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
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)

SoMa
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)

SoMa
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)

Crocker-Amazon
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)

FiDi
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".

Alembic
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)

SOMA
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)

Embarcadero
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)

Alameda
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.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Elixir 3200 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

Home to 350+ whiskies, Elixir, which opened in 1858, is the second oldest saloon in the city. The space feels like a combination of a pub, sports bar, and cocktail lounge, which accounts for their amazing diverse drink menu. Come for happy hour and stay until it transforms into a velvety candle-lit party, because why not?

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2. PABU 101 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Financial District)

When you think of Japanese whisky bars, you think of Nihon Whisky Lounge. But Pabu is a solid surprising contender: they have a secret Japanese cocktail menu, plus traditional Japanese whisky service. Each of the 14 Japanese whiskies offered are served with a complimentary food item that's blowtorched in front of you, meant to bring out the complex flavors of the drink.

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3. Wingtip 550 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94111 (Financial District)

With over 300 whiskies collected from around the globe, Wingtip has one of the best whiskey collections in the world. While it comes across as an old fashioned gentleman’s club, it's not, and we quote, "a bunch of guys in a steam room talking about what a raw deal Prohibition was." If you treat yourself to a membership, the perks are seemingly endless: access to the delightful "whisky corner," where you can spend hours sipping from rare bottles, golf simulator, game room, wine cave, parlor rooms, and a machismo vibe.

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4. ABV 3174 16th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

Though ABV is more than just a great whiskey bar, its whiskey menu isn't to be forgotten. You’ll find a surprising and thorough list of rare Scotches, Japanese whiskies, bourbons, ryes, and cask-strength bottles. Its bar snacks are definitely worth writing home about too, and -- it should be mentioned -- it serves an impressive brunch on the weekends. Win!

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5. Dirty Habit 12 4th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (Union Square)

Dirty Habit is intimately hidden away on the fifth floor of Union Square's Hotel Palomar. The sultry bar and restaurant features seasonal cocktails (plus all of the classics) and an extensive selection of spirits, especially whiskey. Standout bar bites include house-made bar nuts and finger-licking good chicken wings doused in sweet soy and chili vinaigrette. The back patio has tons of seating, a fountain, and a fire pit. Take our word: this place is cool.

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6. Southside Spirit House 575 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Soma)

Two words: truffle tots. Ther are not just any tots, but rather tots tossed in truffle oil, garlic, and Parmesan, served with a homemade blue cheese dipping sauce. The Financial District’s Southside Spirit House serves up these pillowy potatoes alongside a bevy of other tasty sharable items and craft cocktails in a stylish, unpretentious 2,000sqft space. A handcrafted wooden bar anchors the establishment, while a rotating selection of local artists showcase their work on the spacious walls.

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7. Broken Record 1166 Geneva Ave, San Francisco, CA 94112

Broken Record is a super-casual Excelsior dive bar where you can kick back with friends on the spacious outdoor patio, but it means business with its drink menu. On it, you’ll find an extensive list of liquors, particularly whiskey and bourbon, and dozens of rotating local craft brews. Once you've worked up an appetite, head to the kitchen in the back (it’s called “Hood Grub”) for innovative bar food: tater tots with curry ketchup, spicy wings made with Mary’s organic air-chilled drumettes, and a meatloaf sandwich on a Dutch crunch roll all await you.

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8. Bourbon and Branch 501 Jones St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (The Tenderloin)

The goal of Bourbon and Branch is to take drinkers back to the speakeasy days of the Prohibition. To get in, you have to say a password into an intercom on one of the seedier stretches of the Tenderloin. Once the door opens (don't worry, it always does), you'll be ushered into a dark and cozy bar with hidden rooms, secret exit tunnels, candle-lit bookcases, and a fine collection of rare whiskey. The fact that there was an actual speakeasy at the location in the twenties helps make Bourbon and Branch one of the best secret bars in the city.

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9. Rye 688 Geary St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (The Tenderloin)

This Tendernob spot is easy to pass, but once you’re inside you’ll be greeted by a thorough selection of whiskeys and a delicious array of cocktails. The bartenders here know a thing or two about their craft, and they’ll point you in the direction of some really unique pours. This is a bartender’s bar, where you’ll be sipping cocktails beside other off-duty professional boozehounds. Adorned with exposed brick and lots of sexy wood, this dark and mysterious spot is date-approved.

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10. Nihon Whisky Lounge 1779 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (The Mission)

You’ve died and gone to whisky heaven. With over 500 whisky selections -- both single malt and blended from Japan and Scotland alike -- Nihon is a whisky emporium-meets-Japanese izakaya in the Mission. The tapas-style menu includes classic sushi and sashimi plates plus snacks like grilled pork belly skewers and fried octopus balls.

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11. Rickhouse 246 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108 (Financial District)

While you won’t need a password to access the little brother of Bourbon and Branch, Rickhouse (also another name for a whiskey barrel warehouse) is one of the best places in the city for an after-work whiskey drink, especially if you can get a seat at the bar. This place is teeming with the brown stuff, 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", and, of course, the great rare whiskey finds, which you should ask a bartender to walk you through.

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12. The Alembic 1725 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117 (Upper Haight)

The Alembic is known for its encyclopedic menu of spirits and handcrafted cocktails. The whiskey selection in particular reads like a written history of brown spirits, featuring American bourbon, whiskey, and rye alongside single-malt and vatted Scotch whiskey. The draft beer list is a nod to those with an appreciation for local craft brews and the food menu is filled with atypical bar snacks like pickled quail eggs and jerk-spiced duck hearts. As for the space, it's a trendy, rustic, dimly lit affair.

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13. Tradition 441 Jones St, San Francisco, CA 94102 (The Tenderloin)

If you're looking for speakeasy vibes, make a reservation at Tradition. This laid-back spot has nine "snugs," or high-walled booths with stained-glass windows, each of which is dedicated to a certain cocktail era. Each is charming in its own way, with vintage art and a unique style. The in-house agers make their way into shot glasses and more than 80 cocktails, served by friendly bartenders decked out in suspenders.

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14. Southpaw BBQ 2170 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110 (The Mission)

Southpaw BBQ is where dreams come true. Their Southern vibe, exposed brick walls, live-edge 20-seat Claro walnut bar, is exactly where you want to be eating brisket & ribs paired with American whiskeys and house-brewed beer. Their 80+ whiskey list is constantly growing, and if you join their whiskey club and try 40 of their offerings, any bottle of your choice is on the house.

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15. 83 Proof 83 1st St, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Financial District)

This relatively hidden bar is conveniently located near the 1st & Battery stop on the F-Market streetcar line. Whiskey's the main event, but the bartenders will make anything that you, or they, can dream up. 83 Proof doesn't serve food and doesn't play music -- it's just a great place to hit up after work with your cronies to take the day off.

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16. American Oak 2319 Santa Clara Ave, Alameda, CA 94501 (East Bay)

With more than 100 varieties on the menu, Whiskey is most definitely king at American Oak. You can become a member of the "Personal Liberty League" once you've tried at least 100 of the whiskeys on offer, at which point you'll receive a custom-etched glass with your name on it. If you're thinking that whiskey is all this place has to offer, however, you've clearly never looked at the food menu full of American fare such as burgers and pizza.

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17. Hard Water Pier 3, San Francisco, CA 94109 (Embarcadero)

When you step into this gorgeous Embarcadero bar, you’ll be greeted by a massive wall of every kind of whiskey imaginable. The space may be small, but you’ll be blown away by the selection of hard-to-find bourbons. Sip flights of the rare stuff (ranging from $22 to $125) as you chow down on New Orleans-inspired cuisine, like plates of crispy fried chicken, oysters, pimento cheese dip, and hush puppies.

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