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Behind the Backbar at Seattle’s Barnacle

In this round of “Anatomy of a Backbar,” a look at this diminutive Seattle bar's collection of more than 180 bottles of amaro, aperitivo bitters and vermouth from around the world.

When celebrated Seattle chef Renee Erickson opened her restaurant, The Walrus and the Carpenter, in the winter of 2009, her little neighborhood oyster bar quickly garnered national acclaim, causing two-hour-plus wait times for a seat. To help with the overflow, in 2013, she took over the narrow, 755-square-foot space next door and created a Seattle version of the aperitivo bars she had encountered on her travels to Italy, right down to the complimentary potato chips. She named it Barnacle.

Today, the space, which seats just 20 people with standing room for 10 more, is dominated by a bright white backbar reaching to the ceiling, lined with over 180 bottles (the number is always in flux), focusing on amaro and vermouth. The bittersweet breakdown amounts to roughly 63 bottles of amaro, 17 aperitivo bitters, 30 bottles of vermouth and fortified wines and an abbreviated lineup of base spirits.

“We are a weird and fun little bar with weird and fun booze,” says Brady Sprouse, bar manager of Barnacle and The Walrus and the Carpenter. Sprouse carries on the amaro torch passed to him by former co-owner and operator, David Little, who left in June, but whose influence lives on. “I really encourage the staff to embrace that.”

Though Sprouse has kept much in line with Little’s original vision for Barnacle, he has made some changes, namely in streamlining points of service and reorganizing both the menu and backbar. Together with bar lead, Damon Dhanens, he overhauled how the bottles were displayed, shifting from a system of least to most bitter to one that’s more adherent to type. Above the first shelves, which hold traditional base spirits, are bottles broken out by primary category, starting with red aperitvo bitters (Aperol, Campari, Contratto), then fernets. The remaining amaro bottles are arranged by Italian and non-Italian, then vermouth. From there, liqueurs are grouped to be either bitter, herbal or sweet.

“Ultimately, we were trying to make our program more accessible to everyone,” says Dhanens.

In a similar vein, they’ve redesigned the cocktail menu to include tasting notes and descriptors. The amari list, meanwhile, is broken into categories labeled Facile (Easy), Media (medium), Difficile (difficult) and Strambo (wacky). The Facile might feature Cardamaro, Amaro Montenegro and Amaro Nonino Quintessentia while the Strambo often includes Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista, Don Ciccio & Figli Amaro Tonico Ferro-Kina and Salmiakki Dala Scandinavian Fernet. As the popularity of amaro continues to rise, Dhanens points out that “most guests are definitely more understanding and open to what we’re doing and way more interested in trying new amari and getting out of their comfort zones.”

That’s part of the reason that Sprouse remains committed to Little’s desire to bring in as many new bottles as possible, especially the growing number of domestic amari that have come to market in recent years. For example, Sprouse notes that The Woods Spirit Co.’s amaro from British Columbia “has become a staple for us to showcase,” and also admires Amaro Amorino from Seattle’s Letterpress Distilling.

With a bar as tiny as Barnacle, there’s a lot of room to take chances, and to make a real impact on the drinker’s understanding of this still-esoteric world of bitter liqueurs. That’s part of the staff’s mission, but, according to Sprouse, fun must come first.

“Barnacle is at its best when it is packed and people are drinking and having a good time,” he says. “Basically, I want everyone to feel like they’re invited to our cocktail party that happens every Wednesday through Sunday, from 4 p.m. to midnight.”

Barnacle In Five Bottles

Amaro Meletti

Amaro Meletti is one of the most affordable brands of amaro on the market, and its lighter profile, with floral notes of saffron and orange peel, makes it a great gateway bottle to the world of amaro. “This is my go-to for cocktails,” says Sprouse. “I get teased sometimes for how much I utilize it, especially in the place of vermouth. It has a bit more sugar and bitterness, which really brings a bold body.”

  • Price: $17
  • From: Ascoli Piceno, Marche, Italy
  • ABV: 32 percent

Fernet del Frate Angelico

“This is probably our favorite fernet on the back bar,” says Sprouse, who considers Fernet del Frate Angelico to be one of the finest expressions within the crowded fernet category. Imported by Tempus Fugit Spirits and available in the U.S. since 2013, it’s produced in Switzerland but based on an Italian fernet recipe purchased from the Cusatelli Distillery in Milan in 1930. “It’s my favorite to sip on when I’m in the mood to savor something bitter and fernet-y,” he says. “It’s dry but big and bold at the same time.”

  • Price: $59
  • From: Kallnach, Bern, Switzerland
  • ABV: 44 percent

Amaro Braulio

For Barnacle bar lead Damon Dhanens, Braulio is a staple for introducing people to amaro, and a go-to for customized amari flights. Born in Bormio in the Italian Alps near the Swiss border in 1875, this barrel-aged blend is a leading example of the alpine style of amaro. “It’s got a lot going on with all those alpine spices—pine, chamomile, spearmint,” says Sprouse. “It’s medium-bodied and pronounced, but it’s not overpowering in its bitterness, which makes it really approachable and a great representation of its style.”

  • Price: $36
  • From: Bormio, Lombardy, Italy
  • ABV: 21 percent

Amargo-Vallet Bark of Angostura Aperitivo

The bitter cousin to the Mexican Fernet-Vallet, created by the French chemist and émigré Henri Vallet in the 1880s, this is made with actual Angostura bark, along with macerated cherries, cloves and other warming spices. Sprouse turns to this for people who are ready to venture outside their comfort zone: “This one has a bitter bite that I love to pair in 50/50s with some aged rum or sherry… or both for that matter.”

  • Price: $30
  • From: Santiago Tulantepec, Hidalgo, Mexico
  • ABV: 45 percent

Cappelletti Elisir Novasalus Vino Amaro

“Novasalus is a polarizing thing. It’s very, very bitter and super weird, in the best of ways,” says Sprouse. Based on a recipe from the 1920s and first imported by Haus Alpenz in 2014, the wine-based amaro contains burdock, cinchona bark, gentian, dandelion, alpine herbs and flowers, and is sweetened with Sicilian tree sap (which, as you may suspect, isn’t all that sweet). It’s a bracingly bitter palate-wrecker that bats cleanup in Barnacle’s strambo (“wacky”) tasting flight. “We save this for people who want to venture to the outskirts of challenging,” says Sprouse. “We also use it to haze new employees.”

  • Price: $25
  • From: Aldeno, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
  • ABV: 16.5 percent

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