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Distillations: Getting It Right at the Alembic 


The first time I took Miriam out drinking, we went to my very favorite bar and I introduced her to my favorite bartender. Then she accidentally insulted me — badly — while trying to express what a good time she was having. It happens.

When she asked to go drinking again last week I took her to Alembic. Not my "favorite" bar, but a great bar — a bar all of San Francisco can be proud of. This time she showed up half an hour late, sat down on the stool I'd heroically preserved for her, and said, "I'm sorry, but I burnt my tongue really badly today, so I don't actually want anything to eat or drink. Is that okay?"

I gave her a stunned look. "Well ... it sort of defeats the point, doesn't it?"

"Oh my God," she said, "you're never taking me out again, are you?"

I thought about it. "Oh, I will," I said. "It'll just be to a crappier place every time."

She laughed. "That ... that is the most honest pickup line ever. Because isn't that what a relationship is? You gradually go out to crappier and crappier places over time?"

"Did it work?" I asked.

"Oh yeah."

"Then I guess that's my line. Makes a hell of a first impression."

Alembic also makes a great first impression. A large series of blackboards over the bar, the first thing you see when you come in, announce a small set of rare whiskeys, barrel-aged gins, snacks, and cocktail specials designed to impress. The walls are an ugly yellow, but you never notice because the lighting is perfectly low, and the double-sided cocktail menu has just the right combination of classics and new drinks, described with verve.

This is a bar that tells you, right off the bat: "I'm a gem. This is why I'm special." And it's not kidding around.

I ordered a Coffin Nail from the specials (mezcal, puntemes, coffee liqueur, benedictine, Aztec chocolate bitters). The place was packed and it took ages to reach me — my food order arrived first — but was worth it. The mezcal is smooth with just a hint of smoke while the chocolate really rounds it out.

Alembic isn't a "friendly banter with the bartender" kind of place. Bartenders want to know your drink order, not your name. That seems harsh, but it cuts down on the wait times and they redeem themselves through a code so strict it belongs in a monastic order: While I was nursing my drink, a guy from a nearby pizza shop came in holding a large box.

"Hey," he told the bartenders. "Got free pizza for you guys!"

"Well thanks!" they swooned.

"So," he said, "can I just grab a Jack Daniels and Coke?"

The bartender almost snapped to attention. "Don't have Jack, don't have Coke," he replied.

"Oh," said the pizza guy. "Well, anything."

The bartender hesitated, then shook his head. "I've got a lot of people in line before you."

A bar where you can't bribe the staff with free food is a bar dedicated to taking care of you the right way.

I made another pick, but took it back when I saw the expression on the bartender's face. "You don't seem ... enthusiastic about what I just ordered."

"Well," he said, "I think I could transition you better."

"Do it," I said. He started to ask what I liked, but I interrupted. "However you think it should be done. Do it right."

He nodded, and made me a superb follow-up drink. "What is it?" I asked.

"I have no idea," he grinned. Everything he made from then on was off-menu and spectacularly good. I'd made an impression.

Whether I made a good first impression on Miriam depends on what you count. The first time she lived in San Francisco she told a friend about a writer she really wanted to meet.

"But ... you've met him," the friend said. "It's Benjamin. That guy. From the warehouse. You've met like three times." He paused and shook his head. "Benjamin? Really? Nothing?"

So she tried again, and tried harder. A year later, she tells me I'm her mentor, an irreplaceable fixture in her life.

Yet when I take her to Alembic she cannot eat or drink. Which if you ask me is to miss what makes life worth living.

So it seems likely that in a few months I'll be taking Miriam to a crappy dive bar, as we try and fail once more to get this right.

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