Monday night I went to our favorite bar for a cocktail class at The Beverage Academy at Bourbon & Branch, on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco.
In case you are wondering, Bourbon & Branch is where I have had the best mixed drinks of my entire life. [So far] Their recipes are well thought out, and often incredibly elegant, and the drinks are well built - hand shaken*, one at a time. While I don't love every drink they make, it is quite common that I'll order their take on a drink that I know well - like the French 75 - and after a sip I'll think "how did they do that!" and "how could theirs be so much better (when mine are excellent)?"
There is no sign for Bourbon & Branch at the corner of Jones & O’Farrell, but you can see the ‘San Francisco Anti-Saloon league’ sign as you walk up O'Farrell.
The bar has no windows and the unmarked heavy oak door has bars over the tiny peephole. You knock, are asked for the password, then you enter into darkness.
Bourbon & Branch is a recreation of a prohibition speak-easy, in the location of an actual San Francisco speak-easy. The beautiful period interior is dimly lit so that you can’t recognize the people at the next table, nor they, you. Those who have been here before will bring tiny flashlights** so that you can read the extensive drink menu.
Arriving early, I was instructed to wait at the bar, when the room was ready the maitre d‘ opened a (no kidding) secret door and led us into the Russell Room. There under a shiny stamped tin ceiling was a long high table set with 16 mixing stations and 16 bar stools, above the bar at the end of the room was a screen, and in the middle of the table on a platform was a projector and laptop. Our teacher was Erick Castro, Erick greeted us warmly, and introduced the class and shepherded us through making our first drink. He assured us that he would be far more entertaining after we’d started drinking***. As we sipped our first creation - 'the Democrat' - he had us introduce ourselves briefly and say why we'd come - there were about a dozen of us - a surprising number of guys were there at the request of their lady to learn to make better cocktails for their parties! An eclectic mix of pleasant music played through the evening – mostly music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, I only recognized Frank Sinatra and Django Reinhardt.
The class, Cocktails 101, is geared towards people who have never handled a cocktail shaker before. Everything was explained clearly: via lecture with PowerPoint, then demonstrated by Erick at the bar, then we did it. As we made the drink Erick and another of the Bourbon & Branch staff were on hand to answer questions, offer advice, etc. We muddled, we stirred, we shook, we strained. We made three kinds of drinks: a swizzle – stirred then packed with crushed ice; a sour – shaken and double strained; and a spirituous cocktail – stirred with large cubes in the shaker and poured through a julep strainer into a chilled cocktail glass.
Down the center of the table in front of us were full bottles of excellent liquor – Martin Miller Gin, Rittenhouse Rye, Bulleit Bourbon, Heering Cherry Liqueur, a bitters bottle full of Lucid Absinthe, a quarter carafe of Carpano Antica formula – and everything else we needed - a plate of halved lemons (to squeeze for juice), a whole lemon to peel for garnishes, bottles of syrups, a bar towel, a bar spoon, a lemon squeezer, etc.
For each drink, in addition to the recipe and brief history, there was some discussion as to why a particular brand or type of spirit was chosen, and there was a quarter teaspoon of drink theory – for example, this spirit is the base, this one is the modifier, this is the accent. There was a lot of discussion of many small points – or perhaps I should say “fine points” of making excellent drinks. Measure each ingredient. Shake hard. Use the correct amount of ice. Use good ice****. Etc. Etc. Etc. None of it rocket science, but taken together one can see why the drinks at Bourbon & Branch are so consistent.
Erick talked about learning to make cocktails starting with some of the great classics – like The Sidecar – and learning some of the major drink families. After mastering these fundamentals, one can easily move on to more advanced topics.
The class was quite easy and very fun. There was lots of laughter among the students, and Erick took good care of both the beginners and more experienced students. It was quite luxurious – the staff cleared our places and washed our glassware, shakers, measures, etc., and re-stocked our setup while we sipped and listened and learned.
I’d say the thing that stood out for me the most was when they passed five different types of sugar syrup around the table for us to taste. The first was commercial bar syrup, and compared to the homemade syrup that followed it, it had almost no taste at all! It made a believer out of me - I don't want to ever use high fructose corn syrup again!
The confirmation email stresses that you should not plan on driving, this is very wise advice. I came via BART - its a easy walk from the Powell Station, after drinking some portion of the three strong, excellent cocktails I was glad my route home involved only "go straight and turn right at Powell."
It was a beginner's class, and because I've had such good teachers a lot of what Erick said was 'preaching to the chorus'. What I did learn was valuable to me, and the class was very fun. Everyone seemed happy when they left.
The last word? I’m enrolled in Cocktails 102 in August.
See you there?
*and they even hand shake the drinks with egg whites! And do it well!
**you will be the envy of every other patron, however please use them discretely in keeping with the atmosphere of privacy.
***Not every teacher hands his students a straight line like that, but when you meet someone who believes in using gomme syrup in a Sazerac, you have to cut them some slack. And, its true.
****I think if Erick was any prouder of their $17,000 (?) Kold Draft ice making system he would have burst.