Where to Drink: San Francisco’s Elixir Bar, Open Since 1858

Elixir in San Francisco. Photo by Darren Edwards.

There are certain bars that seem perfectly suited to drinking whiskey. Some are rich with mahogany and leather, the kind of place you’d want to light up a cigar; others, relaxed and easy, with something of a julep-on-the-porch, laid-back Southern vibe.

But it’s hard to compete with a legitimate saloon as a whiskey bar.Elixir, in San Francisco, has been a continuously operating bar since 1858, making it the city’s second-oldest. (Rebuilt after the great fire of 1906, it then survived Prohibition as a “soda fountain.”) Its Victorian heritage is palpable.

And it’s a veteran bar in another sense, too. Under the ownership of H. Joseph Ehrmann (better known, to everyone, as H.) for the last fifteen years, it was at the forefront of San Francisco’s craft cocktail revival. Today it’s a city mainstay, a comfortable spot for an afternoon beer, an elaborate evening cocktail, or—always—an interesting whiskey.

Ehrmann estimates that the groaning shelves of Elixir hold around 250 bottles of American whiskey alone. A huge proponent of private barrel selections, Ehrmann offers quite a few at any given time: Currently, Elixir has seven of their own private barrels in rotation; limited supplies of another six past barrels; and eight bottles from private barrels of other bars.

Recently, he’s been a huge proponent of their private barrel Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit. “It’s everything I like about bourbon,” he says. “The nose is rich with brown butter, toasted oak, dry leather, brioche, and spearmint. On the palate it’s rye-forward with lots of rich, balanced, caramel, vanilla, and graham crackers, with a super-long hot cinnamon finish.”

Follow it up with Elixir’s signature Boot Black Stout—made for the bar by local favorite Standard Deviant Brewing—and you have yourself an evening.

Carey Jones
Carey Jones is a San Francisco-based food, spirits, and travel writer. She is the co-author, with her husband John D. McCarthy, of Be Your Own Bartender, to be released in November 2018. She frequently contributes to Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Saveur, and many others, and formerly served as managing editor at the James Beard Award-winning food site Serious Eats.