The Back Bar

by Naren Young

I’m sitting in the awkwardly silent confines of the Columbia Room, the wonderful Zen-like bar from Washington’s favorite son (well, at least in a bartending capacity), Derek Brown. It’s a tiny shoebox of a room, taking its inspiration quite clearly from the bar model seen in thousands of office buildings throughout Japan, where space is at a premium and these tiny hidden cocktail havens have become the stuff of legend; a reason for pilgrimage, a place of reflection, a cocoon of civilized anonymity. Cue the ‘Like’ button.

What I’m most inspired by, at least for this article, is Brown’s tiny selection of spirits, liqueurs and other strange elixirs that grace his back bar. I continued to peruse, struck by the stark nature of its composition, perhaps executed to fit in with the simplicity of the room. It was, and is, the very reason I am writing this. It took me back to another time and place when I used to man a bar in Sydney called the Bayswater Brasserie. We were known for many things, but perhaps of most significance was our immense and intimidating back bar, which had about 400 bottles proudly displayed. Clearly the opposite modus operandi than Brown’s.

While I figured I had a justifiable reason why each of those bottles deserved to be there, did I really need those 20 vodkas? Of course not, in hindsight. Did I need a crème de cassis, a crème de mure and a cherry liqueur? Probably not. But the industry and indeed people change, like I have. While I still love seeing a beautifully vast and curated selection of hooch, I am part of a select group of people known as the bar community that (should) know a lot more about those spirits than the Joe Public. Bigger is not always better.

What I’ve come to appreciate even more now though, is those proprietors (like Derek Brown) who have chosen a different path; one that promotes a very thoughtful process in choosing what they stock in their bar. Do their drinks suffer because of this? Of course not (the drinks are mind numbingly good here, for the record). Compiling, or culling as it were, a list of spirits that is small, thoughtful and interesting is a far more difficult proposition than simply stacking your bar with hundreds of bottles, many of which will rarely be used and possibly even confuse both the clientele and the staff.

I spoke to Derek about his philosophy and here’s what he had to say:

“Our philosophy is strong, traditional spirits. We love gin, genever, rye, bourbon, aquavit, mezcal, which may mirror a general trend in cocktail bars, but then that's the majority of what we carry. There are no softballs or spirits we have to carry. It may seem counterintuitive to service but we believe our guests seek out such a small enclave partly because they want something different and a touch of ‘wow.’ We just can't wow them with Captain Morgan’s or Belvedere. There's no adventure in that. 

“On the other hand, we do very extensive tastings. Settling on what gin or rye is not just what's our favorite, but what works in cocktails. Old Weller Antique is a perfect example. Boozy, but with a lot of confectionary notes. It's not something I sip on the rocks, but then it's perfect in something like the Fancy Free with bourbon, maraschino, sugar, aromatic & orange bitters.”

No matter the size of your back bar or spirits inventory, the focus should always, always be on quality product and having a balanced selection. There’s no point in boasting a mammoth Tequila selection when your house pour is Montezuma or some other crappy mixto. If you only carry three or four gins, do they all vary in flavor profile? Is there something classic and juniper forward such as Tanqueray, Beefeater, Junipero or Gordon’s? Is there something softer and more aromatic like Hendrick’s, Tanqueray 10, Brooklyn or Spring 44? I could go on and on but you get the picture.

Having a great back bar is not about boasting a selection of spirits and liqueurs no one has heard of, with catchy marketing terms like ‘boutique’, ‘small batch’, ‘handmade’, ‘artisanal’ or my personal favorite, ‘super premium.’ Just because a spirit has one of these words on the bottle, or you choose to support local distilleries (which I completely condone), doesn’t mean they’re any good.

Too often I walk into a bar and see a wonderful selection of amaros that aren’t available in this country, contraband Tequilas smuggled in from Mexico, barrel aged genevers, absinthes distilled in a barn down the road and rare Scandinavian aquavits only to be let down by having a poor quality pisco, or cachaca, or a slew of flavored vodkas. If you’re going to profess to being a great bar, then take a good look at everything you stock. Everything.

Look over every single product on your back bar and ask yourself:

‘Do I actually need this product?’

‘What is the reason I have this product on my bar?’

‘Is this the best product in its category that I can afford?’

‘Am I (and my staff) equipped with the knowledge to sell it?’

‘Do I know the best way to serve this product?’

‘Does it taste any good?’

Read more from Editorial.