Healthy Spirits – Store review

San Francisco is awash in small corner grocery/liquor/small deli stores. In some neighborhoods it’s not unusual to see two stores kitty-corner from each other, learing across the intersection. Most sell pretty much all the same items and manage to eek out a living by selling mostly beer, ice cream and snacks. They are in the truest sense convenience stores, without much unique character, and existing because on occasion it’s more convenient to walk a half a block in your slippers and spend a bit more cash  on a quart of milk, a quart of beer, or a quart of ice cream. Occasionally, one of these corner markets re-invents itself, either through new owners or new ideas, and is able to set itself apart by its fresh produce, excellent home-made food, or inspired grocery/booze selection. In San Francisco, Bi-Rite Market is perhaps the marquee example of this, transforming what was once just a dingy store into a burgeoning foodie empire.

Healthy Spirits is another good example. Located on the corner of 15th and Castro, they’ve transformed the usual corner store pedestrian selection of beer, wine, and spirits into one of the best beer selections in the city with a respectable bunch of whiskies and wines as well. They also have a highly regarded hummus and a smattering of other local treats, but being a whisky blogger, what do I know from hummus? Whisky-wise, there’s a decent selection of Scotch, 40-50 bottles worth, nothing too surprising, with a few independents and less common distillery bottles along with the usual suspects. A really nice American whiskey selection is filled with the stalwarts, the new big company expressions, and a good variety of the more impressive craft distillery output. While you probably wont find the rarest, most unusual whisky here, you can definitely find a new one to try yourself or that special bottle to give as a gift to your favorite local whisky blogger.

The best reason to visit Healthy Spirits, though, is their phenomenal beer selection which rivals City Beer Store for the best in the City. They’ve got everything here: acres of Belgians, a good mix of American craft sixers and special big bottles, and all shapes and varieties of the best, most interesting beer from around the world. One could spend hours, slack-jawed and thirsty, standing in front of their entire wall of coolers, trying to decide what to buy…and this is where the staff comes in. The folks at Healthy Spirits obviously love this stuff and, appropriately enough, they love talking about it. So if you’re feeling befuddled as to what to buy, speak up, they’re only too happy to help. Outside of the store, you can find good info from them as well via their blog where they regularly post all the new arrivals, monthly beer club and monthly bourbon club. Prices on both beer and spirits are perhaps a little high, but understandably so, this is not a big, multi-location liquor barn, this is  a small specialty store. If you’re any kind of beer fanatic, bourbon hound, or general booze-nik, and you find yourself in San Francisco, Healthy Spirits is definitely worth a visit.

Healthy Spirits
2299 15th Street @ Castro
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 255-0610

2011 SMWS Extravaganza San Francisco – Recap

Thank you very much to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America for the opportunity to attend the Extravaganza as press.

The large-scale traveling roadshow of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (let’s just call it the SMWS, shall we?) rolled into San Francisco on November 9th, and again proved to be a great time. The SMWS, though appropriately based in Scotland, has branches around the globe, and offers its members the chance to buy unique (and uniquely named) bottlings of their carefully selected casks. The Extravaganza not only gives the SMWS a chance to showcase a few of their own selections but has quite a few of malt whisky’s finest distilleries on hand to showcase their booze.

The evening began with the hour long, oft-humorous, occasionally informative Whisky Panel, a Q&A hosted by SMWS’s Alan Shayne who filtered the audience’s questions to this terrifying array of industry ambassadors:  Neyah White – Suntory/Yamazaki, Martin Daraz – Highland Park, Johnny Mundy – Glenrothes, Glen Grant, & Bowmore, Nicholas Pollacchi – The Balvenie, Mitch Bechard – Glenfiddich, Steve Beal – Classic Malts, Bushmills & more, Winston Evans – Glenlivet, Rick Edwards – Aberlour & Glenlivet, and Gabe Cardarella – Dewars & Aberfeldy.  Not only was the Whisky Panel a great way to start the evening (the nice dram of Aberfeldy didn’t hurt either), it also allowed the attendees to bypass the long line of non-Panel attendees waiting to get in to the main event.

Once inside, tasting glass in hand, I met up with Chris & Nate from WhiskyWall and headed straight for the SMWS booth where Mr. Shayne was pouring, among others, an excellent 18yo Bladnoch (Cask #50.42), a complex, spice-filled 28yo Genburgie (Cask #73.40). From there, well…believe it or not, there was a lot of whisky tasting. Notable among these:

  • It was great to taste through the range of Bushmill’s Single Malts, I’m a big fan of the 10yo, but hadn’t tried the 16yo or 21yo.
  • Oban 18yo. Yup, great stuff. This lived up to all the good things I’ve heard about it.
  • A tasty Bunnahabhain 1997 Peated 13yo from The Classic Cask. Nice Bunnahabhain sea salt and sweet with the addition of some tarry, smoky peat.
  • I was excited to try the newly-available-in-the-US Johnnie Walker Double Black. I think both JWRed & JWBlack are good value, stalwart blends and was looking forward to the purported smokier and more complex Double Black. Sadly, it didn’t leave much of an impression, and didn’t stand out as markedly different as much as I expected it to. I’ll definitely have to give it another try.
  • On the other hand, I really enjoyed The Black Grouse, which is the smokier version of another blend I like quite a bit, The Famous Grouse.
But on top of all that, the two biggest highlights of the evening for me were:
  • The Hakushu 12yofrom Suntory. Finally, a new Japanese whisky available on American shores! Really excellent stuff, lightly peated, at once familiar and uniquely different.  Sadly though, it’s also fairly limited at the moment, so get it while you can. Hopefully the success of Hakushu will inspire more Japanese
    whiskies to make the trip across the Pacific. 
  • Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #3. Wow. The third in a series of “small batch” exclusive bottlings, Tun 1401 #3 is made up of 10 casks, 3 ex-sherry, 7 ex-bourbon, distilled over the years at the hands of Balvenie’s David Stewart. The youngest whisky here is from a cask filled in 1989, the oldest from 1967. After making the cut, the 10 casks were emptied into Tun 1401, a 2000 litre marrying tun, to get know each other a little better before being bottled in an edition of 1800. Balvenie ambassador Nicholas Pollachi almost levitates with excitement when talking about this whisky, as well he should, he had a hand in making it and it is truly stunning stuff…lush, deeply complex, with a delicious array of wood and spice. Well done, Mr. Pollacchi, we’ll miss you on the West Coast.

If you’re a thirsty Scotch neophyte, the SMWS Extravaganza is a perfect opportunity to sample a number of whiskies and chat with a number of industry folks to get to know the stuff better. Smaller, more laid back, and obviously more focused than the massive free-for-all (in a great way) that is WhiskyFest, it’s easier to spend more time at each booth and really contemplate a whisky without being tempted by the other 300 whiskies in the room. If you’re a diehard Scotch fan, it’s hard to go wrong at the SMWS Extravaganza. Lots of whisky, lots of good conversation about whisky, what’s not to love? While I do enjoy that some big whisky expos have seminars and “master classes” offered along with the main event, I like that the Extravaganza just has the Whisky Panel beforehand and that’s it. That leaves more time to be on the floor, exploring all the whisky at one’s own pace. I would like to see a more varied selection for the serious aficionado, the distilleries featured are  for the most part the expected big ones. The event would benefit from having smaller, less well-known distilleries and more independent bottlers, but at the same time, I realize it’s an expensive proposition for those companies to do traveling shows such as these. I was a little disappointed that several of the whiskies listed in evening’s book were no shows. I was really looking forward to trying the lauded Old Pulteney 21yo, but alas, no Old Pulteney nor An Cnoc neither. Same goes for The Dalmore and Jura as well as the Irish whiskey, Knappogue Castle. All in all, though, the SMWS Extravaganza is a great event and one I always look forward to…definitely a recommended show.

Upcoming (BIG) Bay Area Whisky Events.

In next couple of months, whisky lovers will have two opportunities to completely overdo it. Two chances to go to bed with waaaaaay too much whisky in the belly and to wake up with waaaaaay too much regret in the head. Big whisky expos have a way of making even the most sensible, temperate souls go mad with booze-lust. So many whiskies to try, everyone’s drinking, “excitable” people pushing in to get the next tiny sip…all those tiny sips…they won’t get me drunk, right? Next thing you know, you’re face down in a Venezuelan jail cell, head-shaved, only one sock on, accused of trying to smuggle dozens of those cool Bulleit Bourbon glasses into the country by shoving them into a pair of MC Hammer pants you didn’t even know you owned. At least that’s been my experience.

Coming up on Friday, October 7th is the big one, WhiskyFest, brought to you by Malt Advocate…I mean, the Whisky Advocate Magazine. This show is huge, tons of fun, close to 300 whiskies, spirits and beers from around the world on the pour list, brand ambassadors and master distillers everywhere, lots of great seminars…plenty of opportunities to over-indulge.

A month later (barely enough time to recover, really) on Wednesday, November 9th is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza. As you might guess, this show is a bit more focused and slightly lower key than WhiskyFest, but no less a great opportunity to try some incredible whiskies and meet the great people who make them…or at least the great people who represent the great people who make them.

WhiskyFest San Francisco
“WhiskyFest offers you the opportunity to taste from a selection of more than 250 whiskies from around the world; many of them rare and exclusive. Want to learn more about a whisky? Attend free seminars conducted by distillery managers and master blenders. Take some time to enjoy the never-ending gourmet buffet.”
Ticket price includes access to the grand tasting and all seminars, Glencairn crystal whisky glass, event program, buffet and coffee, tea, water and soda all evening.”
Friday, October 7th, 6:30pm – 9:30pm
San Francisco Marriott Marquis
55 Fourth Street
VIP Tickets are sold out
Regular Admission Tickets, $135/person… Available Here…
Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza (Special Offer Below!)
From the  Scotch Malt Whisky Society:  “Ladies and Gentlemen are cordially invited to enjoy a connoisseur’s evening featuring over 110 rare & exceptional single malt and Scotch whiskies. The evening includes a delicious dinner buffet as well as a selection of premium imported cigars for our guests’ later enjoyment. The Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza brings the discerning enthusiast the opportunity to sample the participating whiskies in a sophisticated and elegant environment with genuine camaraderie and knowledgeable representatives from each participating distillery.”
Wednesday, November 9th, 7:00pm – 9:00pm
The Intercontinental San Francisco
888 Howard Street 
Regular tickets $135/person, SMWS Members $120/person
The SMWS has generously provided The Casks readers with a promotional code to purchase 2 tickets at the Members price. Enter “TC2011” when purchasing.

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

San Francisco Cocktail Week, 9/19/11 – 9/25/11

San Francisco has always had a rich drinking history. Hotaling’s whisky, Bill Boothby, Pisco Punch, Acme Beer, Anchor Brewing & Distilling, all these and many more have contributed to a rich past that has significantly influenced today’s reverential, artisanal cocktail movement. Celebrating this past, present, and bright future, San Francisco Cocktail Week. Presented by the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail (BCCAC), and starting next Monday, September 19th, SF Cocktail Week is jam-packed with big events, intimate seminars, cocktail dinners, bar crawls, and after parties, all guaranteed to expand your appreciation of booze, cocktails, and saloon culture, not to mention take a few years off your liver.

Check their calendar for a complete listing of all the great events. Just whet your appetite, here’s a trio of interesting whisky-related highlights happening this year:

Opening Night Party: Around the World with Anchor
Experience the diverse and artisanal line of spirits and liqueurs brought to you by Anchor Distilling Company, shaken and stirred by San Francisco’s top mixologists.
Monday, September 19, 6pm – 9pm
Anchor Brewing Company
1705 Mariposa St.
San Francisco
Tickets: $45; $55 at the door
How San Francisco Saved The Irish Whiskey Category: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of The World’s First (And Finest!) Whisky
Join globetrotting Dubliner Philip Duff – award-winning presenter, consultant and Irish barman – and Todd Richman, corporate mixologist for the Sidney Frank Importing Company, the owners of Michael Collins Irish Whiskey – for a rollicking 90-minute tour through the forgotten history of Irish whiskey.
Friday, September 23, 12pm – 2pm
The Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts 
1161 Mission St., Suite 120
Tickets: $25 in advance; $35 at the door 
Peat meets Sweet: Nosing and Tasting Single Malt Scotch
with Chocolate
Hosted by Highland Distillers’ Martin Daraz, a native Scotsman,
this seminar will offer a unique and unconventional look at how
chocolate plays a role in the smell and taste of Scotch.
Friday, September 23, 6-8 p.m.
The Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts 
1161 Mission St., Suite 120
Tickets: $25 in advance; $35 at the door 

Upcoming Bay Area Whisky Events, August & September 2011

A couple of upcoming events and some general event info to keep you pleasantly plied with whisky (and other goodies) as a foggy August turns into a hopefully sunny September…

Stag Dining Group’s Rising Sun Dinner

Stag Dining Group hosts private, clandestine dinners that focus on local sustainability creative culinary endeavors, and a unique, intimate experience in unexpected locales. Their upcoming Rising Sun dinner will feature Japanese-influence cuisine from Alembic’s head chefs as well as Japanese-made whisky and whisky cocktails from Yamazaki and the soothing sounds of DJ Exile. The heretofore unrevealed location is somewhere in SOMA…

Sunday, August 28th, 6:00pm
$80 per person
Cocktail reception begins promptly at 6pm.
The dinner will take place in the SOMA neighborhood.
Exact location will be revealed to attendees the morning of the event.
Tickets and more information available here…


“Scotch: the History, the Taste and the Mystique”

Brought to you by Whisky Archive and The Distilled Man, “Scotch: the History, the Taste and the Mystique.” is appropriate for Scotch novices or aficionados. This intensive 2-hour workshop will be led by The Whisky Shop’s Mark Cassidy

The pour list:

Lowland: Auchentoshan 1998
Speyside: Glen Grant 16 yr
Highland: Ben Nevis 15 yr
Campbeltown: Longrow 10 yr
Islay: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Thursday, September 8, 7:00pm-9:00pm
$65 per person
San Francisco, location to be provided upon ticket purchase (come on people, enough with all the secret bullshit…)
Tickets and more information available here…


Legends of Whisk(e)y Dinner in San Jose

Presented by Whiskies of the World Expo. “Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to experience a delectable assortment of food paired with Whiskies of the World from Canada, USA, and Scotland.” Presented by Dan Tullio, Canadian Club Whisky Master Ambassador, Bernie Lubbers, Beam Global’s Small Batch Collection Whiskey Professor, and Simon Brooking, Laphroaig Global Ambassador

The Whiskies:

Reception Whisky Cocktail
Canadian Club 12 Year Old
Knob Creek Single Barrel
Laphroaig 18 Year Old
Surprise Whisky

Monday, Sept 12: 6:30pm – 8:30pm
$65 per person
Los Gatos Brewing Company
163 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose, CA
Tickets and more information available here…


Also of special note, the always inimitable K&L Wines has secured their license to do tastings in their Redwood City and San Francisco locations. They are allowed to pour small tastes of three spirits at each tasting. This past week saw St. George Spirits in RWC and a trio of AD Rattrays in San Francisco. Check in to their Spirits Journal, follow their twitter, and sign up for their email list for more details.


Last but not least, San Francisco Cocktail Week is back, September 19 – 25. Mayhem abounds. More on all that stuff later, in the meantime, check their website for the schedule of events…

White Dog & Un-aged Whiskey at 18 Reasons

Postponed until September 29th. stay tuned for details.

The next tasting I’m hosting at 18 reasons is a raw one. All the other tastings that I hosted there have been filled with whiskies raging from 2 to 18 years old. This time around, we’ll be focusing on the new stuff, none of that sittin’ around in barrels crap, waiting for something to happen. This time it’s white dog, moonshine, white lightning, canned heat, red-eye…whisky that’s seen little to no time in wood and is proud of it. I’ll be pouring Death’s Door White Whisky, High West Silver Oat Whiskey, Wasmund’s Rye Spirit, Buffalo Trace’s White Dog Batch #1 and two surprise tipples from a fantastic local distillery…

Monday, August 15, 7:00pm – 9:00pm
18 Reasons
593 Guerrero Street, San Francisco
$50 for 18 Reasons Members, $60 for the public, tickets available here
Space is limited, there’s only room for 20…