I've passed by Nopa in San Francisco's Alamo Square neighborhood many times, but never entered due to the crowds of people lining the entrance. Known for its wood-fired burgers and Mediterranean influenced cuisine, reservations at Nopa are essential when looking to get a private table. For those with a bit more flexibility, bar seating is also an option. I've come to investigate a rumor I had heard in early January regarding a dramatic change in their available spirits behind the bar, which changed to include older vintages of the highly sought after Pappy Van Winkle, Four Roses, and the coveted 16 year old A.H. Hirsch bourbon, aka the “best bourbon you'll never taste”.
And the rumor was true.
I arrived at Nopa a few minutes after the designated opening time of 5:00 PM, assuming I'd be able to find an open seat at the bar with little hassle. Unfortunately Nopa's popularity has grown to the point that the bar promptly fills up as soon as the doors open. Those that don't arrive in the first wave strategically line up behind the bar in hopes of procuring a seat the instant one becomes available. This inevitably leads to a cutthroat situation with newcomers inserting themselves into recently available seats with little regard for existing guests.
I had apparently made a poor choice with respect to my location, as numerous seats were taken by my neighbors, with little regard to my perceived position in the queue. Fortunately, the top notch staff demonstrated their ability to meet my needs even from the cheap seats.
Nopa bartenders - attentive and focused
I ordered a local craft beer and took stock of the selection of rare whiskies behind the bar. I noticed 2015 and 2016 vintages of most of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, 2016 Michters 10- and 20-year bourbons, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch bourbons from 2010, and 2014, 2015, and 2016 vintage bottles of various Pappy Van Winkle whiskies.
After landing myself a seat, my waiter provided an explanation of the impressive whiskey offerings. Referred to as their “Holiday Wish List”, Nopa has been holding back their limited release American Bourbons for the past few years, with a plan to put them all behind the bar for a few weeks surrounding the holidays. I'm informed that the selection is typically removed in mid-January, presumably to make a re-appearance once again at the end of the year.
Pricing for the bottles appears to be in alignment with the rarity. While not nearly as expensive as many of these bottles can be found for in some bars across the country, 'inexpensive' isn't a word that comes to mind when perusing the list. The 2016 vintages of the Van Winkle 10-, 12- and 15-year bourbons run $20, $25 and $40 per ounce, respectively.
While I didn't see anyone order off of the list during my time at the bar, the fill levels in many of the rarest bottles already appear quite low, suggesting that many visitors are happy to pay a little extra for the opportunity to taste these whiskies.