Review: Bourbon and Branch

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Entering the reservations-only room of Bourbon and Branch is like a scene out of a Prohibition-era movie. You approach the nondescript door with your posse in tow, unsure whether it’s the right entrance. You glance around nervously, checking to see if you’ve been followed by locals trying to surreptitiously join you.

There’s nothing but a doorbell at the entrance, no signage. You buzz, and for a while, nothing happens. Maybe you become a bit anxious, but you manage to keep your cool. Finally, someone opens the door, stares at you for a second, and asks “Password?”

At Bourbon and Branch, there are actually two bars, only one of which requires reservations. A third, called the Wilson Room, is technically operated next door, but you can also make reservations there via the Bourbon and Branch website.

Together, they offer a panoply of thoughtful, original, tasty and powerful mixed drinks with a variety of spirits — though the specialty is arguably whiskey and bourbon.

While B&B is on the pricey side for students on a budget, with drinks in the $10-$12 range, it’s a great place for special occasions.

Bourbon and Branch is styled after Prohibition-era speakeasies: The rooms are dark and tastefully decorated, music is quiet, so you can actually converse, and cellphone use is strongly discouraged. Together, they make for a cozy environment to enjoy a few drinks with company.

The crowds at Bourbon and Branch are also varied. Groups celebrating a special event are mixed in with casually dressed couples and small groups. In the Library, reservations are not required for standing room at the bar, and you get the same ambiance and the drink offerings as in the reservations-only rooms.

While this is certainly a perk of the Library, it can often get crowded. This means the one small bar at the end of the room can get easily overwhelmed making complex beverages for a large crowd. It’s probably best to make a reservation.

This will get you a seat at one of the many tables or a seat at the bar separate from the Library. Waiters will take your order from their drink menu of 20-odd pages, and can help out if you need suggestions.

The bartenders are extremely knowledgeable about their craft and are happy to talk shop with customers sitting at the bar. I’ve gone with reservations three times, including once at the bar, and have enjoyed myself thoroughly each time.

When you make a reservation, you’ll have to decide how long you plan to spend. This is an important decision, because you don’t want to get halfway through a drink and then have to move to the often cacophonous Library to finish up.

In my experience, plan to take 45 minutes to an hour if you want to enjoy each drink properly. Also, keep in mind that Bourbon and Branch doesn’t have any food options.

One drink I’ve enjoyed with friends is the Frank Lloyd Wright, a combination of bourbon, whiskey, pear liqueur, nocino (a walnut liqueur) and bitters — a little sweetness, smokiness and spice all in one. The menu is so expansive that you should have no trouble finding something to your taste.

So if you’re looking for a nice place for a special occasion, make a reservation at Bourbon and Branch through the website, set aside a couple of hours and write down the password somewhere you can easily find it. Nobody wants to be left standing outside the speakeasy door.

To make reservations, go to

Bourbon and Branch

505 Jones St., San Francisco