Bar Review: Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco
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.
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.