A Brief Look at Cutty Bangs: San Francisco's Weird, Beloved Liquor Store Tradition
Ever been in a Bay Area liquor store and seen those curated plastic bags full of little airplane bottles of booze? If so, you have met the cutty bang in the wild.
All photos by the author
As with most American cities, San Francisco has a veritable shitload of hometown pride. Ask a local what our favorite taqueria, dive bar, Chinese restaurant, or karaoke joint is, then sit back and watch us ramble endlessly about all of the things we love and loathe about our bayside kingdom. We're so caught up in the happenings of our 49-square-mile stomping grounds that we even named our omnipresent fog. (Here comes Karl, rolling in under Sutro Tower...)
Anyways, when it comes to drinking within our borders, there are plenty of ways to do it like a give-no-fucks San Franciscan. Examples include drinking a tall boy of Tecate out of a paper bag in Dolores Park, getting kicked out of the backyard of Zeitgeist for lighting up a joint alongside your heavily garnished Bloody Mary, or pounding Fernet shots with a bartender until you end up in the El Farolito line at 3 AM.
And then, there are cutty bangs.
San Francisco's "liquor stores"—also known as a "corner store" if it happens to fall on a corner, but never a "bodega," because this isn't New York, people—serve as social hubs within the city. The type of liquor available at your nearest San Francisco liquor store will vary. Some serve all manners of fine wine from nearby Napa Valley, while others seem to specialize in bum wine, Buzzballz, and The Club premixed cocktails in a can. Some have all of the above, because why not.
In West Coast speak, the closest meaning to "cutty" is "shady," or "probably not legal/safe/advisable." (There's also the near-homophonous "cuddy," which in some parts of the East Bay is essentially synonymous with "buddy" or "cuz.") A "cutty bang" means two things, in terms of drinks: One, a mixed drink of Seagram's gin, Tanqueray, Bacardi Limon, and pineapple juice. Two, a small plastic bag full of little airplane-sized liquor bottles and miscellaneous other ingredients—such as juice, or in some cases, candy—that you combine in a cup full of ice, then drink shortly after exiting the liquor store.
Cutty bangs' point of origin is unclear, with some claims that they've been around since as far back as the late 70s. One of the first known references to cutty bangs is in Bay Area rapper TayDaTay's 1998 track "Cutty Bang," featuring Big Mack. "Got it from the 3rd Street liquor store," TayDaTay raps. Big Mack chimes in: "I drink cutty bangs," and later in the song, "Cutty bangs, big thangs / It's the drink of the year." A later verse lists the ingredients.
In 2000, Kalifornia Noize Terrorists released a similar ode to the drink. "I wonder if you want to hang / Sip on some cutty bang," the hook goes.
A Cutty Bang is a cutty bang, but there are other cutty bangs that aren't Cutty Bang, if that makes sense. In a lot of the stores that offer them, you'll hear them simply called "hood drinks," "mix drinks," "mix kits," or "mixers." The plastic bag of a cutty bang will typically be Sharpie-emblazoned with a drink name. This is where some liquor store employees really let their creativity shine, although many of the references are pulled from Bay Area rap and sports teams, or just kind of lewd sexual stuff. There's Gorilla Milk, Golden State Warrior, SF 49er, Gangsta's Paradise, Hyphy Juice, and plenty of references to panties. A bag will run you between seven and 20 bucks, and each contains more than enough booze to get you heavily faded for an entire evening.
"Why haven't I ever seen them?" you might ask. Well, a smattering of liquor stores carries them around the Mission, Bayview, the Tenderloin, and Hunter's Point, as well as in Oakland and Daly City, but there's been little mainstream exposure, especially as of late. Some local blogs explored the phenomenon a while back, such as in the eloquently titled 2010 post "Listen Bitch, I'm going to put you up on some fucking game right now." from Uptown Almanac; or travel writer and former San Francisco mayoral candidate Broke-Ass Stuart's breakdown of the cutty bang in 2011. There was also, at one point, a short-lived Tumblr account dedicated to reviewing assorted cutty bangs. But their visibility has wavered in the years since due to crackdowns from the killjoy police who don't care for the idea of people walking or driving off while sipping on styrofoam cups containing seven shots of Bacardi.
(Realistically, though, the SFPD has never been particularly successfully, or maybe interested, in dissuading people from drinking in its public spaces. Sure, it's technically illegal, but when it comes down to it, they're more interested in keeping broken glass out of the lawn at Dolores Park.)
Talk of the cutty bang seemed to have fallen by the wayside in a rapidly changing San Francisco, until a confused Redditor discovered some last year and their internet presence resurfaced. So a few weeks ago, I thought I'd cruise around town and check on the state of the cutty bang in the harsh realm of 2016.
There are really only three ways to find cutty bangs. First and most importantly is word of mouth. ("Try Mr. Liquor on Valencia Street," one friend immediately suggested when I mentioned my quest.) Two, you can consult previous research on the topic, such as the articles mentioned above. (Charlie's Pharmacy in the Fillmore District is known to carry them.)
"To be honest, I haven't looked for a cutty bang in a while," Broke-Ass Stuart (née Stuart Schuffman) told me when I asked if he'd seen them around lately. "I bet they are still at spots in the Bayview and Hunter's Point, though. That's where they were most prevalent."
And three—in times of Law & Order-level investigation—you can dig through Instagram hashtags, as I soon discovered. Laugh all you want, but it's the 21st century and the Eye of Sauron that is social media sees all.
I started at Bus Stop Liquors, a corner store on the border of Bayview and Portola. If their Instagram account is any indication, Bus Stop is proud as hell of their cutty bangs, which they display in a "Magic Liquor Locker."
When I arrived, I spotted them immediately, but saw that the store used a numbering system rather than individually labeling bags with names.
The guy working the counter—friendly as hell and wearing an incredible, Cosby-esque sweater—told my friend Nick and I that yes, some people do call them "cutty bangs," but really you should just call them by their real names. Then, he handed us this huge, crazy-ass menu. There was Cutty Bang, High Speed, and many more creative ones, such as the Pocahontas, the Ciroc-olada, and the Steph Curr-Tea, made with an iced-tea-flavored energy drink. Forty-six different types, to be exact.
I asked what was with the numbering system. "People copy our names," he told me. "We come up with all of them." (Interestingly, this same claim was made by a co-owner of Charlie's Pharmacy in 2011.)
For no particular reason, I went with a drink called a Cookie Monster: "Bleu Passion"-flavored Alizé combined with a mini bottle of Three Olives vodka, a mini bottle of Absolut (unclear why two different vodkas are used, but whatever), a mini bottle of Bacardi, and a blueberry-flavored New York seltzer.
"What's the most popular?" I asked while being rang up.
"High Speed, definitely," the clerk said. "And Cutty Bang!"
(A High Speed, with five little bottles of rum and a tropical-flavored "yellow edition" Red Bull, is basically a DIY OG Four Loko.)
With my Cookie Monster in the bag, I was off to Mr. Liquor, a Valencia Street corner store. The process was starting to feel like catching Pokémon or collecting POGs or something; once you start paying attention, seeing even a small variety of cutty bangs makes you wonder about the countless variations that must be out there.
I walked into Mr. Liquor and quickly spotted a fridge full of High Speed and Cutty Bang, plus Hyphy Bomb, Johnny Danger, Jet Fuel, Virgin Lady, Fresh Pussy, Wet Pussy, Pink Panties, No Panties, and an assortment of other mixed drinks.
"My colleagues prepare these items," the clerk there told me when I started asking nosy questions. He quickly brought out two of his coworkers, Sam and Alex. Sam told me that their family has owned the store for 30 years, and claimed that the "mixers" (but not the Cutty Bang) were invented there. He also wouldn't give me his last name. "It's Mr. Liquor," he said. "Nobody knows the last name."
Sam and Alex told me that their cutty bangs are very popular—"the customers love it so much." High Speed is the biggest hit, in terms of specific combinations. "It's cheap. Everyone likes it and it has a lot of alcohol," Sam said. "And this one," he added, pointing to a bag called "Fresh Pussy."
"Sometimes we use the internet," Sam said of the naming process. "Sometimes just our minds." As to who decides what's in the bags and what they're called, Sam said, "My cousin did that. He's not here right now." But, Sam said, he operated another liquor store in Daly City, about 15 minutes south of the Mission.
His cousin's store, Hillside Market, is located in the southwest suburb of Daly City, where its known colloquially as the "Blue Store" due to its paint job. Just a block away, you'll find the "Yellow Store," another liquor store called Quick Pick which is—you guessed it—painted yellow. Both have cutty bangs galore.
At Hillside Market, there's a huge refrigerated section full of dozens of different kinds of mix kits. There was little overlap with what we saw at Bus Stop, and it was a tough pick. Nick went for Gorilla Milk, a.k.a. Hennessy mixed with bottled Kahlua Mudslide. The clerk grinned with familial pride when I mention Mr. Liquor, then turned on the disco lights that are rigged throughout the store when I put my selection—a Hand Job (Bailey's, 1800 Tequila silver, Absolut, I'm Bananas Over You liqueur)—on the counter. He offered us cups of ice, and we were off to the yellow store.
Quick Pick wins the award for most impressive accompanying visuals. Each mix has a charming, hand-drawn illustration to give you a sense of the vibe of what kind of drunk you're about to fall into. Are you about to hang on a desert island with the ghosts of Tupac and Biggie?
Or maybe you're trying to go dumb, East Bay-style. (That cutty bang contains a Hyphy energy drink, naturally.)
Finally, we brought our loot back to my friend Laura's apartment, and it was time to try our picks. (Well, Nick actually already tried the Gorilla Milk—in a not particularly legal setting.)
In addition to Hennessy, there are some unusual spirits that you see with disproportionate frequency in cutty bangs. One is I'm Bananas Over You, "a banana-flavored liqueur made with real dairy cream, imported premium rum and natural flavors" manufactured by a brand simply called "Bartenders." It's a fundamental ingredient in Gorilla Milk, Banana Splits, and Hand Jobs. Then there's Alizé, which is a blend of "French vodka" and the "natural flavors" of passionfruit, ginger, and cherries. You'll find it in Cookie Monsters, SF Giants, and Thug's Passions, among others. When you taste these liqueurs, you'll quickly find that they're an avalanche of sugar and potent fruit flavor masking a very high alcohol content.
But man, here's the thing: The Hand Job was delicious, like a tropical, near-lethal egg nog one might find in an urban Club Med. This is the exact kind of brain-melting sludge that is my Achilles heel. If I was still young enough to be able to survive the kind of hangovers this particular drink must induce, I would drink it all the time. ("This would be amazing with boba," Nick remarked after a few sips.)
The Cookie Monster is named such because it's very, very blue, and it tastes like a Mountain Dew Baja Blast that's been left on the side of the road to ferment in the sun for a couple of weeks. Tasting notes from the group included that it was "a vodka-lover's dream" (coming from Laura, who loves vodka) and "should be a sports drink" (from Nick, who loves sports).
Alright, so what does a proper Cutty Bang taste like, for the uninitiated? Well, it's very tart, very pineapple-y, and makes you feel straight-up wasted after literally three sips.
"This is a postmodern drink," Nick said, "because no one flavor stands out."
This made sense to me at the time, but in retrospect, it doesn't. I think we were just drunk.
Long live the cutty bang. May it remain celebrated, consumed, and just mysterious enough.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.