Acme Bar & Company, Berkeley – A Review

AcmeYou know that bar you dream about where the booze selection is great, the service friendly and knowledgeable, the decor unassuming, and the chance of hanging out on a Friday night without body-crushing crowds and/or soul-crushingly awful music is actually pretty good? Well, it exists…in Berkeley, CA…next door to a post office. Located in a quaint stand-alone building on San Pablo Avenue in what I suppose could be called West Berkeley, the Acme has a selection that rivals other highfalutin’ spirits bars without feeling the need for a designer-approved interior and over-the-top, vintage-dressed cocktail “artistes”. This is basically your neighborhood corner bar with a serious booze collection/possible obsession.

Whisk(e)y-wise, they tend to focus more on the American stuff with a large range of bourbons, ryes, and craft distillers including quite a few Willets, many High West Offerings, and even Anchor’s mighty trio of Old Potrero Ryes. The smaller Scotch selection is made up of the ubiquitous (Glenfiddich, Glenlivet & Macallan 12’s) and more interesting options like Glendronach 18yo, a trio of Murray McDavid Laphroaigs, and an Old Malt Cask Port Ellen. I also spied a pair of Samaroli bottles expensively staring down at me from the top shelf. Things are rounded out by an atypically deep Irish section and a few Japanese whiskies including a couple of Nikka expressions. There’s also a tidy list of whisky cocktails featuring a reportedly delicious “Manhattan” made with Willet Bourbon, Cocchi Barolo Chinato, and bitters. The list does not stop there, however, as there’s also a very impressive selection of Tequila and Mezcal, Gin, Vodka, Bitters, Absinthe and liqueur (Fernet Branca on tap, no less), again ranging from the well-known to the smaller boutique producers. It’s an impressive if not daunting selection of booze, but in their infinite wisdom, the Acme offers flights to sample your way around. They have a list of suggested trios put together, but you can also design your own, each one served on a small wood platter with the names of each drink by the corresponding glass.

Like I said, the decor is more corner/dive bar than hyper-designed cocktail club. The smallish space has the bar in the front, tables in the back, and chalk-board lists of all the booze running nearly the entire length of the place. My last visit was on a Friday night, and while the place was populated the entire time, it never felt crowded, and the noise level never made conversation too difficult. Prices are very reasonable with the flights in particular being a darn good deal. With Lanesplitter’s Pizza being a mere 150′ feet away (and the bar allowing you to bring pizza in), The Acme is one of my favorite little gems across the bay.

Acme Bar & Company
2115 San Pablo Avenue @Addison
Berkeley, CA  94702

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The Hideout – Bar in a Bar review

Admittedly, I’ve been in San Francisco for way too long. I take absolutely no pride in being part of the young, white, professional (barely in my case) horde that descended upon the Mission District in the mid-90’s, paving the way for the tech-y gentrification that followed, and now the rampant foodie-ism and smug, way-too-deliberate (and sometimes laughable) hipster-ism that’s followed that. However, lest I come across as a grumpy, old man (I am, sort of), let me just say that while I miss some old Mission mainstays (Dr. Bombay’s, Leather Tongue, Abandoned Planet Books, whatever was there before Tartine, etc.) in general, my ‘hood has only gotten better over the years. Delfina, Bi-Rite, 826 Valencia, 18 Reasons, Paxton Gate, Monk’s Kettle, Freewheel Bikes, etc., the list is long, varied, and ever-evolving. There’s also a healthy handful of places that just keep chugging away, and have stayed great through the ages; Valencia Pasta & Pizza, El Buen Sabor, Dog Eared Books, The Kilowatt, Faye’s Video, Zeitgeist…it’s nice to have old friends around.

One long-time Mission locale has not only stayed the same, it’s completely changed. We thought of Dalva as a “fancy” drinks place when I first moved out here, a date bar as opposed to the more dive-ish 500 Club.  There was a cozy back room that was always a good, if not smokey, place for quieter conversation. Fast forward to the golden age of the cocktail that we seem to be in, and lo and behold, Dalva’s taken their back room, cleaned it up, built in a bar and have christened the little high-end booze & cocktail hideway the Hideout.

The wife (let’s call her Sherry Butts) and I left the kid unattended (he was tied down, don’t worry) for a few hours and snuck in here for a drink the other night and were delighted to find not just a list of appropriately upscaled cocktails but a decent whisk(e)y selection as well. For her, a delightful Rittenhouse 100 Brooklyn, and for me, a no-brainer, the “Whisky In Church” which was a combo of Smokehead, Oloroso Sherry, and a splash of both maple and pear syrup. I’m a sucker for smoky Scotch cocktails, they’re a bit of a rarity and tough to do well…the Whisky in Church was pretty darn good. The Whisk(e)y collection was a bit limited by the smallish bar but there were some tempting things on the shelves. Standouts among the clearly educated selection they had were all the tough-to-find Van Winkles, a few AD Rattray indies, and a smattering of craft distillery favorites. Prices were not the lowest I’ve ever seen, perhaps a bit on the high end, but certainly in line with other whisk(e)y bars in SF. I like the Hideout, it still feels like Dalva there in the back, but the booths and red lighting give it a more clandestine feel compared to the louder front room. Apparently there’s a reserve-able upstairs for even more private boozing. A mere couple of blocks from my house makes the Hideout a bit of a dangerous temptation…

The Hideout at Dalva
3121 16th St
San Francisco, CA 94110

The Alembic Bar- Review

In San Francisco these days, food and drink is king. The celebrities in this town are not the actors and rock stars of LA (or at least we pretend they’re not), they’re the chefs and bartenders who are one Osso Buco or one Blood and Sand away from their own Food Network show. If you close your eyes and throw a fair sized stick you will either hit someone making perfectly bubbled and charred Neapolitan pizzas, house-infused cocktails, stellar homemade pickles or meticulously hand-crafted versions of food you usually see at state fairs. Eating local, truly organic and very well is extremely easy here; we’re a spoiled bunch, fattening up nicely and at times, a little obnoxious about our food superiority.

That said, while there are countless fantastic restaurants and dozens of cocktail temples, there are very few places that serve great food and have more than the usual 10-15 assorted whiskies. NOPA, Nihon and The Broken Record come to mind as the exceptions as does Haight-Ashbury’s The Alembic Bar, a small bastion of distilled calm at the west end of this quasi-famous neighborhood. It is pleasantly dark and urban-rustic inside with ubiquitous but still cool Edison bulbs lighting up reclaimed wood from the old Kezar Stadium, former home of the San Francisco 49’rs. The booze list over the bar reminds me of the great D.B.A in New York, while locally sourced, artfully prepared comfort food menu is all San Francisco. They have a taut bottled beer list and an ever-changing micro-brew focused draught list to compliment several pages of wine, liqueurs, sherries, meads(!) and the lesser spirits (sorry vodka, tequila and rum…but you know it’s true), but the real turn on for me are their great cocktails and very respectable whisky list.

The cocktails fall in to the classic and house-invented categories and are probably all delicious…several definitely are (The Vasco De Gama for one) and the “Vice Grip” is just deliriously good. The whisky list, while not as long as some other places in San Francisco has some real standouts: nearly 50 bourbons, 40 scotches and 15 ryes are supported by a smattering of Irish, world and other assorted American whiskies. A few of the standouts include Bowmore “Darkest”, Glenfarclas 21, Springbank 15, Pappy Van Winkle 23, Sazerac 18, and Glenmorangie’s Extra Matured range. Along side those are a few Compass Box selections, several Willets and local boys St. George Single Malt and Charbay. Prices are decent, perhaps a little less than the Nihons and Bourbon & Branches of the world. All in all, The Alembic Bar is a pretty fantastic place, I mean how can it not be, last time I was there, they were cranking Iron Maiden followed by the Sweet…if that’s not San Francisco foodie music, I don’t know what is.

The Alembic Bar
1725 Haight Street
San Francisco, CA 94117-2807

(415) 666-0822

Whiskey Thieves, San Francisco – Review

It seems most whiskey bars fit into two categories: the ancient, wood-worn, Gaelic-influenced, cozy shrines to all things malt or the hyper-stylized, faux-vintage, deftly lit meccas of drinking and striped shirts like 7 Grand in LA. One’s authentic and one’s damn near impossible to move around in on the weekends.

Then there are rare places like Whiskey Thieves, which is like your dad’s old tavern down the street, dressed up a little bit with the most splendid of beverages.  Located right on the edge San Francisco’s Tenderloin (our answer to LA’s Skid Row or NYC’s Bowery before all the sanitizing gentrification – John Varvatos, I’m scowling at you), this place is one part neighborhood dive bar pool room and one part whiskey research lab. Indeed, if it’s not whiskey you’re looking for, you have to lean over and peer into the wells to see the other spirits on hand. As for the whiskey, it takes up the whole back bar wall. They have two main sections, Scotch & American but each has a few interlopers; there’s a great selection of Irish, a few Japanese, Rye and even a couple of Canadians represented. The selection runs pretty deep, there were quite a few things I wanted to try and the bartender dozed off while waiting for me to make my pick.  He was good-natured about it though, and had just as hard a time pronouncing Airigh Nam Beist as the rest of us non-Scots do. There’s no list to peruse, nothing that fancy, but the bartender was helpful and patient and the prices seem reasonable, if not a little lower than Nihon and Bourbon & Branch.

We were here early in the evening on a Sunday (whiskey on the lord’s day?  shocking) so it was quiet enough to savor a couple of drams.  I hear it can get pretty packed later in the night, especially on the weekends.  One word of warning, California’s smoking ban is not strictly enforced here, so be prepared to get little Marlborough with your peat.

Nopa: Sherry, Supernova & Firelit Liqueur! – Review

NoPa is a neighborhood in San Francisco, its moniker standing for North of Panhandle, the Panhandle being a thin strip of  tree-lined park jutting eastward from beautiful Golden Gate Park. Nopa is also the name for neighborhood’s best restaurant and cocktail gathering place. We’ve dined there several times and have always enjoyed the excellent California “urban rustic” food and excellent wine list. On our last visit we delved a bit deeper into their cocktails and spirits and found that, as far as whisky goes, Nopa has a small but carefully assembled list of great drinks. Their lineup includes a handful of white whiskies (Death’s Door, Wasmunds, Tuthilltown), 30 or so bourbon’s and other assorted American whiskies (emphasis on small batches and craft distillers) and around 20 single malts including several Port Charlottes, several interesting independent bottlings and the black tower of Octomore 2.0.

Nopa also has a decent selection of sherry, and to start, we decided to give some serious thought to a glass of amontillado and a glass of oloroso.  In the whisky world, much emphasis is placed on the use of sherry casks, and while I’ve tried sherry in the past, I’ve never deliberately tasted an oloroso with its relevance to Scotch in mind.  There were definitely aspects of each that reminded us certainly of Speysiders and showed clearly the influence of wood on a spirit.

  • Amontillado “Viña AB” González Byass – The nose had a very nutty – walnuts & almonds – tang, along with cocoa powder, a little coffee and a musty, tannic feel.  The palate was rich, tannic, and almost biscuit-y with cherry caramel and raisin notes.  There was a pleasant, slightly sour, buttermilk/cheese tone at the end that made us both think this would be excellent with food, especially strong aged cheeses.
  • Oloroso “Sangre y Trabajadero” Gutiérrez Colosia – While the Amontillado was more complex this one was a bit cleaner and approachable. It had a much fruitier nose with dates, plums, prunes but also had great pecan/pecan pie notes.  It was rich on the palate, nutty and at times reminiscent of black cherry fruit roll-ups. Very smooth and quaffable, this seemed a better aperitif or dessert drink.

Post dinner (I had the halibut, my girl [let’s call her Sherry Butts] had the lamb…both great), we couldn’t help ourselves, two things jumped off the menu and we had to have them.  The first was a new liqueur made locally at St. George Distillery with Blue Bottle Coffee and the second was Ardbeg’s legendary Supernova.

  • Firelit Coffee Liqueur is made from un-aged chardonnay brandy, distilled Blue Bottle coffee grounds and vanilla bean.  It’s not nearly as sweet and cloying as Kahlua and has a higher proof (60%).  This is truly fantastic stuff, just the right sweetness and just the right coffee bitterness make it fantastic to sip on its own.  We haven’t tried it in a cocktail yet and are already scheming to get some to pour over ice cream one day.
  • Ardbeg Supernova. I had not tried this before, but was well aware of its reputation.  What a dram.  While not as smoky and peaty as I expected at first, the nose was still an amazing head-full of wood smoke, green-grass smoke and peat. Some orange tones made their way through the smoke as did a bit of vanilla, but it was mostly all about the…smoke.  Similarly, the palate was a little restrained to start, showing of all the same smoke and citrus of the nose, but it builds…and builds…and builds, getting smokier and smokier.  It’s almost like a smoky star exploding and…uh..eh, never mind.  I would describe the finish, but frankly, here I am a day later and it’s still not done. It goes on and on and on.  All day long, kind firefighters look worried as I pass and ask if I’m all right.  Of course I’m all right, I just had some Ardbeg Supernova.

Happy Birthday Beck!

Nihon Whisky Lounge – Review

“Dangerous” means different things to different people. Some might consider walking across the street dangerous while others don’t really see danger coming until it appears as an irate, hungry, 8-foot tall grizzly bear ((Ursus arctos horribilis), barreling towards their remote campsite early in the morning before they’ve even had a chance to put on coffee.  Still others wave off these petty physical dangers and instead focus on true bottomless wells of feral temptation like the Nihon Whisky Lounge just a few blocks from my home.

Located just off the beaten path in the Mission, Nihon’s a dark, inviting, part industrial, part zen space that serves excellent and creative sushi and robata and features a towering wall of whiskies from all over the world.  They claim to have over 400 different bottles in their collection with nearly all available by the “taste”, glass (a measured pour) and bottle.  They also offer bottle storage, so you can keep your stash under lock and key for future tipplings. The malt menu is lengthy and very detailed…in fact, it makes pretty decent reading, so much so that I usually find myself trying to finesse the bartender for another 5 or 10 minutes to peruse the list.  The selection is impressive, distillery bottlings as well as independents, the usual stuff to the rare find.  Last time I visited, there was a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova, high up, lording over the other scotches.

The folks behind the bar are definitely whisky fans, very knowledgeable and very happy to talk about the stuff their pouring. There are inventive cocktails as well, most featuring whisky in some form or another, such as the refreshing “Final Word” (Pikesville Rye, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, and fresh lime served chilled and up in a martini glass).  I love that they offer the “taste” size, basically half a usual pour.  It’s enough to get a serious sense of the whisky but small (and inexpensive) enough to allow oneself…several.  It can get crowded on the weekends, but early evenings during the week are usually a perfect time to stop in an try dram or two, it’s not too crowded or loud and the bartenders have time to talk. Nihon’s a great whisky resource in San Francisco, a test and a true danger to my steely willpower.

Nihon
1779 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94103-3711(
415) 552-4400

Whisky Cocktails at Bourbon & Branch

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.