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Distillations: Setting a High Bar at Blackbird 

Wednesday, May 14 2014

I don't know why I feel an ominous shiver as I walk into Blackbird, on Market. I quite like the giant list of all the drinks they serve printed on canvas and hanging from a wall by the bar.

The menu is also unusual for having cocktails on draft, which makes my heart beat in a way that's usually reserved for extraordinary women with low standards. Even better, the draught cocktails include a Pimm's Cup; I've often said every bar in the world should serve that, and it's best made in big batches.

Forget ominous feelings: I grab a stool near the taps. The bartender is quick to make eye contact and slow to take my money. She's knowledgeable about the drinks, trying to match the cocktail I'd want to start with the kind of day I've had. We agree to kick me off with the One More Thyme (vodka, contratto bianco, cucumber, thyme), and it's as refreshing as advertised.

The row of single malt scotches against the back wall stuns me, containing not just the usual suspects but a number of my favorite obscure drams. I can't remember the last time I saw any place but a whiskey bar have Cragganmore, Talisker, Bunnahabhain, and Ardbeg all on the menu — plus the Glenmorangie Nectar D'orr? And a few scotches I've been wanting to try? It's like they set that shelf just for me.

I think I want to get married in this bar.

Then I see it, the way you think you see the face of Jesus in a pancake. I snag the bartender. "Am I just fooling myself, or are the scotch bottles up there organized by region?"

She smiles. They are. I swoon.

I crane my neck to check out the other spirits behind the bar. I think they have almost all my favorites. Of everything.

"It wasn't like that when we started," the bartender says. "But over the years we just started collecting, and then in the last year we expanded the shelves and really decided to go for it."

Seeing my interest, she gives me a copy of the full menu — the one with all the spirits listed. On the very first page is a defense of fortified wine as "a misunderstood category."

I've felt that way for years. The ominous chill runs up my spine again. Has Blackbird been tapping my phone?

Time for another drink. The Fortunato is a fascinating cocktail (aged rum, coconut marmalade, lime, lemongrass, Thai bitters) that could have been designed ... just ... for ... me.

This is no coincidence. Is it a trap?

I'm getting paranoid. It's just a bar made by someone with my sensibilities. Deep breaths.

It's still early in the evening, but I'm struck by the number of people reading quietly in Blackbird. For all the clearly social elements (pool table in the back, lots of communal seating) it's a great bar just to sit and read in, which I love to do.

It's a trap. It has to be.

I check out the beer list. Beer lists almost always disappoint me. And sure enough, they ... oh wait, there's several Dogfish Head. And a number of Belgians, and ... oh God, Grimbergen Dubbel ... the first beer I really fell in love with all those years ago.

Why would the NSA set up a bar just to trap me? Or is it the Russians? Has Dennis from Club XIII tracked me down at last?

The cocktail list includes Genever, just like I used to warm myself in the cold Amsterdam nights.

It must be Doug Steele. Only the genius behind Moscow's Hungry Duck could set such a trap. But I thought we'd ended on good terms! He comped all my drinks! Plus a sandwich! Is he mad because I never followed through on my pledge to write his life story?

I only have one chance — I have to bolt for the door. I have to ...

... I notice a stack of literary magazines is for sale at the end of the bar.

"Oh they're free," says the bartender. "The owner knows the magazine's founder. You can keep that."

I don't think I'm getting out of here alive.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


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