Food & Drink

The Best Whiskey Bars in San Francisco

Published On 02/11/2014 Published On 02/11/2014
Mike Norquist
Elixir (address and info)

The Mission
It would be easy to look at Elixir, a bare-bones saloon opened in 1858, and write it off as yet another Mission dive bar (albeit a dive bar with 160 years of history). But despite its laid-back vibe, this space boasts one of the best collections of both American and Scotch whiskeys in the city, with over 450 bottles to choose from. They source their own barrels (like "Elixir Private Selection of Kentucky Spirit Bourbon") and then send the empty barrels to brewers to create bourbon barrel aged beer... it almost brings a tear to your eye, like a boozy circle of life.

Pabu (address and info)

Financial District
Sure, when you think of Japanese whisky bars, you think of Nihon Whisky Lounge. But Pabu is a solid surprise contender: they have a secret Japanese cocktail menu, plus traditional Japanese whisky service -- which means that each of the 14 Japanese whiskies offered are served with a piece of complimentary food that is blowtorched in front of you (which is cool because, you know, fire is cool). For instance, your sip of whisky may be served with a charred strawberry, bringing out the complex flavors, or whatever. Also, they serve an Old "Foie"shioned. Yup. We’re just gonna leave that there.

Wingtip (address and info)

Financial District
OK, hear us out... yes, this "gentleman’s club" (ladies welcome) has a bit of a pretentious thing going on, but it also has one of the best whiskey collections in the world, with over 300 whiskies collected from around the globe. If you spring for the membership fee, you’ll gain access to the delightful "whisky corner," where you can spend hours sipping from rare bottles... while enjoying plush leather couches, golf simulator, game room, and a machismo vibe.

ABV (address and info)

The Mission
ABV is so much more than a whiskey bar. They pour inventive cocktails made with agave, rum, brandy, gin, and vodka, and serve up bar food that’s far more inventive than nachos and chicken wings. But if you do flip to the "whiskey" section of their menu, you’ll find a surprising and thorough list of rare Scotches, Japanese whiskies, bourbons, ryes, and cask-strength bottles. Plus, we hear whiskey pairs well with that infamous (and cheap) pimento cheese burger (although to be fair, it’s good with anything).

Dirty Habit
Dirty Habit (address and info)

When Fifth Floor shuttered, whiskey enthusiasts let out a collective groan -- what would become of their substantial bottle collection? Fortunately, Bar Manager Brian Means remains at Dirty Habit... along with his extensive selection of rare whiskeys, so you can still get your whiskey fix on the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar. You’ll find a vintage from 1977, 21-year Scotches, and 25-year Islays… you know, the stuff your gramps drinks (if he’s the William Faulkner-type).

Southside Spirit House
Southside Spirit House (address and info)

Yes, Southside may be an oversaturated happy hour spot right in the heart of the tech scene, but they also have an impressive array of whiskeys, and they encourage you to pair cheesy truffle tots with impressively aged bourbons. It’s the kind of atypical combination that just... works. You may not want to make friends there, but it’s a great spot to bring someone you already enjoy -- just ignore everyone else in the room and focus on the glasses in front of you (and each other). Worth it.

Broken Record (address and info)

Don’t let the schlep out to the Excelsior deter you -- this down-home dive serves some truly rare pours at prices you won’t find at many other San Francisco bars. It also has the added kitsch factor of having Four Roses and Jameson on tap, so you can drink that stuff with ease all night long. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to the back, where you’ll get some really quality bar food (yum, tater tot poutine) to pair with that 42-year single-grain Scotch whisky.

Bourbon and Branch
Bourbon and Branch (address and info)

The Tenderloin
Two reasons you kinda have to include SF's password-iest bar on a Best Whiskey Bars list: 1) actual hand-numbered bottles of Noah's Mill, Buffalo Trace, and Rittenhouse 21 Year, and 2) uh, the name has the word "bourbon" in it?

Rye (address and info)

The Tenderloin
Hello, other bar with a type of whiskey in the name! This Tendernob spot happens to have a pretty great selection for lovers of both brown spirits and craft cocktails (involving said brown spirits). Get anything with Leopold Brothers' Georgia Peach Whiskey in it -- L-Bros only makes 20 cases of it a year (because apparently blending whiskey with Georgia peaches is a pain in the ass) and Rye's one of the few places that regularly has bottles of it.

Nihon Whiskey Lounge
Nihon Whisky Lounge (address and info)

The Mission
Obviously, arguably the best whiskey bar in the city is also... a tiny Izakaya? Yup: buried next to all the freeway overpasses that separate SOMA from the Mission, Nihon boasts the largest single malt whiskey selection on the West Coast -- over 500 selections, all available for bottle purchase. Plus, with over 50 selections, they have the largest selection of Japanese blended and single malt in the entire US.

Rickhouse (address and info)

Considerably less password-y than its big brother Bourbon and Branch, Rickhouse (also another name for a whiskey barrel warehouse) is one of the best places for an after-work 'iskey drink in the entire city, ESPECIALLY if you can get a seat at the bar (Editor's note: you won't be able to get a seat at the bar). GQ had it on their Best Whiskey Bars in the Country list in 2013 and for good reason: this place is teeming with whiskey, from the ceiling made of staves from 300 barrels imported from Kentucky, to the walls of the bar back, which were sourced from a Prohibition-era nunnery in the Ozarks that distilled for "medicinal purposes".

The Alembic (address and info)

Upper Haight
Alembic's whiskey list reads like a written history of brown spirits with everything from American whiskey and Scotch (divided by section of Scotland, naturally), to limited selections and vatted whiskeys. If you've never had Auchentoshan 21 Year, go here and get that.

Tradition (address and info)

The Tenderloin
Yes, it's the third of the B&B Empire's bars on here, and yes, it deserves to be here because they age their own in barrels on the second floor. Their in-house agers make their way into shot glasses and more than 80 cocktails. Also the sign of a great whiskey bar: they've got an industry special $9 beer and a shot where the beer is something like a can of Schlitz and the shot is something like Russell's Reserve (!).

Southpaw BBQ
Southpaw BBQ (address and info)

The Mission
Proving whiskey goes perfectly with BBQ, they've got an ever-growing list of more than 80 whiskeys like craft small-batch bourbons and peated American single malts. Joining the whiskey club is a must, especially if you like free whiskey [Editor's Note: You like free whiskey] -- try 40 of their whiskey offerings and they'll buy you a bottle of your choice. Yes, really.

83 Proof (address and info)

Go for the framed New England Patriots Wes Welker jersey above the old-timer piano, stay for the chance to run into Tom Bulleit (!!), who drinks here when he's in town. Why? 83 Proof has a whiskey selection that belies its size and it's not as crowded as some of these other guys because it's signless and kinda hard to find if you don't know where to look.

Courtesy of Hard Water
Hard Water (address and info)

This place is tiiiiiiny. But also woooooorth it. A NOLA-themed bourbon bar, Charles Phan's Hard Water has maybe the most impressive wall of impossible-to-find bourbons in the city, and you can get them by the flight, ranging from a $22 Craft Distillers Flight to a $125 Van Winkle Flight.

American Oak (address and info)

Way out in Alameda, this wildcard actually has a secret whiskey club called the Personal Liberty League -- join it and they'll hook you up with discount nights, distiller seminars, and your own engraved flask for completing the challenge of trying 100 of the over 300 brown spirits they have on their list (plus the title of AO Master of Whiskey).

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Eloise Porter is a Thrillist contributor who loves her bourbon... and Scotch... and Irish whiskey... and, you get it. Follow her on Twitter @eloisepporter.

Joe Starkey is Thrillist's San Francisco Editor and totally drinks Scotch next to his fireplace every night. Follow him on Twitter.