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Ram Udwin and Jay Choi Team Up Behind the Bar at Ad Libitum

The new Hillcrest restaurant includes twists on tiki and barrel-aged cocktails


Bartender Ram Udwin behind the bar at Ad Libitum | Photo: BigMike San Diego

Ram Udwin and Jay Choi met behind the bar at Kearny Mesa mega-restaurant Hive, where Choi was the bar manager and Udwin was a bartender. The two realized they’d make a formidable duo and formed cocktail consultancy CoLab (short for both “cocktail laboratory” and “collaborators”). Choi is a scientist when it comes to perfecting a barrel-aged cocktail, while Udwin has a magic touch with tiki cocktails (and is the guy behind the Boy Drinks World line of bitters and spices).

But Hive is a huge space, meaning the cocktails sometimes took a back seat to the party. With the opening of Hillcrest’s Ad Libitum in October, there’s now a chance to enjoy Choi’s and Udwin’s creations in a quieter, more intimate setting.

The opening menu features three sections: “Bright Ones,” “Bubbly Ones,” and “Stiff Ones” (where you’ll find two of Choi’s barrel-aged cocktails). There’s also the Ad Libitum (i.e., “ad-lib”), or bartender’s choice. On a recent evening, Choi made my husband—who normally goes for old-fashioneds—a tasty sipper with Bénédictine, Fernet Branca, Henry McKenna bourbon, Boy Drinks World walnut bitters, and a grapefruit zest. Choi is a big fan of Bénédictine, a French herbal liqueur that’s got a smooth, honeyed-Cognac thing going for it. 

I’m a sucker for a Negroni variation and was happy to see Udwin’s Fay Wray on the menu. He created the cocktail for this year’s Negroni Week and liked it so much, he added it to Ad Libitum’s menu. It’s made with Wray and Nephew rum, Martini Bianco vermouth, Aperol, honey, and Boy Drinks World passion fruit bitters. Also excellent is A Spritz for Sore Eyes, a cocktail they’ve batched and put on tap, made with Broker’s Gin, Martini Bianco, Aperol, Giffard’s Crème de Pêche, and elderflower liqueur.

Ad Libitum's Jersey Girl, a Jungle Bird/Pina Colada hybrid | Photo: BigMike San Diego

You also can’t go wrong with the San Diego Serenade, which Udwin describes as Ad Libitum’s “trademark cocktail.” It’s made with El Charro tequila, Campari, lime, grapefruit, raw sugar, and Boy Drinks World Serrano Cocktail Spice.

“The goal was to make a menu that was fun and playful,” Udwin says. “I wanted to both be different than the usual drinks seen around Hillcrest, while at the same time being inviting and approachable enough to encourage drinkers to try something new. The heart of the Ad Libitum concept is classic roots with a twist of something special.”

(And while I normally don’t check out the food menu when I’m trying new cocktails, we tried a few items from chef Charlene Sandoval’s menu—everything was fantastic. Sandoval came over to Ad Libitum from Cowboy Star.)

Ad Libitum is still in soft-opening mode. There’s a grand opening scheduled for December 28, with five days of events leading up to a Woodford Reserve whiskey dinner on New Year’s Eve.

Got ideas for a future post? Suggestions of a cocktail to try or a bartender who deserves some recognition? Email me.

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