When Thad Vogler began managing bars 17 years ago, most stocked a standard selection of well spirits, including affordable gin, bourbon and an array flavored vodka. Though early on he felt pressure to equip his bars with the expected offerings, over time his thinking changed. By 2010, the year he opened San Francisco’s Bar Agricole, he’d fully embraced what he calls a “process of elimination,” which informs the careful way that he stocks the bar today.
With just 33 bottles, the backbar at Bar Agricole is notably small, and drinkers won’t recognize many of the labels; not only is much of Vogler’s selection sourced from small producers and bottlers, a considerable portion is bottled exclusively for the bar. In many ways, it’s the embodiment of Vogler’s exacting set of preferences: He wants to share only those spirits that let their roots as agricultural products shine.
According to Vogler (who opened brandy-focused Trou Normand in 2014 and plans to debut Obispo, a rum bar, in 2017), it was the rise of the local food movement that first suggested that he could rethink conventional backbar obligations. In the same way that a restaurant kitchen didn’t need to sell green beans or asparagus year-round, a bar program was effectively “liberated from having to have any certain range of spirits,” he explains.
At Bar Agricole, Vogler opts for spirits that have a certain transparency. “All spirits are born of something that grew in the ground,” he says. “I ask, what decisions is [the distiller] making? Are they just using massive tanks to produce as much as possible?”
Looking to distillers whose choices about fermentation and distillation are driven more by flavor than expediency, Vogler is most interested in buying from producers who gather ingredients with a specific terroir, rather than sourcing from vast commodity grain markets. From there, he tends to favor spirits that are made using open-vat fermentation, which he says offer more complex flavors.
In addition, he considers dilution, preferring spirits from producers who take a minimal, careful approach to the process. He’s wary of distillers who add water until the spirit is exactly 40 percent ABV, explaining that the near-standard number is “generally not a passionate decision” on the part of the distiller, based on the ideal flavor of the bottled spirit. Instead, “it’s a financially expedient one.” Vogler generally prefers cask-strength spirits. “[They] show more of those base characteristics that we’re interested in,” while supporting a cocktail’s structure and allowing room for dilution.
It’s quite common today for spirits to be chill-filtered to prevent a cloudy appearance when mixing with ice, but Vogler is vehemently against the practice. Chill-filtration involves lowering a spirit’s temperature so that many of the fats and acids solidify and can be removed. He laments the loss of flavor and texture. “Think about the difference between skim milk and whole milk,” he says. “Categorically, almost all Scotch and American whiskey is chill-filtered. It’s genocide, if you’re going to be super melodramatic about it.”
Of course, this stringent criteria drastically cuts down on the number of available bottlings for Vogler’s bar. In the case of Scotch, for example, “There are five or six independent distilleries. Of those, three do their own malting,” explains Vogler. “Of those, one [is imported]. That’s Springbank, and they don’t add caramel [coloring] and they don’t chill filter.”
Yet Vogler says that his approach doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult for Bar Agricole to meet its margins. “The larger producers are overcharging. These higher quality spirits aren’t necessarily costing more. We’re buying grower-producer cask-bottled brandies for less than Hennessy XO.”
Vogler and his team work with a few importers, often visiting small distillers abroad to build relationships and purchase younger (and thus more affordable) barrels of spirits, which are then bottled to Vogler’s specifications. It’s certainly not as easy as filling a well with whatever the big distributors have to offer, but Vogler gleans satisfaction from sharing such rare products.
“The world of spirits specific to a place is disappearing,” he says. “I see my job as protecting a certain category of human experience: These spirits are handmade things that give you a sense of a place and a moment in time.”
Bar Agricole in Five Bottles
Dudognon Cognac Grande Champagne Selection
While most small producers in Cognac sell their brandy to larger brands who blend and bottle it, this bright, aromatic grower-producer Cognac is bottled especially for Vogler’s bars at a high ABV and without the addition of caramel coloring. “It tastes like fruit,” says Vogler. “It tastes much more wine-like than most Cognac, which is often dominated by barrel age and added caramel.”
- ABV: 43 percent
Bellevue Distillery 17 Year Old Cadenhead Cask Strength
“There’s one of these barrels in the world, and once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Vogler of this 17-year-old rum. Made on a column still in Guadaloupe and bottled at 53.4 percent ABV for sipping, Vogler says the point is not whether this rum is one of the world’s best or worst. “It has such a specific identity,” he explains, especially compared to a more generic spirit blended from dozens of barrels.
- ABV: 53.4 percent
Domaine du Miquer Bas Armagnac
This single-barrel selection, bottled exclusively for Vogler at a high ABV, is made from 100 percent folle blanche, a grape Vogler describes as “bright, filigree.” This Argmagnac is distilled just once, which Vogler says contributes to its flavor. “It shows a lot more rugged character,” he says.
- ABV: 45 percent
Springbank 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky
“This is one of the only off-the-shelf retail Scotch bottlings that’s not chill-filtered,” says Vogler, adding that Springbank is also one of the only Scotch distilleries that malts their own grain. Vogler describes it as being made in a lighter style, with bright cereal notes, which he prefers over aggressive barrel flavors. “You get that prioritizing of the grain qualities here,” he says.
- Price: $55
- ABV: 46 percent
Adrien Camut 3 Year Old Calvados
The Camut brothers in Normandy are among Vogler’s favorite spirits producers. After several years of visits and some persuasion, the Camuts were convinced to sell Vogler a barrel of their three year old Calvados. “For them to sell us something young isn’t smart for them, but it’s just beautiful,” says Vogler of the spirit. While older Calvados can be dominated by the character of the barrel it ages in, often taking on stewed apple notes, this one is “light, young, with green apple qualities,” says Vogler.
- ABV: 43 percent