“There are things that we don’t necessarily talk about, that are kind of hidden secrets about the way we stock the backbar,” says Will Elliott, bar director at Brooklyn’s Sauvage. “I kind of like to think of it as a rambling story that has a couple of unexpected turns.”
It’s a point that he’s made not only in the selection of spirits, but in the bar’s design; longer and more sprawling than its sister restaurant, Maison Premiere, Sauvage’s backbar is presented across shallow glass shelves and crowned with a pair of hard-to-miss Jeroboams of green and yellow Chartreuse. The herbal French liqueur has been a bar staple since the Parisian-inspired Sauvage opened last May, and is often poured tableside as a digestif.
“We had sort of aligned ourselves with a region and a style of food, so it didn’t really make sense for us to have a lot of mezcal or pisco,” says Elliott of his approach to stocking the backbar, which relies heavily on alpine liqueurs, the flavors of which tend to mirror those coming out of the kitchen. Similarly, by drawing on bottles from high-elevation areas, like the Savoie, Elliott offers a nod to the restaurant’s 235-bottle wine list.
And that’s not the only way in which the two programs are alike; they’re also both notably producer-driven. “Instead of saying we’re going to have five producers of Scotch and two expressions from each producer,” he explains, “we’re going to have two producers of Scotch and five expressions from each.” (Specifically in the case of Scotch, Elliott highlights those made in the region of Campbeltown; for rums, he primarily highlights examples from Martinique’s Neisson distillery, of which there are seven examples.)
He also offers a number of terroir-driven eaux-de-vie, specifically from the likes of Austrian distiller Reisetbauer, and an extensive, albeit obscure, selection of gentian and wormwood liqueurs—again, keeping in line with his predilection for alpine flavors. “It’s a very focused list [because] you sort of have to choose one direction,” explains Elliott. “You can be all things to all people, or you can be really good at expressing a particular vision.”
Of course, that does mean that much of the bar program, which often showcases small-batch, hard-to-find spirits and liqueurs, is foreign to the majority of drinkers; in fact, Elliott assumes that most guests will be unfamiliar with up to 95 percent of the bottles on the backbar. But he doesn’t consider that to be a negative.
“We knew it’d be an uphill battle to educate our staff and inform our guests about what all these bottles are, but I think there’s something to be said for really paving the way,” says Elliott. After all, he adds, ten years ago, there were few drinkers who’d had a Daiquiri or a proper Old-Fashioned, already a dated notion by today’s standards.
“It’s our job here to be experts,” says Elliott, “which doesn’t mean that the guest necessarily has to hear about it,” he jokes. “They just have to drink it.”
Getting to Know Sauvage in Five Bottles
“Avèze is probably more popular with our parents’ generation—or maybe their parents’ generation,” says Elliott of this French gentian-based aperitif. Often drunk with soda water, the bright yellow liqueur offers a very particular kind of vegetal bitterness, accompanied by flavors of menthol and eucalyptus, making it an excellent fit not only over ice, but for more complex cocktails as well.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 20 percent
Alpe Génépy Herbetet
A longtime après-ski go-to in Europe, génépy was largely unknown in the U.S. until relatively recently. Per Elliott, this wormwood-based alpine liqueur is a relative of absinthe, though the species of wormwood used here is much less bitter than the “grand wormwood” used in its anise-flavored cousin. “It’s very buttery, and closer to chamomile,” explains Elliott. Much like Avèze, génépy performs well in a slew of very diverse cocktail recipes, often serving as a mellower alternative to green Chartreuse.
Reisetbauer Sloeberry Sloe Gin
One of the top eaux-de-vie producers in the world, Hans Reisetbauer has earned a well-secured place at the Sauvage backbar, where they stock not only his eau-de-vies but also his Sloeberry Sloe Gin. “I always like to talk about acai and antioxidant berries [when talking about Sloe Gin],” says Elliott, explaining that, for drinkers unfamiliar with the tart, slightly fruit-forward historic spirit, those descriptors make for an easy gateway. Notably, this bottling, which offers a brighter, more nuanced take on the spirit, makes an appearance on the cocktail menu, too, in Elliott’s Sloe Moon’s Rose, which sees it swizzled with Contratto Bitter and raspberry eau-de-vie.
- Price: $45
- ABV: 28 percent
Neversink Pear Brandy
One of the few spirits at the bar that’s made locally, this pear eau-de-vie is produced by a small, two-man operation in Port Chester, New York, located just 45 minutes north of Manhattan. Heavily inspired by Hans Reisetbauer, owners Noah Braunstein and Yoni Rabino share a similar ethos to the renowned Austrian producer. Together, they represent a strong, albeit uncommon, communication between makers of American and European eaux-de-vie.
- Price: $50 (375ml)
- ABV: 40 percent
Michelberger Mountain Herbal Liqueur
A lean and aromatic schnapps from Germany, Michelberger offers aromas of honey, herbs and saffron and is especially gentle on the palate. “There isn’t really a tradition of drinking schnapps in America,” says Elliott. “It’s different than amaro; it’s not bitter, it’s not usually as sweet, and this is more of a dry, sort of ethereal bottle.” Drunk on its own, it exhibits many of the flavors common throughout the backbar—those that are minty, fresh and cooling.
- Price: $50
- ABV: 45 percent