By Seven Red
After long delay, some reports from San Francisco, where I attended the dreaded CCCC conference this year. I will say this: I did not see a single bad talk. I will be taking Thank You gifts from the field for my previous taxonomical snark, which apparently whipped everybody into shape. You’re welcome, 4C’s. But on to the real topic of this post, Bourbon & Branch. This little speakeasy-style cocktail bar is, as the title says, made of win. So I’ll offer a little review.
You can get into Bourbon & Branch one of two ways. You can make reservations for a two-hour slot ahead of time, in which case you’ll likely get a table (or really, a booth), or you can seek a kind of general admission, in which case you’ll be placed in the “library,” which you access through a secret panel in the wall of the main room. Am I corny as hell, or is that cool already? Hell with you: I was impressed. But Drinking Buddy (DB) and I went the reservation route, so we had a booth from 6-8. We rang the bell, whereupon a hostess asked us for the password, previously communicated when we confirmed the reservation. It’s all very hush-hush.
Since it was still light out, B&B seemed remarkably dark, but really well done. You walk in to the main bar room, where piles of fresh lemons, limes, and oranges are arranged on the bar. Appearance: velvet red floral wallpaper (see the web site for the design) under a shiny pressed tin roof, small yellow-lit lamps at each high-seated wooden booth, a snazzy pinstripe design on the booth padding, along with severe tapered mirrors on the walls that match the tapered wooden tables: they’re doing the 20’s posh thing, and doing it well. Sound: subdued jazz playing at just the right volume, and ranging from some 20’s songbirds and early Tommy Dorsey to as late as Astrud Gilberto doing some popular Bossanova numbers, with the heavier accent on the older, pre-war stuff. When you get to the booth, a waitress hands over one hefty cocktail menu that also includes the house rules: no photography, no cell phones, smoke out the back door (unlock it and relock it when you come in), and don’t even think of ordering a “cosmo.” They actually have it in quotations like that, as if the thing can hardly be said to exist. The waitress also brought over two glasses of water and a small drink for us while we looked over the menu; I think it was Champagne with bitters.
The menu itself is impressive, with the whole back-end focusing on scotch and whiskey and such. I just don’t do the scotch thing (hell, I hardly do cocktails), so I focused on the first part, which was subdivided into house specialties and classics, with, again, the accent on a particular respect for cocktail history, pre-war. Each cocktail listing comes with both ingredients and an explanation, so cocktail know-nothings like me can feel comfortable. The waitress also advised us of a non-menu cocktail for the evening. I started with the non-menu cocktail, a “Kentucky Buck,” consisting of strawberry-infused Four Roses Bourbon, bitters, lemon, and ginger beer. It was yummy. DB started with an Old Fashioned, also delicious. For my second drink, I went classic, with a White Lady. It was Tanqueray 10, Cointreau, lemon juice, and egg white. I have to tell you that I was a bit nervous about the egg white, since I’ve seen the foaming action go so often wrong, but this was really perfect. In fact, if pressed, I’d say that the White Lady I had at Bourbon & Branch was the best cocktail I’d ever had, period. DB, who drinks more cocktails than I do, concurred, raving about it. For his part, he ordered a Blood and Sand, which was good, but maybe a little light on the orange juice. I was essentially done at two, because we still had beer drinking to do later at Toronado (on Haight). But DB went for one more, a Black Manhattan, which was the house version of a Manhattan with coffee bitters. I had a sip: yum yums.
And then we were done, but that was perfect for somebody like me. The atmosphere and the time limit make the usual shenanigans you see when people are drinking cocktails more or less structurally impossible, so you actually enjoy a few good cocktails like a good meal. One thing that did strike me in Bourbon & Branch is that my wife, Mrs Red, would just love the place, and meanwhile, she’s home eight-months pregnant while I’m cavorting around drinking cocktails. I have to get her down to The Violet Hour in Chicago when she gets through all this baby-birthin’ business. She’s gonna be ready for a drink!
(Originally published at Seven Red dot net by our man in Chicago)