Downtown San Jose's 55 South is a bar that seems to have more liquor than it knows what to do with. The shelves at the hip cocktail lounge are packed with some 350 bottles of spirits -- single-batch bourbons, unusual gins, Japanese whiskeys and more. And co-owner Eric Nielsen tells me there are 150 more bottles just waiting for more shelving to be installed.
The nice thing is that these bottles don't gather dust. They're hunted through by bartenders and frequently ordered by customers. The selection of Japanese whiskeys is particularly impressive, with about a dozen bottles, including two bottles of Hibiki that aren't available in the United States and run up to $70 for a shot. There's clearly a great passion for spirits and craft cocktails at 55 South, something shared by the ownership, bartenders and customers.
55 South has gained quite a following since it opened just more than a year ago, though it's mostly a later crowd, since the lounge doesn't open until 7 p.m. (There are plans to start happy hour service this spring.) And as you might expect, it's a crowd that tends to grow a little younger as the evening goes on. I shared the bar with just a few people on a recent visit around 8 p.m. on a Tuesday. But on Saturday night, it was elbow-to-elbow, with stylish patrons enjoying cocktails and conversations shouted over the din.
Fortunately, 55 South takes great advantage of its space, with handmade leather couches and wooden tables well-arranged in the L-shaped seating area. There's also plenty of room to stand, and the bar seats at least 15 people comfortably. The lights are generally kept dim, which adds to the lounge atmosphere, and there are artistic coverings on the floor-to-ceiling windows. It makes it difficult to tell what the crowd is like inside when you're approaching, but as it was told to me, customers can't get comfortable in front of wide-open windows. It's like drinking in a fishbowl.
The bartending staff is also top-notch, and on a busy night, there are at least three bartenders and as many barbacks, which made ordering a breeze.
On my visits, I sampled several of the bar's signature cocktails, all priced at $10. That craft-cocktail darling, the Moscow Mule, is naturally very popular here, where it's made with fine ingredients like Pinnacle vodka and Fever"'Tree ginger beer. It's even served in well-seasoned copper mugs, though when I was there, one customer had to fork over his ID to get the special cups. (It's actually a smart way to preserve the cups, which many bar owners report tend to walk away at the end of the night.)
But I'd encourage you to venture beyond the Mule to other drinks like the State of Grace -- a vodka drink with muddled raspberries, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and a trio of citrus juices topped with sparkling wine. It's got a great balance of sweet and sour, and the raspberries give it a beautiful pink hue. There's also a spicy tequila-based number called Clockwater & Smoke, which owes its heat to a dash of Firewater bitters that contain habañero pepper, made by Seattle-based Scrappy's Bitters.
One of 55 South's most popular drinks isn't even on the menu, but I'm told it may show up soon. The Trinidad Especial is Nielsen's take on a New York bartender's concoction. It is staggeringly bitter, thanks to a full ounce of Angostura bitters (usually only a dash is called for in most drinks). The rest of the ingredients battling it out for attention include Courvoisier, Pisco and orgeat syrup. If there's one thing that doesn't intimidate the bartenders at 55 South, it's using a lot of ingredients, and the result here is a flavor-packed cocktail that grabs your attention. I felt more interesting just holding it.
There are also a few worthwhile beers on tap (plans are in the works to add more taps) and a number of bottles, including a wonderfully old-school original Coors in a bottle. And there's a sizable wine selection, available by the glass or bottle, a remnant of the days when this location was a wine and dessert bar called A Perfect Finish.
The food menu shouldn't be overlooked, either. I can't visit without ordering the Man-o-War Potstickers ($12), which are served in a syrupy chili sauce. The Sauteed Mushroom Crostini ($10) and the steamed edamame ($6) are also perfect for sharing. If you've got room, save it for the Bourbon Bread Pudding ($9), which is topped with a creamy bourbon sauce.
A Perfect Finish was a comfortable but underutilized bar that never seemed to find the right audience. I'm glad to say that 55 South has figured out its identity -- a spirits-heavy bar, with a flair for craft cocktails -- and found a crowd of fans.
It just needs more shelves.
55 S. First St., San Jose
Open 7 p.m.-midnight,
7 p.m.-1:30 a.m.