Distilled Focus: The Bay Area's Bucket-List Bars for Spirit Connoisseurs

Find extensive bottle collections and focused cocktail menus at these top San Francisco's destinations for spirits.

San Francisco has been a pioneering bar city since the days of legendary bartenders like Jerry Thomas, who tended bar here back in the 1800s and has been hailed the father of American mixology. In every direction, you’ll find bars serving impeccable drinks and fine spirits. A few select watering holes are destinations for a single spirit or category, housing impressively large collections with focused cocktail menus. If you’re experiencing a precise hankering or have a predilection for a particular liquor, here are seven places specializing in specific spirits. 


The bar at Aaxte in the Castro District
The bar at Aaxte in the Castro District (©Charlie Villyard)

The spirit: Gin

The drink to order: Lady of the Mountain—made with Anchor Distilling Junipero Gin, Alvear Fino en Rama sherry, housemade preserved lemon cordial

Our take: Aatxe (pronounced aah-CHAY) is a new Basque restaurant excelling in Spanish wines, ciders, beers and tapas from talented chef Ryan Pollnow. But anyone who has traveled to Spain knows the Spaniards’ drink of choice is gin and tonic served in goblets, with an array of fruits and garnishes. The Bon Vivants (of the acclaimed bar Trick Dog) created the restaurant’s cocktail menu and a detailed flavor graph of gins that they’ve grouped under the following categories: floral, herbal, soft and fruity, classic and big guys. Aatxe’s extensive gin collection, manned by bar manager Tommy Quimby, is paired with a range of tonics, resulting in drinks that will have you dreaming of Spain.


Princesa de la Maracuya cocktails at Calavera in Oakland
Princesa de la Maracuya cocktails at Calavera in Oakland (©Calavera)

The spirit: Agave

The drink to order: Princesa de la Maracuya—made with Mezcal, orange, habanero, bay laurel, passion fruit ginger espuma

Our take: Opened in downtown Oakland since August 2015, Calavera is a destination for executive chef Christian Irabien’s modern Mexican cuisine (think veal sweetbreads and dragon fruit tacos). But its lofty dining room and open air porch is also an agave spirits destination, with a collection of more than 400, from Tequila to mezcal, including rare, limited-edition bottles that the team brought back from Mexico. Bar manager Michael Iglesias has created a playful yet refined cocktail menu with offerings like Salt Air, a take on a margarita with salt that’s turned into a light foam.

Hard Water

Cocktail at chef Charles Phan's Hard Water on the Embarcadero
Cocktail at chef Charles Phan's Hard Water on the Embarcadero (©Hard Water)

The spirit: Whiskey

The drink to order: Bourbon Lift—made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, St. George NOLA coffee liqueur, orgeat, Straus organic cream, soda water

Our take: Chef Charles Phan’s Hard Water sits along the scenic Embarcadero not far from Phan’s famed Slanted Door. But Hard Water is an entirely different scenario. Here you’ll find New Orleans food and a sleek, lofty bar that glows white, lined with one of the best American whiskey collections in the world. Erik Adkins, who oversees all of Phan’s bars, has collected rarities in all American whiskey categories, from bourbon and rye to single malts. Alongside New Orleans cocktail classics, like the Cocktail a la Louisiane, you can sip rarities from Parker’s Heritage to Pappy that cover a broad price range.

Smuggler’s Cove

The elaborate Tiki-themed decor at Smuggler's Cove
The elaborate Tiki-themed decor at Smuggler's Cove (©Allison Webber Photography)

The spirit: Rum

The drink to order: Calibogus—made with Zirbenz stone pine liqueur, aged rum, spruce tincture, seltzer

Our take: Since its opening in 2009, Smuggler’s Cove has changed the Tiki and rum bar game globally. Balance (not excessive sweetness) characterizes its deep cocktail menu, covering categories from specific Caribbean islands to Prohibition-era Havana. With over 500 rums, it’s one of the biggest rum collections in the world, with a rum club for the hardcore. From an exotica music soundtrack to an intimate, three-floored space packed with Tiki artifacts, the experience is a temple to Tiki and a destination on the rum lover’s map. Ask about a special Smuggler’s private bottling rum only available at the bar.

15 Romolo

The Spirit: Sherry

The drink to order: Shegroni—made with vintage Fino sherry, Campari, housemade ’roso vermouth

Our take: Off a North Beach alley hides one of San Francisco’s great bars, 15 Romolo. It houses an impressive collection of over 500 spirits in a relaxed, Old World space filled with tunes from a killer jukebox lineup. Though you won’t go wrong with any spirit here, Romolo specializes in one of the best sherry collections around, with over 18 sherries available by the glass or in flights (plus an additional handful of revolving bottles), thanks to in-house sherry expert Ian Adams. This is the place to learn about fino, amontillado, manzanilla, oloroso and palo cortado sherry styles. Every December, the bar even hosts a Sherry Christmas with a special sherry cocktail menu.


Cocktail at Gaspar Brasserie in the Financial District
Cocktail at Gaspar Brasserie in the Financial District (©Gaspar)

The spirit: Brandy

The drink to order: Armagnac Snapper—made with Armagnac, lemon, crème de framboise, honey syrup

Our take: Bartender John Codd created a cocktail menu of no less than 50 brandy drinks at French restaurant Gaspar Brasserie. The menu covers all categories of the grape-based spirit, from Cognac to Armagnac, Calvados to pisco, eau de vie to grappa. Upstairs is the elegant Cognac Room, lined with an extensive collection of sipping brandies collected by general manager John Allen. Order a flight if you want to get schooled on a certain region or style

La Mar
 Cebichería Peruana 

Pisco sours at La Mar on the waterfront
Pisco sours at La Mar on the waterfront (©La Mar)

The spirit: Pisco

The drink to order: Maracuya Sour—made with pisco, passion fruit juice, lime, Cointreau, egg whites

La Mar Cebichería Peruana was superstar Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio’s first U.S. restaurant, and it’s been going strong for over six years on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. You’ll feel like you’re on vacation when sipping pisco sours, the national drink of Peru, on the back deck surrounded by boats. But La Mar goes far beyond classic sours, featuring an array of pisco cocktails showcasing the varietals that make the grape-based, unaged brandy.