There is no surer sign that this whole cocktalian revolution has gotten out of hand than the two small jars of homemade bitters infusing in my kitchen as we speak. I can barely get out the door without someone shoving some rye & whipped egg-white combination in my face. Cocktails unearthed from the Crimean War featuring strange liquors distilled only with water from the Black Sea and shrubs from the Pontic Steppe are now the norm, not the exception.
San Francisco certainly has been at the forefront of all this, with distillers like Fritz Maytag & Anchor helping to re-vitalize rye and genever gin, and St. George Spirits making the only American-made Absinthe. We’re also lucky to have the throw-back, speakeasy cocktail mecca Bourbon & Branch, a (somewhat) hidden, reservations recommended, high-end drinking establishment. My girl (let’s call her Sherry Butts) and I visited a couple of weeks ago for an anniversary drink and while there were pages and pages of differently spirited cocktails to choose from, we ended up trying four different whisky based beauties.
“The Sceptre”: Scotch, Averna, pumpkin spice honey, old fashioned bitters
This one was initially okay, though perhaps a little unimpressive. The pumpkin spice was barely there and sort of faded as time went on whereas the scotch revealed more peaty, smoky notes later on. The sweet/bitter Averna helped to balance things out. The Sceptre was deceptively delicious, wasn’t great at first but by the end, we were convinced.
“The F-3”: Rye whiskey, oloroso sherry, nocino, whiskey barrel aged bitters
The F-3 on the other hand started strong, then kind of faded. Initially, there was nocino, nocino, nocino, just a sublime blast of true roasted walnut flavor (like you just popped a handful in your mouth). Good rye sharpness. Ended up having some dried apricot notes to it, also a little almond. By the end, however, this one seemed a bit cloying, the nocino-ness drifted away. We ended up liking The Sceptre more.
“Bobbie Burns” – Scotch whiskey, sweet vermouth, Benedictine
Sadly, this drink may have been named after the cigar salesman who was a regular at the Waldorf Astoria bar…not the great poet. Sort of takes some of the romance out of it, doesn’t it? This was good, smooth & balanced. Has orange blossoms, and…well, a fruit loop liqueur thing going on (in a good way). The scotch was there, though restrained a bit due to the herbal notes of Benedictine.
“Frank Lloyd Wright” – Bourbon, pear liquer, nocino, Islay whiskey, old fashioned bitters
This one was interesting, true to it’s name, the flavors sort built their way through. There was Smoky peat right away, then the bourbon, pear and nocino all got together and made the finish taste like peach cobbler with vanilla a la mode.
All four of these were damn good. I usually prefer my whisky unadorned, but the occasional cocktail can be a wonderful thing if done right and Bourbon & Branch are doin’ it really, really right.