The Big Easy at Hard Water

When I first started out in this business no local establishment was more helpful, friendly, and eager to help me understand the cocktail scene than the Slanted Door in San Francisco. I quickly met Erik Adkins, Erik Ellestad, and Jennifer Colliau over drinks at Heaven's Dog (now called the Coachman—and the only bar I allow to carry our exclusive Faultline selections), frequently popped in to see them and ask questions, and continued to bring excited enthusiasts to both establishments for some serious booze education. They are not only open and welcoming, they are the very best at what they do (maybe tied with the guys from Bar Agricole, but they all used to work at Heaven's Dog, so it's all the same thing, right?) Over the years I've continued to work with Erik Adkins, who now also manages the Slanted Door group's newest incarnation along the Pier 3 waterfront: Hard Water. I had been hearing great things about this place for months (the New York Times recently released a piece about the spot) and I had been long overdo for a visit. The last time I saw Erik he said to me, "You're like a unicorn, man. I never see you anywhere anymore." The perfect opportunity came last night, however, when my two favorite gals in the biz—Joan and Amy from Whiskey Advocate—called me up and said, "We're in town! Let's go to dinner!"

"Where should we meet?" they asked.

"Hard Water!" I exclaimed.

There is no better place to bring two American whiskey geeks than Hard Water. Their wall of Bourbon and rye is absolutely insane. Anything you could possibly want is open and available for purchase—Pappy, old Black Maple Hill selections, even A.H. Hirsch 16. The prices are even reasonable (you can get a flight of Weller 12, Jefferson's 18, and a few other wheaters for $30). I know Erik worked very hard before Hard Water opened to source as many old and rare American whiskies as possible, anticipating the bar's NOLA-American theme. Not only is the selection outstanding, but the service is first rate as well; the staff is professional and attentive (never snobby or elitist), they have great glassware, and even eyedroppers so that you can carefully add water to your whiskey with precision. You can be as obsessive-compulsive as you want and they'll back you up every step of the way.

My favorite part about Hard Water (and about the Coachman & Slanted Door), however, is the cocktail menu. I'm quite frank about not enjoying whiskey cocktails. They're just not my thing. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to sit down at the whiskey counter and order a Gin Fizz, so I chose the most complicated choice I knew I would never make for myself at home: a Mint Julep. And, man, did the bartender nail it—the metal cup, the perfectly-pebbled ice, the beautiful garnish, and the cold, chilled flavor of Old Grand Dad with a touch of sweetness. I had arrived early so that I could sit quietly for a while, take in the scene, and eavesdrop a bit on the crowd (one of my favorite things to do). There's a diverse and eclectic group at Hard Water—from the businessmen letting off steam, to the yoga pants-wearing women enjoying a post-pilates cocktail, to the well-dressed, well-groomed San Francisco scenesters. Everyone was enjoying themselves and some kind of whiskey concotion on a fine summer evening; it was a fantastic vibe. By the time Joan and Amy showed up, however, I was starved!

Let me tell you the most important facet about Hard Water: it's the food. The small plates are OUTSTANDING. And they're filling! I'm sooooooooooooooo sick of olive dishes, pickled things, specks of meat, and tiny bites when I go out drinking. If you're going to serve me a potion of pure distilled liquor, then you had better put something substantial in my stomach and not force me to go down the street for pizza. The menu at Hard Water may look a bit fancy-pantsy, but it's really just total down-home goodness. We had fried alligator with spicy mayo (almost like calamari), crispy pulled pork (like deep-fried carnitas), and a huge plate of fried chicken and waffles that was simply divine. I can't tell you how wonderful it is to have a beautiful bar where I can talk to friends, look at the Bay Bridge over the water, order a well-made whiskey cocktail, eat something delicious, and even pour a glass of something unique—like Hard Water's own privately-bottled nine year old Willett (which is worth the drive).

The Slanted Door group has knocked it out of the park with Hard Water. You can geek out, pig out, chill out, and pass out all in one spot. I will be back again very, very soon, as it's easily the best whiskey bar I've ever been to.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll