritage.

The Butlers — father and son — were thrilled with the Manhattan poster, with its subtle gradations of color and come-hither “sip me” siren song that even the tone-deaf could hear. But Butler wasn’t satisfied it did justice to Perry’s true cocktail legacy. “Our iconic cocktail is still — and always will be — our Bloody Mary. We never changed it. Haven’t raised the price,” he says, then admits: “Some people have complained we make it in a wine glass, not a highball glass.”

Butler dug deep and commissioned Schwab to design a second poster immortalizing the Bloody Mary in all its original glory.

Design by Michael Schwab

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very creative clients and art directors over the years,” says Schwab. “And Perry Butler is among those at the top of the list.”

Now prints of each drink are also for sale. But Perry’s not trumpeting them, which would not be very Butleresque for the low-key saloonlord.

And lately, Michael Schwab has been lobbying his client to expand his portfolio with a portrait of another Perry’s classic cocktail: the bone dry gin martini, straight up. “I’m trying to talk him into it,” Schwab says. “But so far, no luck.”