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Is the More-Is-More Spirits List Overrated?

Why some of today’s most prominent bartenders are advocating for smaller, more carefully curated programs.

Bar Agricole SF

Thad Vogler plans to open his long-awaited third bar, Obispo, in San Francisco this autumn. Obispo will be a rum bar, and single-spirit-focused bars tend to strike a completist attitude when assembling their stock, lining the back bars with every example of said spirit available. So how many rums with Obispo carry?

“About four,” says Vogler.

He’s kidding, of course, but not entirely. Vogler is a prominent advocate of a minimalist approach to cocktail bar inventory—the tightly curated backbar. The bottle selections at his two other San Francisco bars, Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, are famously stingy, comprised of only 30 to 40 labels. Most of them are not familiar to the average drinker: There’s no Jameson, no Beam, no Grey Goose.

“For us, there’s a relationship,” with each spirit, he says. “There’s no governing dogma we use, but a relationship counts for a lot. If we’ve visited the place, that counts for something. It would be great if spirits are as traceable as wine, but we’re nowhere close.”

For most of the latter 20th century, the American backbar was a pretty meager affair. Spirits selections numbered a few dozen, and brands varied little from bar to bar. The breed of bartender and bar owner who came of age in the aughts sought to upend that status quo. They took spirit selection out of the hands of bullying, bottom-line-minded distributors and placed it in their own epicurean grip. Though some commonplace commercial spirits got the boot, this policy typically resulted in adding on to the inventory, rather than paring back. During the peak early years of the cocktail and spirits revival, bigger was considered better—that you had every bourbon, gin and amaro that mattered was a point of pride.

To a large extent, this model is still the one that reigns supreme. A few prominent cocktail bars, however, have taken an opposing tack, telegraphing their seriousness through a discriminatory booze collection.

“We’re saying, ‘This is what we sell. I’m not going to pour something in your glass as a guest that I wouldn’t pour in my glass at home,'” says Ryan Fitzgerald, one of the owners of ABV in San Francisco.

Though ABV boasts a much larger selection than Bar Agricole, the philosophy is similar. “There’s a ton of things that we don’t have,” says Fitzgerald, who worked with Vogler at Beretta starting in 2008, and was impressed by his discerning ways. “It’s only stuff where we stand behind the people who make it,” he says. “We don’t carry stuff because we got a good deal on it, or because we’re friends with the people who sell it.”

What they do carry isn’t always commercial. ABV has four rancio wines and four Madeiras by the glass. They believe in the liquid, but not everyone else does. “Very few people come in for them,” admits Fitzgerald.

While the owners eschew dozens of familiar brands, when they do like a producer, they go all in. ABV has every expression of Del Maguey mezcal and nine different Scotches by Springbank; the Brooklyn bar Sauvage is similarly obsessed with that Campbeltown whisky maker. Among Sauvage’s 300 bottles, there’s also a preponderance of rums by importer Ed Hamilton; Neisson, the Martinique distiller of rhum agricole; as well as many eau de vies, Calvados and sloe berry liqueurs.

“I wanted to focus not just on a producer,” says bar director William Elliott, explaining that the idea was to explore each producer’s catalogue of products in a deeper way. “This is a very personal bar for me. This is the bar I’d like to drink at. It’s a reflection of my desires.”

Personal taste and principles are bedrock reasons why certain bars trim their backbars. But they aren’t the only motivators for wielding the pruning shears. Another is real estate. Latitude 29, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s New Orleans tiki haven, is 1,500 square feet. So, even if Berry wanted 400 rums on his back bar, he probably couldn’t fit them. That said, by the time he opened the bar in 2014, he had grown weary of elephantine spirit lists.

“It was like reading the phone book,” he says. “I’m basically playing pin the tail on the donkey. Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I won’t. On the connoisseur level, I don’t think that there are that many great rums out there. I think there’s a lot of chaff. It’s your job as owner to separate the wheat from the chaff.” At Latitude 29, that means there are never more than 30 rums on the bar’s list of sipping spirits.

Vogler, who could be called the father of this movement, was influenced by Milk & Honey, the famous New York speakeasy that carried relatively few bottles. It taught him “what you can do with eight or nine bottles, if you know them well and like them,” he says.

Later, when Vogler was bar director at Slanted Door in San Francisco, he grew more aggressive in his exclusionary ways, yanking established brand after established brand from the shelves. “It was this post-punk sensibility of ‘This is lame, this is lame, this is corporate interest,’ etc.,” he recalls.

That left him with the question: “Well, what are you going to sell?” The answer was products whose quality and process he could trust and verify. That, in Vogler’s view, didn’t leave many. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought one thing about a spirit and it turned out to be something else altogether,” he says. Today, he errs on the side of caution, not carrying a spirit if he’s not certain of its provenance.

A fussy spirits buyer must have a thick skin, as being choosy brings with it some social negatives. At Slanted Door, Vogler’s discriminating ways led to some unpleasant run-ins with distributors. “It was really arduous initially,” he remembers. “Diageo reps would call the owner. Southern Wine & Spirits reps would call the owner. I was really surprised. I didn’t think anyone would care. But they did.”

Not playing ball with Big Liquor can also mean that the gravy train enjoyed by many cocktail bartenders—such as gratis trade trips around the world—won’t make a stop at your bar. Customer relations can also be strained. A patron that calls for their usual and is told it’s not available must be soothed and gently coaxed into the bar’s way of thinking. Over time, though, bartenders at these bars have become skilled at managing drinkers’ expectations. “Our staff has to be good at being nice,” says Fitzgerald, “doing nothing to make that person feel stupid, but giving them an opportunity to see why we carry one thing and not another.”

Though the bars mentioned are well-known and widely respected, their proprietors remain lone wolves. There are no signs that the tightly curated backbar will became the blueprint of the future. Vogler expressed weary surprise that more bars had not followed this path, and Berry said he regards himself as swimming against the current. Fitzgerald, too.

“It’s kind of depressing,” says Fitzgerald. “I wish more would do it, especially more spirit-specific bars, like a mezcal bar. It would be cool if they said, ‘No, we don’t carry every mezcal possible. Because not all of them are good.'”

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