Photo: Risa Nye
The recently opened Longbranch Saloon in Berkeley is all about the spirits. Photo: Risa Nye

While the décor at Longbranch Saloon may be minimal, the bar menu is not. If you’re looking for a staggering array of whiskeys (or “whiskies,” and more about that distinction later), you need look no further than Longbranch, now occupying the former location of Sea Salt restaurant on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley.

Longtime Berkeley residents and fans of Asleep at the Wheel may be confused by the reappearance of the Longbranch name. There may be mixed feelings about the long-gone $1 cover charge, the sawdust on the floor, the free draft beer and the indoor motorcycle parking — none of which feature at the new incarnation. (Our server informed us that the old joint was further up the street on San Pablo anyway.) So those with long memories are advised to come around and see what the 21st-century version is all about.

Photo: Risa Nye
There are 150 whiskies, ryes and bourbons at Berkeley’s Longbranch Saloon. And that’s just the beginning. Photo: Risa Nye
There are 150 whiskies, ryes and bourbons at Berkeley’s Longbranch Saloon. And that’s just the beginning. Photo: Risa Nye

And what it’s all about is cocktails and whiskey. We’ve perused many a bar menu from our comfortable perch on a barstool, but found ourselves mighty impressed with the abundance of options offered at Longbranch: 150 whiskies, ryes, and bourbons; eight kinds of moonshine (white liquor); a pages long taxonomy of cocktails, arranged according to dominant spirit (vodka, gin, rum, tequila/mezcal; cognac/brandy/Armagnac/Pisco; apéritifs and digestifs); and 16 whiskey flights, offering a “1 oz taste of each hootch.”

With the flights, one can go smokey, with “On Top of Old Smokey (Balcones Brimstone, Corsair Triple Smoke, and Longbranch house-smoked bourbon), play locavore with “Left Coast Rye” (Re:Find, Crater Lake, and Old Potrero), or go international with the Flighting Irish (Jamesion Black Barrel Reserve, Redbreast 15 year pot still whiskey, and The Wild Geese Irish Soldiers & Heroes); or choose three from the list for a customized flight.

See what a difference a few years makes with these single label high-altitude flights: Glenfiddich (15, 18, and 21 year), and Pappy Van Winkle (15, 20, and 23 year).

Photo: Risa Nye
The Smashed Angel: Angel’s Envy port-finished bourbon, mint, honey, fresh lemon juice. Photo: Risa Nye

With so many choices, we took our time with the menu, finally pausing at the list of nine bourbon-based cocktails, which included some familiar standards: Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Boulevardier. The final decision: Smashed Angel (Angel’s Envy port-finished bourbon, mint, honey, fresh lemon juice). The tartness of the lemon, the bold taste of mint, a subtle hint of sweetness, and that oh-so-smooth Angel’s Envy combined to make a memorable cocktail.

The surroundings at Longbranch are understated and low-key. With its expanse of brick walls, unfinished wood trim and exposed wooden beams, the focal point of the front rooms becomes the shelves lined with dozens of bottles full of amber and topaz-colored spirits.

The dining menu currently includes choices like oysters, burger and fries, shellfish bourride, bangers and mash, and grilled lamb loin chops.

The long bar attracted sports fans on the night we visited, but other patrons without a rooting interest had plenty of seating options away from the game: there are two patios, one inside and one outside, as well as a dining room — with dark walls, high ceilings, and wooden pillars — on the other side of the bar area. In the bar itself, two long communal tables and one long “shelf” on the wall, provide plenty of seating and glass-resting options.

We thought we knew why whiskey is sometimes spelled with, and sometimes without, an “e,” but in the course of doing a bit of research, we found this handy reminder in The Kitchn, courtesy of columnist/ mixologist Nora Maynard:

Whiskey/whisky mnemonics:
Here’s a quick way to remember how some of the world’s biggest producers spell their products:

  • Countries that have E’s in their names (UnitEd StatEs and IrEland) tend to spell it whiskEy (plural whiskeys)
  • Countries without E’s in their names (Canada, Scotland, and Japan) spell it whisky (plural whiskies)

Plenty of both to be found at the new saloon on the block.

The crowd: Families, couples on date night, sports fans, whisk(e)y aficionados
The vibe: Casual, neighborhood friendly, all about the spirits
The drink: Smashed Angel
The one to try next time: Sam’s Sazerac
The Deets: Longbranch Saloon, 2512 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Visit the Longbranch Saloon website and connect on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Are you a cocktail lover? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of Shakewellwinter cocktailsCorsoHonor in EmeryvilleHotsy Totsy ClubEast Bay Spice CompanyBourbon & BeefPenroseGatherTribune Tavernthe ParagonBoot & Shoe ServicePicànHopscotchFiveRevivalFlora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.

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Freelancer Risa Nye is a Bay Area native. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay. She spent many happy years on the UC Berkeley campus, both as a student and as an employee. She has...