For a self-proclaimed speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch isn't difficult to find. Arriving on the corner of Jones and O'Farrell with a password committed to memory, I could locate the door by the line of people pointing toward it. Every now and again, a woman with a slicked-down bob and carmine lipstick opened the door, asked a group of supplicants for the password, and ushered them through the doors.
But I had made a reservation for another bar, a speakeasy within a speakeasy called the Wilson. The woman led us through the 1920s-era Bourbon & Branch, lit like an opium den, and we groped our way up the stairs until we came to another door. She pressed a doorbell and whispered another password. By this time, the potential for douchitude was so great I could feel my eyebrows knitting together in preparation for one giant, nerve-jarring eye-roll.
But the door opened into something else.
The summer evening light, as it filtered through a frosted glass window marked with the words "Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency," cast a hazy, melancholic glow over the tiny room. Velvet-flocked wallpaper alternated with worn, bare brick. An L-shaped bar bracketed high shelves stocked with glassware and hundreds of bottles with antique-looking labels. Bartenders, in their blacks and whites, were measuring out concoctions in one-ounce pours and precise squirts of eyedroppers, dipping into what looked like a medieval apothecary's worth of small stoppered bottles. The drinks list was hidden deep inside a case file.
The Wilson isn't just a bar-within-a-bar with a 1930s gumshoe theme. Bourbon & Branch's new side project takes San Francisco's bar scene one step further down the path it has been traveling for the past few years. Bartenders have become cooks in their own right, brewing and infusing and stewing and concocting, taking ownership of the drink in ways we never imagined in the vodka-cran age. While the Wilson's cocktails can be ordered à la carte for $12, the preferred mode is to consume them as a $30 tasting menu — aperitif, "main," digestif — or a $40 punch for four, served in a silver teapot. You don't go to the Wilson for a drink. You go for a liquid dinner.
Thanks to the elaborate online reservation system that limits the number of patrons to 28 (with just one four-person table), the mood is restaurantlike, too, subdued and romantic. Quiet conversations burble along the length of the room. The bartender makes her rounds, laying out cotton napkins or quietly chatting — ask about a liqueur on the shelf, and she'll give you a sip — but there's no high theater here. It's a fantastic place for a date, provided you have afterbar plans for when your reservation expires and you're kicked out of the place.
Passing through the three courses on Ian Scalzo and Jayson Wilde's short menu, you notice the drinks segueing from light-bodied to rich and dark, always pushing the limits of their own complexity. At the start, there is an exquisite Red Scarab, for instance, sparkling wine and apple brandy tinged with brown sugar syrup and the tart flash of hibiscus, and the Pulp Fiction, whose bitter, dour greeting (cacao-infused Campari) quickly gives way to lemon and herbaceous vermouth, a wry smile.
And the "meal" ends with digestifs, potent and dark — the too-muchness of a Truth Serum (Highland Park 12-year-old scotch, several Italian-style bitters, sarsaparilla tincture, cinnamon), whose blasts of smoky and sweet overwhelm after a few sips, and the more balanced Hard Boiled, which layers Hayman's Old Tom gin on top of Laird's Apple Brandy, with cardamom and rhubarb amari over orange bitters. The effect is to prickle the tongue in five different places.
The strength of the bar menu is in the full-bodied "mains," which shift and evolve with every sip. The Charlie Chan, as sharply aromatic and savory as a Thai curry, led with the bite of black-tea-infused vodka and black pepper tincture, soon mellowed by coconut jam and ginger syrup. The burnt-caramel notes of Venezuelan rum and butterscotch tincture in the Skull Island Sour hinted at après-ski fireplaces and polar bear rugs before the lemon and sarsaparilla bitters turned down the Tom Jones and opened the drapes. And the Fu Manchu was deliriously strange from start to finish, blending the bracing aromatics of gin and grapefruit juice with five-spice syrup, vanilla-infused bitters, and the grassy, tannic burr of pu-erh tea.
A few conceptual problems mar the experience. Namely, who drinks three full-sized cocktails in an hour and a half, with no food to muffle their effects? Had aperitifs and amari been sized for a few sips, I would have enjoyed them more — both that night and the next bleary morning. And on a second trip, I made the mistake of ignoring the simplest punch, containing fruit-infused liquor and sparkling wine, in favor of the higher-risk Heart of the Jungle with coffee syrup, cachaça, lemon, falernum, and cinnamon-infused orange bitters. While drinkable — hello, booze! — the coffee syrup came on strong and so did the lemon juice; the other ingredients couldn't mediate between the two. My palate was soon exhausted.
If The Wilson isn't yet a wholly successful bar, it has the possibility to be a great one. So it's a speakeasy within a speakeasy — it's also one of the most adult bars in San Francisco right now. And isn't that worth making a reservation for?