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Spirits

What Is a Bar Without a Backbar?

May 03, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Emmanuel Rosario

Spirits

What Is a Bar Without a Backbar?

May 03, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Emmanuel Rosario

If the backbar is a window into a bar’s soul, what does it mean to forgo one altogether?

Picture the backbar of your favorite watering hole. Sure, bars come in all shapes and sizes, but the vision in your mind’s eye—is it not a tad … religious? Illuminated bottles are arranged in a manner that accentuates verticality, like an altar; together, they form a sort of stained-glass mosaic. Large mirrors rest behind the bottles, creating a sense of depth and symmetry not unlike the feeling of staring straight down the nave of a Gothic cathedral. Magnify the scale of architecture and the visual would be sobering, but in the more confined space of a bar, it most certainly isn’t.

The backbar asserts itself as a window into a bar’s soul—a visual proclamation of what the establishment has to offer, laid bare. What, then, does it say about a bar that doesn’t have one? “The bartender’s workspace varies widely from bar to bar,” Edward M. Kelly wrote in the 1991 manual Professional Bar Manager’s Handbook. “Typically, however, a back bar [sic] displays liquor in racks or levels.” Today, however, a handful of progressive bars around the world are embracing a more monastic approach to that real estate. 

 Tucked within one of Melbourne’s famed graffitied, GPS-averse alleyways, behind a much larger beer bar on Smith Street, is Above Board, the most minimalist cocktail bar in the city. In 2022, it ranked No. 44 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. There is a narrow strip of mirrors that lines the length of the backbar at Above Board, which, given how small the overall space is, almost forms a panorama. It’s interrupted only by a vase of flowers, sometimes a manual juice press, a jug of water—and the patrons themselves. Lounging in the bar’s unique, backstage-pass banquette seating, guests can watch mixology at work, from the opposite vantage of what they’re accustomed to. For those seated along the wood slab island, looking into Above Board’s backbar is to look at one’s own reflection, and the fellow drinkers sharing the intimate space together.

“Take away people’s perceptions of what you actually need in a bar, because the actuality of what you need in a bar is people,” says co-founder and lead bartender Hayden Lambert. “The booze is secondary.” 

Above Board Melbourne
Above Board, Melbourne | Photo James Morgan

Lambert takes the bar’s asceticism one step further with the bar well. All products used at Above Board are stripped of any identifiers and stored in unlabeled Hibiki bottles, stowed away in a console behind the bar island. Given the lack of storage in such a small bar, Lambert has had to be judicious with what he stocks. Above Board currently does not have any white rum; it has a batch of rye whiskey, but no bourbon. As such, flavors are blended to create approximations. There may not be any mezcal at the bar, for instance, but with some coaxing, a cocktail with peated Scotch can recall mezcal’s inherent smokiness in a satisfying way. “We pretty much chose the most variable products that we could use in every cocktail,” Lambert says.

London’s Bauhaus-inspired A Bar with Shapes for a Name shares a similar ethos. “By limiting yourself in terms of product, you develop yourself in terms of creativity,” says co-owner Paul Lougrat. Built around concepts of minimalism and functionality, nearly all of Shapes’ cocktails are pre-batched and bottled, but like Above Board, their well consists of a highly curated selection of unlabeled spirits. There is only one brand of gin on hand, only one kind of Scotch—each exemplar of form chosen via blind tasting.

A Bar With Shapes for a Name, London | Photo: Nick Warner

There is a distinct lack of visual noise at Shapes. The walls are white, unadorned aside from lighting. The rich mahogany backbar is nearly vacant, save for a projection of the bar logo—a triangle, a square, a circle—from an ’80s video projector situated just off to the side. There are no mirrors, only wood. “Mirrors extend the room. We wanted to have the opposite,” says Lougrat. “The idea is to have something that is very cocooning, very closed.” Without the typical fixtures and sightlines along the backbar, there is no space for the assumptions that dominate conversation at a more classically structured bar: It’s tough to insist upon an Aperol Spritz without evidence of Aperol on the shelves. Staring at a vacant backbar jolts a patron into the present and inspires dialogue. “As soon as you walk in, there is nothing that will stop you from your conversation,” Lougrat adds. “You stay focused on this moment that you’re creating.” 

In the back room of Double Chicken Please on New York’s Lower East Side, the spirits necessary for service are hidden behind a mural. But as at Shapes, most of their cocktails are batched or pre-prepared in one form or another, reinforcing a what-you-see-is-what-you-get proposition that more closely mimics a dinner party. “I want people to feel like they’ve come to visit our home,” says DCP co-owner GN Chan. “So you’re sitting at the kitchen counter, you’re interacting with us.”   

The mural in the back of DCP is itself a conversation starter: a chicken whose face has been smashed in by an ice cream cone, with enough propulsive force to expel a couple feathers. Focusing on the action within the piece, there is very little to suggest that there is even a chicken present at all, just formless swoops of white and red. What gives the chicken its familiar profile is precisely what took it away: the ice cream cone. The mural plays into the bar’s overall theme of deconstruction and reconstruction; the bar’s signature cocktails are inspired by classic foods like French toast and cold pizza.

Tayer + Elementary
Tayēr + Elementary, London | Photo: Bernard Zieja

These creative reconfigurations of bar space require the kind of confidence and clarity of vision typically associated with a fine-dining establishment. At London’s award-winning Tayēr (one half of twin bars Tayēr + Elementary), the backbar shelves are lined with proprietary liqueurs from owners Alex Kratena and Monica Berg’s Muyu project. On the menu, the drinks are presented without names in favor of a skeletal list of components (e.g., Paragon White Penja Pepper Cordial, matcha + chocolate) one would find at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

 The new conventions established at bars like Above Board, Shapes, Double Chicken Please and Tayēr + Elementary signal a shift in expectations of what a bar is meant to offer. There is an implicit trust in the process that doesn’t exist from someone insisting upon a Hendrick’s Martini. As the realms of food and drink become more and more entwined, so too do their respective principles. An extensive selection can be what gives a bar its identity, but it can also obscure it. At worst, the multitudes of choice create a bind akin to the near-infinite scroll of Netflix’s recommended categories: an illusion of infinite possibility that distracts from what a drinker actually wants to enjoy.  

“A chef doesn’t present all of their products and available ingredients and expect you to choose what should be on the menu,” Lambert says. “If you remove all the extra choices, then you’re left with what we have to offer.”

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