A Spirit-Driven Tour of San Francisco
San Francisco is a drinker's city. While writing my recently published book, Drinking the Devil's Acre: A Love Letter From San Francisco & Her Cocktails, I visited a lot of bars in this city—research has its place—and I discovered that backbars flush with hundreds of bottled spirits were as important as the well-curated cocktail menus employing all of these delightful bottles. Below is a tidy list of establishments known for the breadth of their stocked shelves.
Alex Smith and Martin Cate first came together to open the West's most ambitious rum bar, Smuggler's Cove; they did it again with gin at the rim of the Tenderloin in the just-opened Whitechapel, amassing a collection of over 200 unique bottlings—like London Dry, Old Tom, and Genever—for shaking, stirring and yes, sipping.
Tucked up an alley off Broadway and beneath the Basque Hotel, 15 Romolo is a cracking saloon whose backbar boasts over 400 unique spirits. To his credit, the San Francisco native Ian Adams manages his inventory with a global eye and an expertise for the best sherry and the most robust amari.
The Slanted Door is Charles Phan's ultra-busy hotbed of Vietnamese cuisine; it has neither a backbar nor a lot of whiskey. Just a few hundred feet down the Embarcadero, this dilemma was fixed with the opening of Hard Water. If you're lucky, you'll find one of the few bar stools free and Beverage Director Erik Adkins holding forth, pouring from one of his single barrel bourbons.
A few blocks from Union Square, tucked on Sutter at Kearny, is Gaspar, a brasserie claiming the largest collection of brandy-based cocktails in California. To get to that list, Bar Manager Johnny Cod amassed a lovely collection of grape-based spirits: Cognac and Armagnac, Pisco and Eaux de Vie. Find him upstairs in the Cognac Room talking and doing tastings with patrons in the dimly lit, well-appointed lounge.
The historic agave spirits of Mexico, Mezcal and Tequila, saturate the shelves of La Urbana, the Mexico-inspired restaurant in the city's NoPa neighborhood. Beneath dim Edison bulbs, sipping artisanal Mezcal captures the Oaxacan spirit. If the smoke-driven (and often overproof) predecessor to Tequila doesn't appeal, the Spirit of Jalisco, which California quaffs en masse, is abundant.
After a respite in Dolores Park, head into Elixir at the corner of 18th and Guerrero, a tiny wooden room overwhelmed with spirits to choose from. The proprietor H Ehrmann has amassed a vast and diverse collection of the world's finest spirits—whiskey from Japan, tequila from Guanajuato, pisco from Pisco—for which he continues to build shelves. Good news: It's all yours to taste.
The Bank at Wingtip
If all of this distilled tourism gets the better of you, there is The Bank, a tremendous retail source for distilled spirits located in the Financial District of San Francisco. You'll find its founder and storekeeper Kyle Nadeau behind the register, restocking his gallant shelves, or diving deep into his laptop to secure the latest and greatest releases for his savvy consumers. Engage his wisdom—the world's best bottles will be yours.
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