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Behind the Backbar at Seattle’s Canon

In "Anatomy of a Backbar" we get to know the world's most notable spirits programs in five bottles. This round, Canon, where Jamie Boudreau stocks an expansive collection of rare and vintage spirits.

Canon Seattle

Jamie Boudreau designed Canon’s backbar—with its impressive shelving and soaring array of spirits—so that customers would feel they were utterly, lavishly, wrapped up in bottles. But since opening the Seattle bar in 2011, he’s extended that sensation well beyond the traditional parameters. In addition to filling a large, wooden armoire, the 4,000-label collection currently spreads onto shelves in both the hallway and in the bathrooms, while another 100 or so bottles are stocked in the basement, still awaiting a permanent home within the intimate, 32-seat cocktail bar.

Beyond sheer volume, Canon lays claim to some especially old and rare spirits, boasting what Boudreau says is the world’s largest collection of American whiskey. That category, he says, is one that he decided to specialize in early on: “We have more vintage than the Bourbon Museum in Kentucky, and many of their bottles are empty,” he jokes.

Equally impressive is the bar’s wide selection of especially historic bottles—like 60-year-old Calvados and nearly 80-year-old Chartreuse—many of which are not only offered by the glass, but are also integrated into cocktails. (Using them in classics like the Pegu Club and the Negroni, the vintage cocktail list draws on spirits that date back to the 1960s, and even the turn of the century, with drinks offered for upwards of $200 a piece.)

Rather than develop blanket guidelines for stocking his backbar, like only buying local or sticking to small batches, Boudreau says that he’s equally open to prestige labels as he is to obscurities. However, he explains that his method for sourcing and buying spirits has changed over the years since he first began collecting them personally in the early 2000s. Then, he says, “I’d pretty much take anything I could get my hands on,” usually buying via eBay or exploring small liquor stores located off the beaten path.

Canon Seattle

Today, however, he approaches these transactions with the rigor the rest of us might apply to buying a car—something that’s become especially important, given the rising popularity (and cost) of vintage and rare spirits. Occasionally spending thousands of dollars on a single purchase, Boudreau now requests photos of every angle of a bottle, plus the seals and fill line. “Even with all that, you still don’t know what’s in the bottle until you actually taste it,” he says.

Despite their high cost, these spirits do manage to sell at the bar. In fact, Boudreau explains that he lets customers’ preferences dictate how much real estate is given to a certain category—and the fact that Canon boasts particularly extensive amaro and absinthe collections tells you something about its clientele.

Of course, orders for vintage pours don’t happen every day; Boudreau explains that it’s more like every week. And with an estimated $1.5 million in inventory, he’s aware that he won’t get his money back fully on most of these bottles. But, he explains, going to Canon is as much about being surrounded by the collection, as it is about drinking from it. “People come to be in the room.”

Get to Know Canon in Five Bottles

Chartreuse Tarragona 1935

Give a Chartreuse nearly 80 years, and “different botanicals just start popping up or disappearing,” says Boudreau. “It’s constantly evolving.” When the French government nationalized Chartreuse distilling in 1903, the monks producing it decamped to Spain for a few decades, where the warmer climate imparted a distinct flavor.

  • ABV: 43 percent

Karuizawa 1983 30-Year Geisha #8606

This now-defunct Japanese distillery is typically just referred to as “Zawa.” Boudreau says that he’s still kicking himself for not buying more when he had a chance; bottles that once went for $10,000 have quadrupled in price since he added this to his list.

  • ABV: 55.8 percent

Pierre Ferrand Renegade Barrel No. 1

This release from a house known for great-value Cognacs caused Boudreau to do something he hardly ever permits himself to do with such a limited release: “I took a bottle home and consumed it rather rapidly,” he says. Aged in an unusual combination of Cognac and sauternes casks, Boudreau says that the results are more complex than sweet.

  • ABV: 48 percent

Willett 21-Year-Old

Boudreau describes Willett as one of his favorite bourbon distilleries and is partial to the family reserve line. This bottle dates back to the era when the family-owned Kentucky distillery sourced whiskeys to age on site while rebuilding its own still.

  • ABV: 68.4 percent

Domaine du Bordage 60-Year Calvados Circa 1900

Boudreau has long hunted for more details on this Calvados, which spent an astonishing 60 years in barrel. The scant info he can find, some of it only in French, doesn’t yield much additional explanation for the uncommon flavor, which Boudreau describes as “unicorns squirting rainbows…with an insanely vibrant finish that will finish you.” This is the bottle he pulls out when spirits industry veterans come to visit. The mysterious origin, he says, is part of the charm.

  • ABV: 40 percent

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Allecia Vermillion is a Portland native living in Seattle, where she is the food and drink editor of Seattle Met magazine by day and a respectably prolific beer and wine drinker by night.