Case Closed: Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency
Article and photos by Dai Deh
The Wilson Bar is the latest venture from the team behind revived-speakeasy Bourbon & Branch. Their company, Future Bars, also owns Rickhouse, Swig, the pop-up bar Mr. Lew’s Win Win Bar and Grand Sazerac Emporium (definitely a story for another day!), and the spirits store Cask. They also run the Beverage Academy, a series of hands-on cocktail classes.
Day 1: I found the website online (thewilsonbar.com), which brought me to a black-and-white landing page featuring a business card for Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency. After a quick registration, I was able to make my reservation.
I was given instructions to locate the Anti-Prohibition League Sign on the corner of Jones and O’Farrell Streets. I was to ring the door buzzer and give the password: “First National”. Soon after, I received an email confirmation that relayed the following House Rules:
1) Please Speak-Easy.
2) No standing at the bar.
3) Patience is appreciated.
4) No cell phone use.
5) No camera use.
6) Don’t even think of asking for a ‘Cosmo’.
7) Smokers, use back door.
8) Please exit The Wilson Bar briskly and silently.
I thought to myself, “I can work with these rules.”
Day 2: I boarded the BART from the other side of the Bay Bridge, and made my way into San Francisco. From the Powell Street stop, I made the short, brisk walk through the Tenderloin District (all walks through the Tenderloin should be short and brisk) until I saw the ironic Anti-Saloon League hanging out into both Jones and O’Farrell streets. The Anti-Saloon League was founded in Ohio in 1893 and was the most influential pro-Prohibition group in America. Now there are not one, but two, speakeasies under its banner.
Next to the black-and-grey, windowless Bourbon & Branch building on the corner was a gated window front for Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency. Not quite sure which doorbell I should ring, I affixed myself to the back of a group of early B&B patrons who had given the password ‘liquor.’ I explained to the hostess that I had a reservation at The Wilson and gave her my last name. Another hostess greeted me and led me through the extremely dim interior of Bourbon & Branch, up a small set of stairs and through another door to The Wilson Bar.
In front of my seat was a brown envelope with my name on it. Inside was the menu, which was split into aperitifs, mains, digestifs and punches. The cocktails are apparently all named after film noir (mid-century black-and-white Hollywood crime dramas) titles – appropriate given the private detective motif – but a fact that was totally lost on me. They’re priced at $12 each, but you can skim some off the top by ordering a course of 3 – one aperitif, one main and one digestif – for $30.
I was curious about the punches, which are served in decorative, old-school tea kettles, and meant to be shared by 2 or more people. Most interesting was the Dark City, which is made with premium Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Ron Zacapa 23 rum, and Acme IPA, among other ingredients. The other punches – the Lost Temple, which is pisco-based, and the Jungle at Dusk, which is cachaca-based – are also on my hit list for next time.
But since I was flying solo this fine evening, I decided that single-handedly dipping my face into a $40 punch bowl was probably a bad idea. The prix-fixe menu offered me the flexibility and variety that I was looking for. My first selection was the Red Scarab, a refreshing and fruity cocktail made with Laird’s applejack (an apple brandy that has a long history in America), Lillet Blanc (a French aperitif wine), lemon juice, brown sugar cinnamon syrup, hibiscus tincture and sparkling wine.
As my bartender Ian prepared my cocktail, I had a chance to look around and soak in my environment. The room was cozy and intimate (a max capacity of 20 people). There were about 10-12 seats at the bar, facing a red-brick wall, which made for a handsome backdrop for their carefully-selected bottles of spirits. The front of the bar was lined with homemade syrups and infusions. The decorative tin ceiling and ornate black-and-yellow wallpaper made me safe and comfortable. The metal stools did not. But I guess you never want to feel too safe at a speakeasy – what if the Feds busted in? I took a few seconds to plot my hypothetical escape…you can never be too careful.
What really struck me was what a complete sensory experience it was to have a cocktail handcrafted for you. The jazz music was low and serene, and the focus was really on the symphony of sounds of the cocktail itself being made. There was a gloop-gloop of spirits being measured out into the cocktail shaker. The noisy click-clock-click-clock-click-clock-click-clock of the ice in the shaker as the bartender waved the shaker through the air. Next came the icy guuuuuuuush of the liquid and tiny ice particles being strained into a tall glass. Ian topped off my Red Scarab with sparkling wine before reaching into a bowl of citrus fruits for a lemon. He meticulously chose a nice piece of lemon peel real estate and deftly removed it with a peeler, then with a final pfffsssssh, he squeezed the lemon peel over my drink, garnished it and presented it to me. I imagine that many people have never heard a cocktail being made for them before. Hell, most of the time it’s a struggle to even yell your order to a busy bartender over the blare of loud house or hip-hip music.
I put my lips to the glass, and it was perfection. I don’t know how else to describe it. All the ingredients seemed to complement each other perfectly, with none overpowering the others. A perfect drink to start the evening.
My next selection was the Phantom, a drink made with clove-infused cognac, Glenrothes Alba Reserve, Cocchi aperitivo, lemon juice, cacao and vanilla syrup, and orange bitters. A mint leaf gently floated on the foamy top layer of the drink, leaving me to conclude that if I were a mint leaf, this is also what I would choose to do on my summer vacation. Again, an amazing drink, simultaneously refreshing and creamy
I asked Ian a lot of questions about the ingredients that were popular in the bartending world these days, including amaro, applejack, Old Tom gin and others, and he spent a lot of time talking to me about new trends, many of them based on historical ingredients that were only now becoming available again in the US. He even poured me a couple of liqueurs for me to try. I loved this level of engagement with the bartenders, and I think this was the vision that they had when they opened The Wilson. With limited seating and capacity – a maximum of 8-10 guests each for the 2 bartenders behind the bar – it’s all about the opportunity to interact with the bartenders about their craft and their cocktails.
My last drink was the Pinkerton. I was excited because it’s the only cocktail on the menu that features a bourbon as the base spirit. It’s made from Knob Creek Bourbon, coffee syrup, cranberry infused Angostura orange bitters, and tobacco bourbon tincture. It was served with an extra-large cube of ice and an orange peel. As I considered the wall of fine bourbons in front of me, I felt a slight pang of regret that the Pinkerton didn’t feature one of the more exclusive bourbons. Maybe a Pappy, or A.H. Hirsch Reserve? Or maybe that George T. Stagg up there? But I knew that great cocktails were about balance, and I trusted that the Knob Creek was selected with care. And balanced it was – the sweetness of the bourbon, the pungency of the coffee syrup, the fruitiness of the cranberry and the bitterness of the orange bitters and tobacco tincture all played off one another.
After briefly considering ordering a shot of one of their nicer bourbons from their manila-folder spirits menu, a cooler mind prevailed, and I decided to call it a night. I thanked Ian for the hospitality and walked out into the cold night air. I left as happy as a guy who just spent almost two hours drinking by himself at a bar on a Thursday night could possibly be, and I have blabbering, rude text messages to my buddies to prove it. But, I also left knowing that I’ll definitely be coming back to the Wilson with friends and family to share the experience and feast on their menu of amazing drinks. --TBR--