Distillations: Savoring $100 Worth of Pappy Van Winkle at Hard Water

I walked into Hard Water, near the Ferry Building, on a quiet night. It looks like what you'd get if you crossed an old-time distillery with a New Wave seafood restaurant. I sat down at the horseshoe bar with the marble top. A bartender, Neil, handed me three menus.

What kind of bar needs three menus?

One was the dinner menu. One was the cocktail menu. And one was a list of the 250-odd kinds of bourbon it keeps on hand. Should you like that sort of thing.

Hard Water is dominated by five wall-length shelves of bourbon bottles stretching up to the ceiling. Like an antique library, it requires a ladder to reach the items on the top. The last time I was here, a visitor from Chicago who's an amateur bourbon enthusiast took a picture to send to his friends back home, and patted me on the back. "If I lived here," he said, "I would live here."

I understood. I developed my love of whiskey on a trip to Scotland. I walked into an Edinburgh pub and asked for a single-malt scotch.

"Sure," said the barter. "What do you want?"

"What do you recommend?"

He gave me a look. "We have 140 kinds. You have to do better."

Something clicked in my head: 140 kinds meant that I could sit at this bar for two weeks, trying 10 different scotches a day, and leave entirely certain about what my preferences were.

Some people like Disneyland, some of us go ... another direction.

Which is to say that I am a scotch man, not a bourbon man, a distinction so subtle that lawyers in cigar clubs the world over are still arguing about who gets to nod smugly to whom.

But good whiskey is good whiskey, and I didn't need any of Hard Water's three menus. I knew what I'd come for.

"Neil," I said solemnly (I'd never met him before, but men bond quickly in whiskey bars), "is the Van Winkle Flight worth it?"

I know that, as a rule, if you ask a waiter whether or not to order a $100 item, they will say yes. It's in their interest. But goddammit, this was Neil I was talking to: We'd been through so much.

"Yeah," he said. "I think so."

"Then let's do it."

For those not part of the club: To be called "bourbon," a whiskey must be made in Kentucky, meaning there are a large but still limited number of distilleries producing the real thing. Pappy Van Winkle is considered one of the finest bourbons of all ... and it's almost impossible to get. Last year a bottle of the 20-year was sold at auction for $1,190.

Hard Water's Van Winkle flight consists of five 1-ounce pours from five different bottles of Pappy: the 10-year, the 12-year, the 13-year rye, the 15-year, and the 20-year. That's $20 an ounce. When you throw in tax and tip, this was the first time I've lost money reviewing bars for the Weekly.

I sat back, sipped mindfully, took notes, and wondered about Hard Water and its three menus. In addition to haute Southern cuisine, the place has a raw bar, for God's sake, all packaged in a sleek, metallic urban hot spot. Yet somehow it makes it seem natural, like a DJ who mashes songs from incompatible styles together as if they were composed for one another. There should be rough edges at Hard Water, but there are none. The seams don't show.

It took me over an hour to get through 5 ounces of booze. Neil and I compared notes with every bottle. Every time someone orders this flight, Neil insists on knowing which year was the favorite. Our unanimous verdict, reached independently: It's all truly exceptional bourbon, but the 15-year Pappy is the king. Perfect but still dangerous.

Hard Water is a testament to San Francisco's skill at appropriation, to the care with which we mix and match aspects of cultures that have nothing in common except how cool we think they are — how tenderly and carefully we'll insert ourselves into traditional practices that were never for us, developed by people who deeply value the kind of ties we severed to come here and be citizens of a global culture.

Sometimes monoculture means Disneyland — and sometimes it means fine Kentucky bourbon chasing down New Brunswick oysters at a restaurant by the bay. Is it worth what we've lost? I don't know, but we might as well enjoy it while it's here.

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