Bourbon & Branch – San Francisco, California - Gastro Obscura

Bourbon & Branch

A nondescript building that's been functioning as a speakeasy for nearly a century and a half. 


A nondescript building in an unglamorous neighborhood hides a secret, swanky, and historic bar. Visitors must have reservations or know the secret password to enter the unmarked door. Once inside they can pass through though a concealed bookshelf door from the main lounge to the Library, a smaller bar lined with books.

This particular building has functioned as a bar since 1867, nearly 150 years of serving libations. From 1921 to 1933, the speakeasy operated illegally through the Prohibition, and somehow managed to keep from being noticed by federal Prohibition Agents. Utilizing a connection with Canadian bootleggers in Vancouver, the establishment was never short on illegal spirits. Today, the speakeasy atmosphere of yesteryear is maintained, and in fact, expected under house rules.

“-Please Speak-Easy -No Cell Phone Use -No Standing At the Bar -Don’t Even Think of Asking For A “Cosmo” -Smokers, Use Back Door -No Photography -Please Be Patient, Our Drinks Are Labor Intensive -Please Exit Bourbon & Branch Quietly”

Listed as “The Ipswitch: A Beverage Parlor” for the first few years of the National Prohibition, the business was soon purchased by a young Mr. John J. Russell. He opened his bar in the basement of the building, with “JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop” operating upstairs as the legitimate front. This particular incarnation lasted through 1935. It’s said that if one wanted to visit the bar, a knock on the cigar shop door and the correct utterance of the password were obligatory. Upon entering the shop, if a specific cigar was requested, a trap door would be opened, and the patron would be escorted downstairs to the speakeasy.

Still functional are the five secret underground tunnels once used by frequenters for a quick and safe exit. Allowing a low-key leave, the tunnels lead to Geary Street, Jones Street, two to O’Farrell Street, and one to Leavenworth Street, called “The Ladies Exit”. In addition to the concealed exits was a brass bell warning system installed in the bar that was connected to the cigar shop upstairs, in case of an emergency.

Today there are three separate rooms in which to enjoy the 1920s speakeasy atmosphere. The main room requires a reservation, but includes a table for seating and the full cocktail menu. If passing by Bourbon & Branch without a reservation, one would need to access “The Library”, which is standing room only and offers only a portion of the full menu. To access the library, one must supply the mandatory password, “books”. Russell’s Room, the original cigar shop front, can also be visited.

Bourbon & Branch is known for its stock of premium liquors, many of which are rare and made in very limited batches. All of the juices, purees, and extracts used in the cocktails are handmade in house. The bar has become famous for its superbly crafted mixed drinks, though it should be said they are priced accordingly.

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December 12, 2009

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