New bar from the Future Bars group intrigues with casking experiments and themed "snugs."
APPETITE Despite its Future Bars group provenance, Tradition is not Bourbon and Branch part two. Although I continue to bring visitors and locals who've never been to the still-magical, speakeasy-like B and B, Tradition is a more relaxed entrant in the Future line-up, which also includes Wilson and Wilson, Rickhouse, Swig, and Local Edition.
I've been to Tradition multiple times since its June opening. Part of me misses the divey fun (and cheesy movie nights — Top Gun! Tony Scott, RIP) of the former Mr. Lew's Win-Win Bar and Grand Sazerac Emporium. The location is unrecognizable from those days. Yet I'm a fan of the dramatically altered, high-ceilinged space with numerous areas to enjoy a drink: small upstairs bar overlooking the action (dedicated to house blends and barrel-aged spirits), giant, rectangular center bar where you can sit or stand, in a cozy back nook reminiscent of an English pub, or in one of eight "snugs," which are essentially booths (reserve ahead). Each booth varies in size, seating two to eight, themed along with a visually striking artistic menu: New Orleans, Prohibition, Tiki, American dive bar, English, Irish, Scottish, and Grand Hotel. Themes are established with vintage ads, signs, and barware in each booth.
Impressively, owner Brian Sheehy and beverage director Ian Scalzo created an extensive house-blended and barrel-aged spirits program. They are storing and experimenting with countless barrels, grouped by spirits from gin to whiskey. Options imaginatively run the gamut, while menu tasting notes appeal to spirits geeks or help narrow down options served neat or on the rocks. One could sip Four Roses bourbon finished in Pinot Noir wine casks or Four Roses Single Barrel in apple brandy casks. Russell's Rye in a Green Chartreuse cask thoroughly intrigued me though I didn't get as much herbal emphasis as I was hoping for from the Chartreuse.
My beloved Redbreast 12-year Irish Whiskey (cask strength) is poured from a barrel washed with Guinness. Flor de Cana rum is finished in a sweet vermouth barrel, an "Autumn Blend" of bourbon and apple brandy in an Arabica coffee cask, Auchentoshan 12-year Scotch in a puer tea cask — combinations are fascinating. I have not seen the likes of this in any city... yet. There are likely to be many imitators forthcoming.
Each themed cocktail menu also includes a couple beers in keeping with categories from English to Irish, all of it generally unfussy. With so many cocktails and barrel-aged spirits, some fare better than others. Pitchers and volcano bowls are ideal for groups, although those craving more intricate sips might steer clear, as these either get watered down quickly or aren't as nuanced as individual drinks.
After sampling more than 30 drinks in my visits, my barrel favorite is Espolon Reposado tequila finished in an arabica coffee cask. Coffee and tequila impart a chocolate-orange spirit with notes of cedar, slate, citrus — a fascinating tipple. On the cocktail side, I'm most smitten with Kona Kope ($9) in the exotic-Tiki category. Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva and barrel-aged spiced rums intermingle with coffee syrup, a touch of coconut cream, and barrel-aged Angostura for a lively bit of elegance, bracing with coffee and whispers of the tropics.
Multiple Sazerac variations on the New Orleans or Speakeasy menus haven't quite gripped me. I prefer the chicory coffee sour from the former (do you see a coffee theme developing?) or a classic Hanky Panky from the latter. On the Scottish menu, Hebrides Flip ($9) is a savory finish for those who like flips (i.e. whole egg): Black Bottle scotch, Dry Sack sherry, gomme syrup, whole egg, and a little Cynar for bitter roundness.
At Bourbon and Branch, patrons of the otherwise enchanting Library Bar in the back are limited to an abbreviated cocktail list (a downside, in my book), compared to a full menu in the front room. Similarly, walk-ins to the left side of the bar at Tradition are also offered a limited list, while those seated at the right or in snugs get the full book of options. It's therefore a good idea to make reservations — although I haven't had trouble securing a seat on weeknights without one.
Tradition adds to the excellent little cocktail district developing near Union Square, which includes Jasper's Corner Tap, Bourbon and Branch, Wilson and Wilson, and Rye), and provides a convenient Tenderloin meet-up spot with a little something for everyone, from cocktail geek to British pub fan. despite many gems, it doesn't serve the most exquisite cocktails in town — but its unique barrel program and relaxed vibe certainly make it a downtown destination.
441 Jones, SF.
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