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The best whiskey bars in San Francisco

From single sips to complex flights, find the best of the brown stuff at the city’s top whiskey bars

Photograph: Courtesy Broken Record
Broken Record bar

While we have our fair share of favorite beer bars and wine spots, sometimes only a stiff drink will do. Whether you're a cocktail connoisseur or a novice sipper, these whiskey bars are the best spots for sampling rare brown spirits from Kentucky to Japan.

RECOMMENDED: The best bars in San Francisco

Top whiskey bars in San Francisco

Hard Water

Not every whiskey bar has to look like the inside of a barrel. At Hard Water, the bar itself is the centerpiece: a beautiful, skinny horseshoe in the middle of the room, backed by a glowing wall of booze. The New Orleans-inspired cocktails are worth trying, particularly the Cocktail a la Louisiane, which blends Rittenhouse 100 rye, vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe and Peychauds bitters. But true connoisseurs come here for the flights. Each includes four or five half-ounce pours of various whiskeys, bourbons and ryes. Start with the Craft Distillers flight, which includes pours from distilleries like Willett, Colorado Gold, Moylan and Anchor's Old Potrero ($22), or splurge on the Legends flight, where the selections range from an A.H. Hirsch 16-year to a Pappy Van WInkle 23-year ($250). There's often a wait, even for a seat at the bar, so call ahead for a reservation.

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Downtown

Whiskey Thieves

It seems unlikely, but it's true: You'll find one of the best selections of whiskey (and whisky), rye, bourbon and scotch at this gritty, cash-only Tenderloin dive. Snag a barstool to scope out the full assortment—more than 150 varieties of scotch and American whiskey—which fills the entire back wall. There's no printed menu, but for those fond of sipping, the bartenders are eager to make suggestions and pour samples before you commit to a tumbler. At the end of the night, it's hard to go wrong with the special: a tall PBR and a whiskey shot for $7.

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Tenderloin

Bourbon & Branch

Recommended

Yes, there's a whiff of pretension to this spot, from the "secret" password at the door to the ban on cell phones. That said, it's worth it. Bourbon & Branch actually houses five bars under its roof, including the book-lined library bar and the grand, chandelier-lit main bar. But whiskey lovers will be best served by making a reservation at Wilson & Wilson, the detective-themed bar accessible off Jones Street. There, you'll find dark, candlelit booths, pressed-tin ceilings and an extensive menu (made to look like case files) that progresses from aperitifs to boozy, spirit-forward drinks. There's an impressive list of pure bourbons and scotches, as well as craft cocktails. Try the Pinkerton: Knob Creek bourbon, coffee syrup, cranberry-infused angostura-orange bitters and tobacco-bourbon tincture.

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Tenderloin
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83 Proof

The gleaming, mixed-wood bar, flickering votives and chandeliers overhead at this SoMa hub may seem swanky, but the vibe is young, unpretentious and celebratory. From the mezzanine, you can gaze down on five shelves of spirits, including more than 300 whiskeys. Along with the expected greatest hits, the collection here includes gems from Germany, Japan, Switzerland and beyond, like Uerige Stickum and Nikka 12-year single malt. Don't miss the entrance, which is subtly marked by a glinting 83.

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SoMa

Nihon Whisky Lounge

This swanky bar and Japanese restaurant claims to have the largest single-malt selection on the West Coast, numbering 500 bottles. The lounge specializes in bottles by Japanese distilleries like Nikka and Suntory, and includes Yamazaki, Hibiki and Yoichi. The spirits are available by the glass, by the flight or by the bottle. For those hesitant to down an entire bottle in one sitting, the restaurant will stow unfinished purchases in a private locker until your next visit.

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Mission

Rickhouse

This candlelit, two-level saloon is paneled in reclaimed barrel wood, lending the impression that you're sipping whiskey from its source. Grab a seat at the bar before the tall wall of booze (accessed by a rolling library ladder) and watch the 1920s-attired bartenders expertly stirring, shaking and spritzing cocktails. The 15 specialty drinks are categorized under terms familiar to whiskey drinkers: the Family Estate, Cask Strength, Special Reserve and the like. Though you'll find other spirits in the mix as well, the majority of the cocktails showcase whiskey and bourbon. Try the Bone Park, a cocktail blending scotch whisky, Mandarine Napoleon liqueur, cardomaro and mole bitters.

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Downtown
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The Alembic

Recommended

This long, dimly lit cocktail joint is known for mixology, but the bottles alone are equally impressive. The menu presents an encyclopedic list of American bourbons, whiskies and ryes, many hailing from small, craft distilleries. Turn the page to find scotch and "world whiskies" imported from Japan, Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish spirits are broken down by region, spanning the Highlands, the Islands, Islay, the Lowlands, Speyside and Campbeltown. There's something to sip at every price point, from $8 for George Dickel to $75 for 30-year Glenfiddich.

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Upper Haight

Tradition

This two-story watering hole near Bourbon & Branch lists both "Irish Pub" cocktails (like the Tippary, made with Bushmills XA, Carpano Antica and green chartreuse) and "Scottish Pub" cocktails, like the Earl of Isle: Monkey Shoulder scotch, honey, angostura bitters, orange bitters and fresh sage. Tradition also oversees its own barrel-aging program, infusing whiskey, bourbon and rye in small casks washed with other spirits. The results are eclectic and surprisingly tasty, like Russell's rye aged in a green chartreuse-washed barrel, or Redbreast 12 aged in a barrel washed with Guinness. Make a reservation for one of the "snugs," an intimate booth decked with vintage liquor ads.

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Tenderloin

Broken Record

It may seem incongruous, but the same dive bar that serves up tater tots and wings also boasts an above-average collection of more than 200 whiskies. Should you choose to, you can pair your mac and cheese with such rarities as Girvan 42-year single-grain scotch whisky, 1951 Knappogue Castle Irish whiskey or Macallan Speymalt 35-year. But the bar is best known for having popular bourbon and whiskey varieties, like Four Roses and Jameson, on tap.

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San Francisco
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Churchill

With its rope-strung ceiling, lantern lighting, and single-slab walnut bar, Churchill is the kind of casually sexy place that's prime for dates. Though the cocktail menu changes seasonally, it typically includes understated classics like the Monte Carlo (Eagle Rare single barrel 10-year, Benedictine, bitters and a lemon peel). The bar stocks spirits from a variety of whiskey distilleries—Michter's, Willett, Overholt & Co. and more—as well as more than a dozen Scotch distilleries.

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Duboce Triangle

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