I’ve written before about my preference for cocktail bars that put the quality of their drinks ahead of the atmosphere, especially when the desired atmosphere is a quasi-fetishized speakeasy. Having a hidden door or a password to get in might be cool at first blush, but it doesn’t make the drinks better made or the bar staff any more knowledgable. I’ll happily take a bar with killer cocktails, a great menu, and bartenders that know their spirits with a bright neon sign pointing you inside ahead of any bar projecting nostalgia for Prohibition.
The point is that I’m always a little skeptical about the bars that aim to have the aesthetic lure along with featuring cocktails. I wasn’t sure what to expect with Bourbon & Branch, one of San Francisco’s most famous cocktail lounges, known for its speakeasy style. I hoped for great things, but was worried the idea of the bar might get in the way of the product it put out. And I was happy that my fears were completely unfounded.
Bourbon & Branch has no sign. It only takes reservations and a password that changes daily is required to get inside. Once in, you’re welcomed by a dimly but not too dimly lit space, with walls covered in red fabric, a tin ceiling, massive chandelier, and a bar brick back bar wall. There are front and back rooms, as well as an upstairs and a hidden library space. Jazz plays at a perfect volume – always present, but never coming close to drowning out conversation. The bar itself is a perfect mix of accessible bottles and high shelves for stuff that spends more time neat than mixed. There are even horizontal shelves to keep some key spirits ready to hand without taking up much space. The register is big, old, and brass – serving as a division between the two bartender work spaces, while adding an old time feel behind the stick.
Bourbon & Branch’s menu is huge, big enough to require an index up front. It’s broken down by seasonal cocktails, champagne cocktails, cocktails from other bartenders that they like, B&B originals, classic cocktails, and then a decent selection of gin, bourbon, whiskey, rum, tequila, and other spirits. It’s certainly one of the more overwhelming menus I’ve seen in a long time at a cocktail bar. To wit, I usually order two drinks unique to a bar on my first visit then return to some of my staples. That was hardly possible at Bourbon & Branch, as I couldn’t leave so much behind untasted.
I started off with an O’Farrell St. Fizz, made with Booker’s Bourbon, blackberry liqueur, all spice dram, lemon, egg white, and topped with soda. It was garnished with ground nutmeg. It was a beautiful red-purple color and started off with a strong allspice and nutmeg flavor that was dominant to the blackberry. There was a soft push between the bourbon and lemon undertones that added nice depth to the drink. The fizz was made with a wet drink, so the consistently wasn’t so much fluffy as creamy. As I progressed through the drink, the blackberry liqueur dominated more. It took on a real winter fruit flavor to it, reminiscent to a berry pie. While I enjoyed this drink and thought it was a nice combination of flavors, I wasn’t blown away by it. That would come next.
The Clairmont Affair won the award for best cocktail in San Francisco in 2008, according to the San Francisco Guardian. I don’t know what else was in the running, but I find it hard to believe that there’s something out there better than this. The Clairmont Affair, as far as I can tell, is a twist on a Manhattan. It’s made with pear-infused Old Overholt Rye, Amaro Nonino, Fee Brothers’ Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters, and topped with clove essence. The drink has an expectedly strong clove nose to it. It starts quite sweet but becomes more bitter in its aftertaste. The pear infused flavor isn’t dominant, but seems to have really mellowed out the rye. The amaro provides both the sweetness and a nice bitter, without a quinine finish. I can imagine the process of elimination to find an amaro that didn’t have too strong a quinine end to it and the Nonino is a great fit. As I continued to taste the drink the whiskey barrel bitters became the more prominent bitter flavor over the amaro. This was a simply phenomenal cocktail. It’s new, but has a classic flavor profile. Ian, the bartender who was serving me all night, said the Clairmont Affair was one of their most popular drinks, surely a sign the B&B’s customers have damned fine tastes.
I rarely order beer cocktails, but the Troubadour looked too interesting to pass up. It was on their seasonal menu and is made with cognac, Lillet blonde, Cherry Heering, lemon juice, and Delirium Tremens. Delirium Tremens is a Belgian strong pale ale, with 9.0% ABV. It struck me as the sort of beer that would be very difficult to use in a cocktail and it’s one of my favorite Belgian beers, so I figured I had to give it a try. The Troubadour was light and accessible, despite its wide range of ingredients. All of the spirits were balanced in a way that I’ve rarely experienced. I was able to taste each individual ingredient in the drink, with nothing overpowering any other. It was a great warm, yet refreshing cocktail. While I don’t think it was my favorite drink of the night, it was the one that most impressed me for its flavor and balance — the ingredients set a very high bar for success and the Troubadour cleared it with grace.
At this point I switched to some of my regular drinks. I had what could have been the best Martinez I’ve ever had, followed by a 50/50 Junipero and Vya dry Martini, made with homemade orange bitters. Again, the drinks were incredibly well made, exactly how I wanted them.
I was going to call it a night at that point, but Ian suggested I try the Garbo, one of his creations. How could I say no? It’s made with manzanilla sherry, Stone’s ginger, pear brandy, whiskey barrel bitters, and topped with sage tincture. Coming off of a Martinez and a Martini, this was a perfect end to the evening. It was a light, balanced cocktail that combined sweet and savory flavors magnificently. The dry sherry, pear, and bitters all played well together, while the ginger flavor was subdued, adding an undertone of spice. The sage tincture wasn’t overpowering and added a nice nose to the drink too. This probably isn’t a cocktail that I would see on the menu and decide to order, but I really enjoyed it, again especially after having two classic gin cocktails.
A couple more thoughts, in no particular order.
First, I was incredibly impressed by Ian’s skill behind the stick. Every single drink I had was perfectly poured. I don’t usually hold it against bartenders, but I’ve had more than a few drinks at all of my favorite establishments were the measurements going in were proportional but not enough to fill the glass the drink was being served in. Each one of Ian’s cocktails were filled exactly, and I’m sure I only noticed it because it was so precise every time.
I was seated at the bar and through the course of the night fell into conversation with parties seated at either side to me. In each case, the subject of the conversation was cocktails: what we were drinking, what we liked, what brought us to Bourbon & Branch. I got to talk about my love of craft cocktails and how I became a blogger, as well as helping some of the other guests find drinks they might like. Which, in my mind, is the point of a bar like Bourbon & Branch. Talking about the drinks while enjoying them, speculating about what else might be good, thinking intensely about what sort of flavors we like…all of this is a sign of being brought together by the cocktail. The immersion into the idea of the cocktails is what makes the experience fun. It’s very rare that I’ll go to a bar by myself, as I much prefer spending time with friends. I was a bit hesitant about going to B&B on my own, but felt the opportunity to visit one of the west coast’s most famous bars was too good to pass up. In the end, though, I had a great time talking to other guests of the bar, all because of the social pull of craft cocktails.
I’m not sure when I’ll next have an opportunity to go to Bourbon & Branch, but it will certainly be on my list of destinations when I’m in the Bay Area from here on out. If you’re reading this blog, I can almost guarantee that you’ll enjoy Bourbon & Branch as well. It’s reservation only, so visit the bars website to get in ahead of time.