I don’t know what explains my credentials for these opinions, other than the fact that I love whiskey-bourbon mostly, but anything that comes out of new charred oak barrels and was distilled with American grain and aged in the south. I live in Santa Monica, which is a city of about 100,000 people (triple that in summer) in LA county between Malibu and Venice (we call it West Side LA). There are only a few obvious whiskey bars that you’ll hear about. One is Seven Grand (which is on 7th and Grand) in downtown LA. They have over 300 whiskeys specializing in American Whiskey, but they have a great selection of everything- great ambience- a high end tasting room and their own whiskey society. The problem is that they are super pricey on the good stuff. The Daily Pint is a little closer to home in Santa Monica, and they owner really cares about his selection. I had some Yellow Spot there recently which he claimed to have smuggled in from his last trip to Ireland (Yellow Spot doesn’t have distribution in the US). He overvalues the Pappys and the Antique collection (think $50+ for William Larue Weller), but he’s super friendly, and will always have the odd deal on something like a $9 Johnny Drum PS. When I told him that Barterhouse wasn’t nearly as hard to find as he thought, he knocked off $10 and gave me some Old Blowhard to try as well.
There are other bars as well that one can find. Ten Pound in Beverly Hills is great for ambience, but their selection is small and it’s priced such that your bar tab at the end of the night looks like your rent check. Neat in Glendale is supposedly awesome (except that it’s in Glendale). Westside I’ve found that Townhouse in Venice, The Basement Tavern on Main St. Santa Monica, Areal on Main St., and The Daily Pint are the only real places to find good, relatively affordable whiskey.
I don’t mind (I actually enjoy) what a few whiskey bars do when they price Hudson Baby Bourbon at $25 a shot and Elmer T. Lee at $7 or Breckenridge at $18 and Weller 12 at $8. It’s a little game that rewards whiskey knowledge and I appreciate it when I see it.
I was in San Francisco earlier this year for four days, and four days in a row, I patronized an unassuming place called Hard Water- which, I’m convinced is the greatest 2,000 sq ft in this state. 300+ whiskeys, all relatively reasonably priced, offered in 1 oz pours. I could afford an oz the $10 Bookers 25th or $15 for a taste of the Four Roses 2013 Ltd. Ed. Small Batch (shiver). This is the benchmark for what a whiskey bar should be, and after four days of visiting, they finally remembered me and pulled some really (really) special stuff down for me. I can’t wait to go back at the end of the month.
Alas, I live in Southern California, where there’s always going to be something massively overpriced, but hopefully something underpriced as well (and sometimes you find a $14 WLW or a $15 GTS at an Oldfields or Sassafrass) so when I heard about a new American Whiskey Bar in Santa Monica, I was there within 24 hours.
This is what I found:
You might have to zoom in a bit to get this, but that’s a $45 shot of Barterhouse, a $25 shot of VS Old Fitzgerald (12 year)- a bottle should only run you about $30. $25 for Stranahans! $16 for WL Weller Special Reserve! I paid $20 a bottle for a handle of that. They seem to be loaded up on Barterhouse, EC21, and last year’s Parker’s Heritage ($40). Now, again, every whiskey bar should have their special bottle that they charge too much for, that’s fine, so long as they have a hidden gem in there that they know and you know is underpriced (or at least fairly priced). If you see Fighting Cock at a whiskey bar, it should be priced at $5 a shot, otherwise you know they don’t get it. Here, it’s priced at $11 (it’s a $15 bottle).
Anyway, I called the manager over and asked him where they get their whiskey and if I could potentially unload some of my collection on them (I don’t like Jefferson Ocean very much, and I’ve got an extra bottle, if they think it’s worth $45 a shot, then maybe there’s a transaction to be made). The manager was friendly and said that he wasn’t much of a whiskey person- more Mezcal- gave me the card of the whiskey buyer. After talking for a while he brought me over some mezcal finished in Hudson Baby Bourbon and Manhattan Rye barrels. It was great to taste, but at $25 a shot, I’d probably recommend you pass on that too.
This pretty, friendly, dimly lit and well furnished place, billed as a whiskey bar is what’s wrong with the new bourbon trend. I love cocktail bars. I’ll drink a PBR and a Jim Beam white label on the rocks and love it in the right atmosphere, but billing a place as a whiskey bar, I expect that you have something that I couldn’t walk into Bevmo and buy today (a private bottling? a limited edition of something other than Charbay III?). I’m not asking too much. Hire me. I’ll put flights on the menu. I’ll price out tasting pours. I’ll price Buffalo Trace at $5 for Happy Hour and Fighting Cock at $5 always. Put some Experimental Collection out? Have the Antique Collection and priced to sell not to keep? There’s a place, literally ten blocks down the street that does it so much better (The Daily Pint).
I won’t tell you the name of the club, but I will say it’s in Santa Monica, on Santa Monica Blvd between 10th and 15th. Skip it and go to The Misfit for half priced Manhattans before 7pm or the Basement Tavern for $5 BT, or better yet come to my apartment. Help me drink up my whiskey collection before I move to New York next month. I’m a degenerate.