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San Francisco: Next Stop, “Speakeasy Style” Bourbon

on July 8 | in Issue 8, Wine & Spirits | by | with No Comments

You say Bourbon, I say Branch!

Bourbon and Branch

When I inquired about good whiskey bars to try while in San Francisco, one name caught my ear: Bourbon & Branch in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Bourbon & Branch is considered a modern-day speakeasy. Prevalent during Prohibition, speakeasies were establishments that sold alcohol illegally and entrance was only granted if you knew the secret word. Today, there are plenty of speakeasies across the United States, and of course, selling liquor is legal these days. (Thank goodness!)

Bourbon and Branch 1

I didn’t really want to walk around looking like a lost tourist…

It only stands to reason Bourbon & Branch would be (one of) my choices since I am the Bourbon Girl and they have over 150 bourbons, whiskeys, and ryes there. I hailed a cab, as the Tenderloin district is also known as “the pharmacy” and I didn’t really want to walk around looking like a lost tourist (although I used to live in the Bay area, I have the directional sense of a mole). When the cab driver was dropping me off in front, he said, “I’ll wait to make sure you get in.”

Well, then, let’s get this adventure started.

Anti-Saloon Image

The sign above read Anti-Saloon League, est. 1920. The guy in front of me didn’t know the secret word to get in, so he stepped aside with his face in his smart phone and I provided what seemed to be the correct password as I was escorted to The Library.

There is a limited menu of cocktails in The Library and the barman, Sevan Araneda, is also happy to suggest one for you. Although Bourbon & Branch was pretty steady, I did get to ask Sevan a few questions before we decided to set up time the next day so I could properly interview him—which meant I had to go back to Bourbon & Branch…some things are just worth the journey.

There are four rooms at Bourbon & Branch and each one is distinct in what it offers:

  • The Library, an introduction to simple cocktails and where most walk-ups are directed
  • The Main offers traditional and classic cocktails along with some pretty rare bourbons; reservations required
  • The Wilson Room: Pushing the envelope with creative cocktails and they have the best thing I’ve ever heard of in a bar—they do Cocktail Flights!
  • The Russel Room, for private parties.

It’s rare and delicious and you can’t get it anymore.

Bourbon and Branch 2

While interviewing Sevan I learned about “whiskey farms,” a good, inexpensive bourbon and a couple of bourbons you can’t get anymore—but you can at Bourbon & Branch, which is enough reason to go back to San Francisco.

When I asked Sevan what one of his favorite premium bourbons was, he was quick to reply Mitcher’s 20 Year—it’s rare and delicious and you can’t get it anymore. Actually, you can, at Bourbon & Branch. (At least you could at the time of this article—if you’re headed to Bourbon & Branch just to taste that, you might want to call first. Be prepared to leave a message.)

Kentucky is horse and bourbon country, Indiana is basketball country, and if the two got together and had children, they would produce LDI, Lawerenceburg Distillers Indiana. Why is this important? Remember the bourbon factory Sevan referred to? Some of your favorite bourbons and ryes originate in Indiana, not Kentucky. Fair enough—a lot of places other than the Bluegrass State produce bourbon.

No wonder they make whiskey—you need some to keep up with all of the hands it’s gone through.

LDI just happens to produce some pretty well-known whiskeys: Templeton Rye and High West to name a couple. LDI produces more than those well known brands, you just may not know it. One telltale sign is if the bottle says produced in Lawerenceburg, Indiana, it probably came from LDI (which used to be owned by Pernod Ricard, which used to be owned by Seagram’s, which bought Rossville Union Distillery in 1933. Whew, no wonder they make whiskey—you need some to keep up with all of the hands it’s gone through). Nonetheless, bourbon factory or not, they still make some good bourbons. And since one of the stipulations is that bourbon has to be made in the United States, the heart of the Midwest certainly qualifies.

Sevan is a fan of Evan Williams bourbon, noting that for an inexpensive bottle it is great as a beer back or in a cocktail, like the New York Sour he made while I was at Bourbon & Branch—an interesting cocktail and a really good one too. This cocktail, as you would imagine, has a bit of sour to it (attributed to the lemon juice, I’m sure) and it’s very easy drinking, which I’m attributing to the bourbon and simple syrup and the shaken egg whites, which give it its frothy appearance and smoothness in your mouth. Topped with a half ounce of a cabernet and zinfandel…now we’re talking! Two of my favorite beverages, bourbon and wine, together in one drink. Don’t cringe at the thought of mixing different alcohols, this works beautifully together.

From Kentucky to Indiana to ending in New York, time to go enjoy a New York Sour, my bourbon drinkers.

Bourbon and Branch 3New York Sour

  • 2 ounces Evan Williams bourbon
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, simmered and cooled)
  • 1/2 ounce egg whites
  • Ice

Shake above ingredients, strain into an up glass (a.k.a. martini glass).

Float a 1/2 ounce of cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel on top.
Enjoy! Until next month, when I’ll be interviewing the women of the Squeaky Bean.

Photo credits: Alan Hill Photo (Denver Photographer)
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