Where to Drink: Hard Water in San Francisco

The wall of whiskies at Hard Water in San Francisco. Courtesy Hard Water.
The wall of whiskies at Hard Water in San Francisco. Courtesy Hard Water.

With more than four hundred whiskies, thirty-six of them private labels, in a sleek, modern
space, it’s no wonder that Hard Water, part of the Slanted Door restaurant group, has been
packed since its opening in 2013 on the San Francisco waterfront.

When Hard Water first launched, according to beverage manager Michael Lazar, the focus was on rare bottlings of classic American whiskeys—“Things like Van Winkle Family Reserve, Willett Family Estate single barrels, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Old Forester Birthday Bourbons.”

As time has gone on, they now focus more on private barrels and newer American distilleries; he cites Westland, Hill Rock Estate, Peerless, McKenzie, and Catoctin Creek as among this number. “Some of these are going to become the ‘Pappy’s’ of the next decade,” says Lazar.

With between 400 and 425 whiskies usually on sale—Lazar notes that not every bottle on the wall is, in fact, available for purchase—bourbon and rye lovers are spoiled for choice. Hard Water’s substantial private list includes some whiskies exclusive to the bar, along with others that are purchased together with retail stores or acquired from other bars with similar programs.

Two of Lazar’s favorites on the full list? The Cream of Kentucky 11.5yr bourbon, master distiller Jim Rutledge’s first foray into creating his own brand since leaving Four Roses; “Blending is one of Jim’s great strengths and this whiskey is no exception,” says Lazar.

And a bottle from New York, Hill Rock Estate “Double Cask” rye, “Hard Water #31.” Distilled entirely from estate-grown rye, released at cask-strength 120 proof, “it’s incredible,” says Lazar, “like the best fruit cake and the best loaf of pumpernickel bread had a baby.”

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.