Nihon Offers a Mind-Blowing Education in Whisk(e)y Styles

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Lou Bustamante
Mateo Hoke presides over Nihon's collection of over 450 different bottles, the bulk of them single malt whiskys.
​There are some places that occupy a permanent slot on our lists of bars to visit, continuously foiled by bad timing, distance, or just habit. Usually when we finally make it, they leave us wondering, "What the hell took us so long?" Nihon is one of those places.

Located on the corner of 14th Street and Folsom, spitting distance from Rainbow Grocery, the inconspicuous restaurant/bar is noteworthy for what could possibly be the largest collection of whisk(e)y in the U.S., certainly the West Coast. Weighing in at roughly 450 different bottles, with about 330 of those being single malt Scotch, the size is almost as impressive as bar manager Mateo Hoke's knowledge of each.

Benefiting from the expert palates Nihon attracts, Hoke also improves his wiki-whisk(e)y mental database directly. "It's my job to know 450-plus different whiskies, and to do that I have to taste them, dammit," Hoke says. "You also never know what you might learn on any given night from talking to someone new."

Hoke got into the bartending business as a way to fund his writing, and finds crossover between the two careers. His time as a drink slinger has allowed him to meet the best and worst of humanity. "I've been doing interviews for many years, and my time behind the bar has taught me a lot about listening, which I think is a valuable skill for any writer to have."

Hoke created a massive, 73-drink list for Nihon. The sheer boldness of such an undertaking ― especially at a time when bars are purposefully scaling their lists back ― impressed us, but not as much as the cocktails we sampled. Nihon's range covers plenty of whisky classics. Expected variations feature Yamazaki Japanese whisky, like our favorites the Cablegram (ginger, lemon, and a float of aromatic lemon bitters), and the Nihon Nail (Yamazaki 18-year single malt stirred with Drambuie and a lemon twist). Conscious that not every patron loves whiskey, Hoke offers plenty of options for the Cosmo crowd. For giggles, we tried the Endless Summer (Malibu rum, lemon, sugar, and dark rum) and we were struck by how balanced and drinkable it was, considering we don't normally enjoy coconut rum.

A great introduction to Nihon is the amazing happy hour, 5:30 to 7 p.m. every day, with 43 cocktail specials (yes, 43) and some really satisfying food (including sushi rolls), all half price.

Nihon: 1779 Folsom St (at 14th St.), 552-4400.

Lou Bustamante tweets at @thevillagedrunk. Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie.
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