San Francisco has its fair share of good spirit-centric bars: Smuggler’s Cove for rum; Locanda for amaros; White Chapel for gins. Hard Water is the American Whiskey (that’s with the e!) mecca, featuring a towering wall of over 400 gleaming bottles of different whiskies. There might be other bars laying claim to whiskey-specialization (e.g. Whiskey Thieves – a disappointingly misleading that didn’t even have a single scotch on the night we visited), but this is the genuine article. The only other sanctuary for whiskey-lovers would be the Whisky Shop in Nob Hill, which features (albeit overpriced) a beautiful selection of rare scotches and whiskies, complete with heavily accented Scottish workers in kilts. But I digress.
Hard Water is the lovechild collaboration of chef Charles Phan (of Slanted Door fame) and Olle Lundberg (architect) and it shows. Although it’s located between the two tourist hotspots of the city: the Embarcadero Center and the Fisherman’s Wharf, the bar is surprisingly on the quiet side. This might be due to the less-than-stellar Yelp reviews from foodie cretins and by first-day tourists still virginal to the San Francisco markups on food.
Which means you’ll get full attention from the bartenders, who are passionate about the brown spirit, without being inaccessible. They’ll walk you through flights of pours or recommend a drink and happily chat away about their favorites.
The flights are excellent deals at the bar, with an introductory American Whiskey 101 flight at $25 to a “legends” flight (Hotalings 18yr, Mitcher’s 20yr, AH Hirsch 16yr, Van Winkle 23yr, Rittenhouse 25yr) coming in at the admittedly steep $250. There’s also a Pappy van Winkle flight for $175. According to the bartender, the bar is not extremely profitable – nor does it need to be, as it feeds off its highly lucrative big brother “Slanted Door” down the street (California’s top grossing restaurant).
For the hardcore nerds interested in trying the copious number of Buffalo Trace experiments on wood, barrel placement, age, etc., there are comparative flights for those.
We opted for the $31 single malt and splurged on the $60 Wild Turkey flight. A better option would have been to reverse the order, since the Corsair Triple Smoke required a while (and a lot of ice water) to recover the palate.
The Westward Oregon was one of the more interesting whiskies that we tried – with what my partner-in-crime perceived as a soft undercurrent of the “hogo” (a pungent fruitiness taste aka “Jamaican funk” of some rums). It had a slight burn and a louder voice than the next two: the quieter Cut Spike and Westland.
The Wild Turkey flight… was magical. Until approximately two days ago, our opinion of Wild Turkey was quite low, based off our limited ignorance to the brand besides the 80/81 that sits as a “well whiskey” at the higher end San Francisco bars. The bartender at Hard Water informed us that Wild Turkey tends to be an industry darling, as the price is relatively reasonable and the taste is excellent. Now we see why.