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Distillations: The Cure for the Summertime Blues at Elixir 

Wednesday, Jun 25 2014
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There are four TVs at Elixir, one in each corner, and as I looked around from my solitary perch on the bar, trying to take everything in, the bartender asked me if there was a specific game I'm looking for.

"Giants haven't started yet," he advised me, "if that's what you want."

"Nah," I said. In a time when players switch teams the way engineers switch startups, I don't understand why anybody would support this team of millionaire steroid addicts over that one. Come on: It's not really a "home team" if they threaten to leave unless they get a better stadium.

A good bar, on the other hand, will stay with you through thick and thin. Elixir has been in San Francisco, in various forms and incarnations, since at least 1858. To my knowledge they have never threatened to leave the city if we didn't build them an outdoor seating area.

"Just getting my bearings after a hard day at work," I told him. "In what's actually been a really rough week."

The bartender's name was Shay, and he nodded in a way that suggested I had now been diagnosed. "Sure," he said. "I think the first few weeks of summer are hard for people. A lot of adjustment. You see other people going on vacation..."

I banged my fist down on the bar. "Why not me?"

"Exactly!"

I raised my arms to vent, then hesitated. "Wait ... is it summer already?"

Shay gave me a sympathetic look. "If you go by the school year, which is really the only way to measure it ..."

I nodded. "Yeah, absolutely, that's how you do it. And ... my God..."

"Sorry to have to be the one to..."

I sighed. "It's okay. Somebody had to tell me."

I like a bartender who will tell me the truth about what season it is. You don't always know. Especially around here.

I asked him what cocktail he recommended and he offered me something off-menu — delicious, not too sweet, not too bitter, just flavorful.

The drink menu's not shabby, though, containing classics like sazaracs, highballs, and pisco sour. Nor is the beer list. All the alcohol at Elixir — on the menu and behind the bar — showed evidence of a secure curatorial hand more concerned with good quality for a good price than with prestige. They're going to be up-front about what you're drinking.

I noticed, high on the shelf behind him, a 12-year Dalmore scotch. I'd bought a limited edition Dalmore a while back that I'm saving for a special occasion. I put the cocktail menu down. "What do you think about a shot of that?"

Shay nodded. "It'll never steer you wrong." He hesitated. "But ..."

"Yes?"

"Do you like bourbon?"

There was a long pause. "Tell me more."

It turns out that Elixir works directly with several Kentucky distilleries to select the specific barrels they want their bourbon aged in, leading to a customization of taste in the house bourbons (yes, plural) that is extraordinary. The labels on the bottles are the standard brand, but then include the words "private selection" — and Shay and the other bartenders can tell you how each batch specifically turned out.

"We haven't managed it yet with scotches," Shay told me. "We're working on it."

Shay recommended a 12-year Elijah Craig aged in a barrel. "It's almost gone, and once it is, it'll be hard to ever find this flavor again." It was extraordinary, one of the most complex bourbons I've ever had. Almost sour early on the tongue before curving into a taste that's just right.

After that, we did a Blanton's. Not a house bourbon, but also a single-barrel bourbon. This was one of those drinks you tell people you had, years later.

There are more than 300 whiskeys at Elixir, and Shay said they do flights of bourbons here, to demonstrate the differences small changes in composition can make. It sounds amazing.

"We're a bunch of well-read drunks in San Francisco!" a man to the right of me proclaimed to the woman he was with.

"Here here!" I said, turning to him. We toasted to it. I was actually drinking his favorite bourbon.

Ladies and gentlemen: It's summer.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs

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