Speak easy of the theme bar

Pub date April 19, 2011
SectionFood & Drink


THE DRINKING LIFE Born as it was into a speakeasy family, Bourbon & Branch’s newest younger sibling is characteristically confusing to locate. Trek to the same scruffy block of Jones Street that B&B calls home, find the barred window labeled “Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency.” (Hint: it’s next to a wooden door sporting a peep hole.) Do not enter here. Potential tipplers must detour through Bourbon & Branch be granted audience to The Wilson.

From here, any avid libation fan will know the drill. Yes, this bar is reservation-only. Yes, the host will whisk you through a secret back door after you reveal the password gleaned from your reservation. What’s different about The Wilson compared with its speakeasy kinfolk, you ask?

Compared with B&B, the new bar is even quieter, more mellow — despite being consistently busy — and not as dim due to that large, covered window you see from the sidewalk. And even as The Wilson’s black and white Prohibition-era decor are in keeping with its neighbor’s design scheme, its logo and retro office conceit give it a decidedly noir bent. The spirit of local legend Sam Spade resides here.

Early buzz was all about the $30, three-course cocktail menu, which includes an aperitif, main, and digestif of choice. That’s a lot of cocktail drinking. Ordering the three-course menu would make for a unique date night, particularly if the liquor isn’t enough to severely handicap your conversational abilities. Of course, you can always order à la carte from the inventive, well-crafted menu for $12 a drink.

In the month that the bar has been open, I have yet to be disappointed by a drink, although one stood out above the rest. I shock even myself by saying this winner was the sole vodka cocktail I ventured to order: the Charlie Chan, made from black tea-infused Karlsson’s (as good as vodka can get), heightened by ginger syrup, lemon juice, black pepper and clove tinctures, and coconut marmalade. Yes, coconut marmalade. The last three ingredients are made in-house, making this an atypical cocktail. What delights me about Charlie, besides his peppery-sweet layers, is that I’ve never had a drink like him — which believe me, doesn’t happen very often.

The Wilson’s Phantom is subtle compared to the bold punch of Charlie, but its layers reveal themselves as you sip: clove-infused cognac melding with Glenrothes Alba Reserve, the gentle bitter of Cocchi, plus lemon, cacao, and vanilla syrups, and orange bitters.

A tall, crushed iced Black Mask aperitif is deceptively light, made with Lillet Blanc, grapefruit juice, lime, ginger beer, vanilla angostura bitters, and a Ron Zacapa rum float. Watch out: this generously-portioned drink sneaks up on you. The Pinkerton is a digestif with a smoky bang, but not from scotch (the base spirit is Knob Creek), but from a house tobacco-bourbon tincture. Coffee syrup enriches the drink, and cranberry-infused Angostura orange bitters round it out.

Unlike at Bourbon & Branch, where bartenders are constantly slammed concocting labor-intensive cocktails for double rooms of guests, at The Wilson you get face time with the person making your drinks. Ask questions. The staff sincerely wants to tell you about housemade ingredients and to explain the menu, sharing recipe details as they make your drink. Each time I visited, my bartender was attitude-free, friendly, and eager to talk drink.

Though many claim to be weary of themed speakeasies, I can’t help but fall in love with a place this relaxed and transporting — and one that serves impeccable cocktails from friendly bartenders at that. I’ve found The Wilson to be all of the above, and I won’t be losing directions to its whereabouts anytime soon.

505 Jones, SF. www.thewilsonbar.com