If you love whiskey, bourbon in particular, then Hard Water is the church where you pray. The teacup-sized space with a grand total of 47 seats is perpetually busy with folks like me who have come to have blessings bestowed on us by what is possibly the most beautifully curated collection of American whiskey in the Bay Area. The back wall is an altar to not only variety, but also vintage -- offering ounce pours and flights of hard to find and out of production bottles.
Geeky, yes, but that doesn't mean you have to have traveled the bourbon trail to have a good time here. Bar manager Erik Adkins and his crew have also put together an impressive list of whiskey-based cocktails that will make everyone happy. The Roffignac Cocktail ($11, rye whiskey, lemon, grapefruit, red hembarig syrup, soda water) is a classic drink made with a house made red hembarig syrup (essentially a raspberry vinegar syrup) that makes a wonderfully fresh and tangy cocktail. Even the most vodka focused with find something to like here.
I'm a big fan of stirred drinks with whiskey, so for me, it was The Old Scout Cocktail ($11, Old Scout 7 year-old Bourbon, Salers Gentiane Aperitif, yellow chartreuse, Angostura, celery bitters, mint) that I enjoyed the most. Playing off the herbal qualities that get extracted from American oak barrels with celery bitters is an inspired twist that makes it almost savory. Barman Neil Roche who developed the cocktail says that "the mint really brings the drink together" by adding another layer of herbaceousness.
It's appropriate that Roche would find himself behind the bar at Charles Phan's Southern-inspired restaurant. Having made a name for himself at one of New Orleans's best-known cocktail bars, Cure, the barman made the move to the bay. He has been hard at work developing new drinks, many of which will make their way into the menu soon.
Also don't miss out on the two house selection bourbons that they offer. Both sourced from Willet and only a year apart, it is a fascinating lesson on how aging in barrels is far from exacting. Charles Phan, architect Olle Lundberg, and Erik Adkins spent three days in Kentucky in February tasting whiskey from 60 different barrels sourced from four different distilleries. At the end, they came back with five barrels, two of them from Willet, a nine-year ($9 for a one ounce pour) and a ten-year ($10 for a one ounce pour).
"We are really proud of our Willet barrels," says Adkins. "The nine year is really complex and shows a lot of red fruit. I get cherry and cola nut. The 10 year is a big cinnamon bomb. It smells like the candy 'red hots.' Both whiskeys come in close to 128 proof so it's a good idea to add some water... and because we are in the business of pouring whiskey, someday they will be gone. Of course that means that we will have to go back to Kentucky again ... and again."
With all that whiskey, don't forget to get something to eat. The boiled peanuts ($4) require getting a little messy to eat, but offer something nice without killing the flavor of a great whiskey. My favorite of the bar snacks are the pork belly cracklins ($8, with spicy sea salt) that are some of the best around town. Crispy and with enough fat on them to help keep the effects of the alcohol at bay, I'd come back just for that.
Well, those and the whiskey.
The Old Scout
1 ½ oz. Smooth Ambler 7 Year Old Bourbon
½ oz. Yellow chartreuse
½ oz. Salers Gentian Aperitif
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 dash Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until cold and strain into a rocks or old fashioned glass with fresh ice. Garnish with mint tips, lightly slapped on your palm to make fragrant.
Hard Water, The Embarcadero, Pier 3, 392-3021