Single barrel #200 selected by Royal Liquors, San Francisco (2021)
MASH BILL – Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #1
PROOF – 90
AGE – 9 years 2 months
DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace Distillery
PRICE – $27
WORTH BUYING? – Yes
This is the kind of whiskey story I like.
I first started shopping at Royal Liquors, located on the corner of Polk and Pine Streets in San Francisco, sometime in 2016 when my whiskey interests were really starting to kick in with some seriousness, thanks to a Summer visit with my dad where he’d plunked three bottles in front of me when I’d told him I’d stopped drinking wine or beer. Three weeks after that a visit to Scotland cinched the deal—my whiskey journey had begun. Then in early December of that year, I had one of the most San Francisco experiences possible.
I went in and as usual chatted a bit with owner Sammy Suleiman, a true whiskey fan himself and longstanding member of the San Francisco liquor retail store community. He presented me with a bottle of Old Rip 10 at a very reasonable price, and of course I bought it straight away. It was my first bottle of that fabled unicorn. Others would follow. And Old Rip is a fairly consistent brand. But firsts are often particularly memorable.
As if to ensure “particularly memorable” would be the case, after leaving the store, while I was sitting across the corner at the bus stop waiting for the 19 Polk to take me on my way, the San Francisco fates brought a woman named Pam to sit next to me. She could have been in her sixties, seventies, or somewhere north of one hundred—impossible to tell. Dingy blond hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. Her face etched with history, most teeth long gone. Dressed in pink from neck to toe—sweatshirt, polyester pants, sneakers, all the same Pepto Bismol pink. A lit cigar between the index finger and thumb of her left hand. A kind gaze in her grey eyes.
Pam asked me how I was doing. I probably said something like Fine, and you? She must have asked me where I was off to, which was rehearsal for a production of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I was directing at the time. Her eyes lit up. “I love that play! You’re in theater? I was in theater too! My sister did lights! I did props!”
Our bus arrived. We sat next to one another, Pam’s cigar still lit and nobody on the 19 Polk concerned. (It’s the 19 Polk.) We continued to talk about theater for the few blocks we had together. She disembarked at Market Street, looked me squarely in the eye with a huge smile, her face happy like sunlight glistening on the ancient grey seas, and said, “You have a wonderful day,” punctuating wonderful with her still glowing cigar.
I was happy for the rest of that day. There I’d been sitting, on Polk Street, known for its prostitutes, runaways, drug dealing, porn shops and theaters, a myriad cafes and restaurants of every ethnicity, bars gay and straight, old school and new fangled—a range of San Francisco eras all piled up together at once. I had an unassuming brown paper bag tucked in my arm with arguably what is among the most assuming unicorn bourbons, for which I’d paid an honest retailer a fair price—how often does that happen? I met an ancient urban sprite named Pam, pink from head to toe, cigar smoking, a life in the theater (and likely so many other things) now behind her, and possibly an eternity ahead of her given she seemed to have emerged from some dimension freed from the constraints of time. And then the rest of my evening was spent rehearsing a great play that runs three hours with all the characters drinking bourbon non-stop. …That is San Francisco. If you visit, skip mid-Market and Hayes Valley and head over to Polk Street.
I continued to shop at Royal Liquors over the years. Even though it’s not on any of my regular routes, I tried to stop in when I could. It’s a store worth visiting, not only for fair prices or a chat with Sammy. But also to support a local longstanding business that does right by its customers, and to keep in touch with a time-defying corner of a remarkable city. Before or after visiting, a short walk away you can get a donut from Bob’s Donuts, another of Polk Street’s legendary destinations, open 24/7 since 1968. Or Swan Oyster Depot, which opened in 1903 and should qualify as an historical landmark, always with a full cast of authentic characters whom Hollywood would reduce to caricatures. Even Anthony Bourdain knew to go to Swan, with or without his camera crew.
The pandemic, however, altered my patterns significantly. With all the pivoting, by the time I went in to pick up this bottle of Buffalo Trace in late January 2022, it had been nearly two years since I’d stopped by! There Sammy was, as friendly and straightforward as I remembered him. And he still recognized me. We talked a bit about the pick, uncommonly well-aged at 9 years 2 months. Its custom sticker was created by a local tattoo artist named Natasha Hanna Scott. Sammy was very happy with how it turned out and sold it to me with his customary enthusiasm, taking care to underline, “I want your honest opinion.”
So here we are, two weeks after uncorking and four pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – medium orange-ambers with brass and gold highlights, turning a rich orange in certain light
NOSE – well-baked cherry apple pie with the buttery crust quite toasted, thick oak, dry baking spices, toasted vanilla
TASTE – very like the nose, with a nice creamy texture that adds richness to the dry medley of oak, baking spice, and crisply toasted pie crust.
FINISH – the vanilla leans forward a bit here alongside the ever-present oak, with a pop of cinnamon, some caramel and the fruit of the fruit pie notes wafting in the background
OVERALL – a fine balance of dry and creamy qualities offering an antique, rustic bourbon experience
Standard-release Buffalo Trace is inevitably too sweet for me. Last year I enjoyed another local Buffalo Trace pick, also aged around 9 years. That bottle was also very oaky, in a way I appreciated, yet so much so I could imagine it being challenging for the average drinker who prefers a sweeter bourbon. But not everyone prefers a sweeter bourbon. I did once gift a bottle of the standard release to a friend who later said she found it too sweet.
On the spectrum of dry and sweet, this Royal Liquors pick definitely leans dry. It’s fruit aspects are very subtle. And even the butteriness of the pie crust notes is dried a bit by that well-toasted quality. It’s the vanilla and the creamy texture that help keep the arid notes in check.
Buffalo Trace will seldom be a bourbon I ooo or aah over. Only once have I really been blown away by the brand—an uncommon store pick from 2019. It’s a basic, 90-proof, baked pie of a bourbon made for the lower shelf, which is not a pejorative. I never buy the standard release due to its cloying sweetness and lack of complexity. But store picks, though also never particularly complex, are far more likely to offer interesting extremes within the Buffalo Trace flavor profile.
For an oak fan like me, who grew up in an area notable for its apple orchards, which guaranteed a childhood education in all things baked and caramel-doused fruit pie, the older single barrels offer a welcome option when I want something in my glass that’s neither demanding nor boring. Something relatively simple that gets the job done with a genuine, no-nonsense smile.
All to say, support your local independent liquor shops. Especially if they haven’t joined the price-gouging pirate brigade. Their private barrel picks are only one reason to support them. Whiskey is as much about stories as it is about taste. Whenever I drink this Royal Liquors pick, in addition to enjoying its oak and pie crust and creamy vanilla notes, I’m going to think about Sammy and Pam. I’m going to think about Polk Street and those other dwindling corners of this city not yet paved over by generic bought-online aesthetics and attitudes. It’s not about nostalgia for any past. It’s about preserving space for people, those who continue to go about their lives and business with authenticity.