I am now en-route to Tales of the Cocktail, traveling via San Francisco. I got to San Francisco on Friday after a 24-hour-plus marathon of delayed flights and lost luggage. I checked into a hotel around Union Square, then took a walk over the hill and down to Fishermen’s Wharf. The architecture in San Francisco is great – row after row of cozy looking apartments, and a ton of what I am guessing are early Art-Deco commercial buildings.
Down at the Fishermen’s Wharf I followed a friend’s suggestion and tried an In’n'Out burger, served by a very pretty black girl called Ebony. It was some of the least greasy fast food I have ever had. I should have tried the clam chowder in a bread shell but I wanted to save room for something from Chinatown. I wandered back via Chinatown and had some BBQ pork on rice, which was decent but not exceptional. The seasoning was unusually heavy on the white pepper and the texture was a little dried out. I probably didn’t get the right shop, but Hong Kong and Auckland both have better in my opinion. In Chinatown I found a boarded up restaurant with a notice hanging in the window that read “Dear Customers, we will return in March 2007″. I guess there is some kind of story there.
Next I swung past Cantina for a drink. There were no free seats at the bar and they were playing really loud techno/trance type dance music so I didn’t stay, heading on to Bourbon and Branch instead. Call me old fashioned but who wants to drink quality cocktails in that type of environment? I may try again tomorrow, perhaps hitting the place a little earlier.
Bourbon and Branch was everything you could want in a cocktail bar. They have the whole speakeasy, password-entry, exclusive-drinking-den thing going on, but they don’t push it to the point of silliness. I piggy-backed in behind some other guy, was challenged for the password, and of course didn’t know it. As soon as the hostess knew I was from out of town she took me on a tour of the place, showing me the front bar, the library bar, and some other bar whose distinguishing characteristic I forget. The front bar seemed the liveliest and most hospitable so I took a seat there. I watched the bartenders making drinks for a couple of hours and didn’t notice them do anything weird or cut any corners. The top shelf spirits selection was massive, the well liquors were quality, the execution was good, the ice was cold, interesting drinks were made from Martinique rum and apricot brandy, and the decor was great.
To start I had a Plymouth Gin Martini with Vya vermouth and orange bitters. I had never tried Vya before. It was very good, giving the drink a soft herbal edge. I was distracted by the decor, specifically the hammered metal ceiling, and didn’t notice how much vermouth they put in. I had asked for a lot, and I’m guessing they really did pour a fair slug because the vermouth taste was clearly evident and totally different to Noilly Prat or Martini and Rossi. I didn’t see them doing anything silly like a swirl and dump. Anyway, this was perhaps the smoothest Martini I have ever had. Nothing to fault here. I wasn’t asked if I wanted an olive and nor did I get an olive. We just had a quiet understanding that olives were not part of the picture. Nice. I am guessing Vya was the key to this superb drink.
Next I had a Pisco Sour, made with some Peruvian Pisco I had never heard of – Don Ceasar or something. It was a good drink. Not too sweet. The garnish of bitters on the foam was very restrained – literally just two drops. Personally I might have added a little more, but if you add too much it ends up pooling in the bottom of the drink. Anyway, it was a good pisco sour, and the pisco used had that aromatic and rough-around-the-edges quality that lends itself to sours.
To finish I had a Manhattan, made with the bonded Rittenhouse (I think it was the bonded one – it was the overproof version anyway), Vya vermouth (I think), aromatic bitters, and a tasty little liquor-soaked cherry. The cherry was easily the best cherry garnish I have ever had. My only criticism here would be that the cherry should have been on the end of a metal pick, letting the drinker lift it out and enjoy it whenever the mood struck them rather than being forced to leave it till their last swallow. The influence of the Vya was less obvious in the Manhattan than it had been in the Martini, though possibly that was the effect of a very long day and a couple of drinks dulling my discriminative powers. No question the bonded Rittenhouse was great stuff though. It was far superior to the regular version (the only one I had previously tried), and made an ideal Manhattan whiskey.
I noticed a lot of people drinking Sazaracs, many drinks being topped off with champagne, and some intriguing and generously sized whiskey and rum sampler trays. I may revisit and try one of these trays. What with me being from New Zealand, the sampler trays mostly contained brands I had heard good things about but never tried. New Zealand does not have the greatest bourbon and rum selection, though it offers a pretty good range of Scotch. The menu even listed the hard-to-find Chartreuse Elixer!
To sum up, Bourbon and Branch is absolutely a place to visit if like cocktails and find yourself in San Francisco.