Category Archives: Bars

Drinkhacker Barkeeper’s Tip #1

…in a possibly ongoing, but erratic, series of tips…

If your establishment is very loud, do not offer both Corona and Peroni brand beers. (To see what I mean, crank up the stereo and try saying their names aloud.)

Bar Review: Alembic, San Francisco

If Bourbon & Branch is SF’s “east side” kingpin, Alembic represents the west side. Nestled in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury, it’s another Mecca for drinking junkies looking for innovative cocktails using unusual, and in some cases, home-made, ingredients.

The Alembic Bar is a dainty small place, mostly just counter service with only a few small tables for those who arrive early. My pal Alexei and I were lucky enough to get one, and we were taken care of by a stellar waitress who was zippy and helpful throughout the night.

The cocktail menu is daunting: Two pages of mixed drinks and scads of straight liquors, wine, and beer. It’s the only bar I’ve been to that has both Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose on the menu.

Naturally we started with cocktails, which Alembic separates into “the canon” and the “new school.” From the canon came The Vieux Carre: A Manhattan-like libation with rye and Cognac instead of Bourbon, which I found nicely sweet but maybe would have been better as a straight Manhattan. Best part: The home-made brandied cherries as a garnish.

Surprisingly similar was the new school “Vow of Silence,” a more bitter concoction of rye, Benedictine, Creme de Griotte (a cherry liqueur), and bitters. The wide swath of orange peel garnish really made the drink, but by the end I was ready for something far less bitter. My next cocktail was a likely downfall (more on this later): The Macanudo looks good on paper — tequila, apricot eau-de-vie, agave nectar, and black tea liqueur — and the smoky-sweet combo was pretty good, but again I found myself wishing I’d just had a regular shot of tequila instead of such a complicated blend.

We finished up the night with a dessert wine and, at Alexei’s urging, a very sour Belgian beer which we both agreed was not to our taste and left mostly unconsumed.

One big thing in Alembic’s court over B&B is that it serves food: A complete menu, in fact. The bacon cracker jacks (exactly what it sounds like: caramel popcorn, cashews, and bacon) is a must-order, and the shishito peppers were a knockout. I was less thrilled with the Moroccan-spiced lamb sliders, which were totally overpowering for anything other than knocking back with plain beer.

I didn’t feel like I drank very much that night (two cocktails, really), but boy did I pay for it the next day with an awful hangover. I blame that Macanudo, and will never follow up whiskey with tequila again. But even more disconcerting is that the three cocktails (all three served unimpressively in boring, oversized coupe glasses) just weren’t much to write home about. All three were perfectly fine, but nothing better than drinks I’ve come up with on my own and nowhere near the masterful creations on display over at Bourbon & Branch. In this battle of the bars, there’s really no question who’s the champ.

Return to Bourbon & Branch

Finally I got a chance to visit the “big boy” room at Bourbon & Branch, after two trips to the Library for private events.

Night and day, folks.

Literally, night: It’s pitch dark inside B&B. We went in at 6 and came out around 8:15 while it was still light out and felt like zombies walking into the sun. Lighted exclusively with dim bulbs and candles, the place is a true speakeasy in feel. The fact that there’s no air conditioning (or ventilation of any sort, really) adds to both the mystique and the intense discomfort on a hot day like yesterday.

So, the cocktails: What other bar offers you an amuse bouche upon arrival? This champagne cocktail (I don’t remember the ingredients our lovely waitress mentioned) in a pony glass was a great way to kick off our exploration of the 36-plus page menu, heavy with classic cocktails and straight liquors, particularly a deep, deep library of whiskeys of all varieties.

My colleague and I stuck with the cocktails for six rounds total. This is cocktail week in SF, so lots of interesting libations were served. I started with the Marked Man, which features blackberry-infused Maker’s Mark, dry vermouth, Benedictine, and peach bitters and comes off a bit like an upscale Manhattan. My pal Alexei had the Austrian, a surprisingly good mix of gin, Lillet Blanc, grapefruit, lemon, ginger syrup, Angostura, and a dust of white pepper on the rim. Shockingly summery, and good on a hot day like that. A later libation called The Last Word, which was basically a Casino with the addition of Green Chartreuse, was possibly my favorite of the night.

A bit further down the list of “loved it” fell Alexei’s Democrat: Mainly rye whiskey and honey, which was a bit too sweet for me and felt overwhelmed by crushed ice. I finished with the Blue Bonnet, a gin, lemon, honey, blueberries, and tarragon item served on the rocks, but I have to admit to being pretty far gone by then. But really, it was the amount of tarragon that ended up in my teeth no matter how much I rammed it down in the glass that was a shock.

We greatly enjoyed the personal attention given by our server, the quiet setting, the atmosphere, and the retro music. And of course, the cocktail craftsmanship is top notch. Cons: It’s too hot, the reservation business is a bit overdone, and having to wait outside amongst the crack addicts until the place opens at six (SIX!?) is a letdown. A lot of that would be forgiven if B&B would just suck it up and offer some bar snacks — even pretzels, for Pete’s sake — but in the absence of anything to chew on, I’m upgrading my rating to a solid A-.

New Menu: Bong Su, Cocktails 2008

The lovely people at San Francisco’s Bong Su (upscale Vietnamese, South of Market) hosted a small gathering to show off their new cocktail menu, devised with the exotic Southeast Asian food menu in mind. We rolled through all five unique concoctions (each paired with an appetizer to match). All in all, very good libations, but some easy favorites emerged.

No question, the Mekong Martini (pictured, recipe at end of post) was my personal best (and also the first drink out of the gate). While not really “challenging,” the blend of lychee vodka and mango nectar, plus half a lime and 1/2 oz. of Pandan syrup (a house-made syrup from aromatic Pandan leaf) was a light and summery drink that wouldn’t be out of place on the beach in Hawaii. A mound of black tea tapioca balls in the base of the glass add to the cool factor of the drink, but fishing them out to eat is more chore than joy.

mekong martini New Menu: Bong Su, Cocktails 2008

The Hibiscus Bud, a fiery red drink topped with an edible hibiscus flower,
was the most striking item on the menu, but it isn’t the Hurricane wannabe you’re probably expecting. A blend of Maker’s Mark, pear eau de vie, various flavored syrups, and bitters, this is a Manhattan for the beachcomber in you, though it was a little overdone for my purist Manhattan tastes.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Cherimoya Sidecar, a typical cognac and lemon mixture with the addition of Creole Shrubb orange-flavored rum and a tablespoon of cherimoya puree (cherimoya is a green fruit that looks a bit like an artichoke with white flesh inside the skin). I can’t put my finger quite on what I didn’t love about the drink, but the orange of the Creole Shrubb was just too overpowering, even beating down the lemon in the drink.

The Saigon Sun is a nice cocktail with a little bit of a surprise. The mango on the rim cues you to the mango puree inside, and the mix of rum, peach liqueur, and lime all work perfectly well here. The surprise is the addition of coconut water, which gives the drink a nice coconutty aftertaste without overpowering the other elements. This is a good one to pair with a seafood appetizer (we had it with a calamari dish).

Finally we tried the Golden Dragon (pictured), which matches a quinoa-based vodka with a touch of Creole Shrubb, lime, tea-infused syrup, and honey. Everything here works well, though you won’t notice any tea flavor. The end result is something like a tablespoon of orange-blossom honey turned into a cocktail. But it’s not too sweet. Everything here works well in harmony. Another fine cocktail!

golden dragon New Menu: Bong Su, Cocktails 2008

The new cocktails are being served now. Check them out at!

Mekong Martini
1 1/2 oz. Kai Lychee vodka
2 oz. mango nectar
1/2 oz. Pandan syrup
1/2 fresh lime, juiced
black tea tapioca balls to garnish

Shaken and served up in a cocktail glass.

Sub simple syrup for the Pandan and forget the tapioca and you can easily make this one at home.

Bar Review: Bourbon & Branch (San Francisco)

Last night I finally had the opportunity to visit Bourbon & Branch, courtesy of a party thrown by my friends at tech company Zannel, to see what all the fuss was about.

Bourbon & Branch, or B&B, is fashioned after a speakeasy. You have to have a password, which changes daily, and a reservation, in order to get a booth. There’s not even a sign outside. Everything is ultra-luxe in design, particularly the drinks, which are all crafted from top shelf liquors, fresh juices, and even homemade ingredients.

I was disappointed, alas, from the outset, as the party wasn’t held in the cool main room but rather the standing-room-only “library,” a dim shoebox in the back with a tiny bar and an abbreviated drink menu. But hey, the ingredients are the same, and I gamely thought I’d give some of the cocktails a sampling, especially since someone else was paying.

Even though we were early to the party, it took a good 15 minutes to push up to the front of the bar and order. Although the library serves only five or six cocktails, they are all made freshly to order, and the bartenders were pleasant, informative, and cordial, despite the crush of people and the long lines. After a long internal debate, I settled on the “Pomegranate Ginger,” (as did the rest of my crew, as you can see in the pics along with the “loot”), which seemed the most intriguing drink on the list.

bandb1 Bar Review: Bourbon & Branch (San Francisco)

What’s in it? “Pomegranate, vodka, lime, and ginger,” said the menu. Sounds good, but it’s the “ginger” that’s the kicker here. You might be thinking “ginger ale,” and you’d be sorely mistaken. We’re talking a fresh ginger syrup, spiked so heavily that it tastes not unlike gnawing on a raw piece of ginger root. For a couple of sips, this was intriguing and even delicious, nicely balancing the tart lime and sweet pomegranate juice.

And then I became aware of my previously mild sore throat. A few more sips and that ginger was burning me alive, turning my poor uvula wholly raw. It’s the first time I’ve said a drink was too “strong” without referring to the amount of alcohol in it.

One of my party gamely went back into the fray for another round, 20 minutes later he returned with B&B’s take on the Negroni, which I tasted and found to be as bitter as that Campari-based drink always is. I suspect if you like Negronis you’ll enjoy B&B’s version. My friend found it unpalatable (in fairness, he didn’t really know what he was getting into there) and was especially turned off by the chunk of orange(?) floating in it, which looked suspiciously like a severed pinky. Sadly, I have no pics, as much of the drink ended spilled on my shoes. (My fault.)

The $11 per cocktail fee is not as outrageous as it could be, but ultimately I found myself wishing I’d forgone the mixed drinks and settled instead for one of the bar’s 100-or-so bourbons, whiskeys, and scotches, served to your liking. One friend had a shot of Laphroaig 10-year-old cask strength ($12) on the rocks, which was a punch to the gut. Another had Elmer T. Lee bourbon (of which I’m a devout fan), served neat ($11). Selections range up to $100 (and possibly higher, the menu is about 10 pages long) for a single tumbler.

I’m not ready to call it for or against Bourbon & Branch yet. I’m looking forward to going back to B&B in the near future, but I definitely want to sit in the main room next time and check out the entire menu, sans ginger (or sans sore throat). Emphasis on sit.

bandb2 Bar Review: Bourbon & Branch (San Francisco)