Behind the Bar

How to Run a Bar That Specializes in a Single Spirit

Interior of a bar
Running a single spirit bar has its challenges, but it also leaves extra room for creativity. San Francisco's Whitechapel focuses on gin, and is accordingly decorated like a London subway station. Photo courtesy of Whitechapel.

As if tending bar doesn’t have enough challenges — from keeping guests happy when you’re ten deep in the weeds to your aching feet and soaked jeans from the inevitable spills and thrills of shaking and stirring all night long. Let’s throw one more at you. Working with a single base spirit like rum or gin evening after evening. Would you get bored? Would you run out of ways to be creative? What about that customer who only wants a vodka tonic when the bar’s focus is whiskey?

We sat down with Martin Cate of San Francisco's rum-soaked Smuggler’s Cove and gin joint Whitechapel, Bazil Zerinsky of New Orlean’s pisco-driven Catahoula Hotel, and Bill Thomas, curator of the western hemisphere’s largest whiskey collection at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. to discuss the challenges, geek appeal and inspiration when the focus is a single spirit.

Challenges of a single spirit bar

Martin Cate: “One of the biggest challenges is inventory management. Keeping track of what is in and out of stock. Reordering is a full-time job. Slight product variations like proof, distillation year, etc. can be easy to mix up, so you have to stay detailed. Fortunately, we have tools like Bevager to help with inventory. As for the products themselves, the challenges lie in changing consumer perceptions. With rum, the spirit itself already telegraphs a good time — the challenge is to get guests to see it as sophisticated as well. With gin, the situation is somewhat reversed. People see it as a serious and sophisticated spirit, but we like them to see how versatile and playful it is.”

Bazil Zerinsky: “The biggest challenge is finding the best way to describe pisco to those who have never had it. Our go-to is describing it as un-aged Peruvian brandy, but I'm always trying to find new and better ways to explain and introduce it to guests. A drink like the chilcano (pisco, housemade ginger beer and lime) is always a good starting point for someone who's never had pisco. It's similar to a Moscow Mule.”

Bill Thomas: “We’ve been lucky enough at Jack Rose to anticipate that exact preconceived notion (of only being a whiskey bar.) With the largest whiskey collection in the western hemisphere, we knew that alone would create extreme buzz. We purposely named the bar after a classic cocktail made with apple brandy and added the words 'dining saloon' to ensure that cocktails and food were always at the forefront of the concept. We’ve got five different bars within Jack Rose, with four separate cocktail menus, plus two separate kitchens and food menus, each paired to their environment. Whiskey might appear to be the focus in the saloon bar, but that cocktail menu also spans a variety of other spirits including gin, rum, cachaca, tequila, mezcal, brandy, cognac, amaro, and vodka. There’s really something for everyone. We’re not just whiskey, but we do it exceptionally well.”

Training your staff

Cate: “At Smuggler's, we focus training on a categorization method that defines rums by production method. The staff are introduced to new products with this in mind which allows for rums to be judged with certain criteria and expectations. At Whitechapel, we have a full-time gin sommelier on staff, our “Ginnoisseur,” Keli Rivers. While maintaining our inventory and running our gin education club, she also hosts weekly staff trainings on new gins and on product categories.”

Zerinsky: “We've been lucky enough to have Diego from Barsol and some of the guys from both Campo de Encanto and Porton come in and do some staff training and tastings. All of the bartenders are required to learn the basics about pisco production and history, and complete tasting notes on all of the piscos we stock behind the bar as part of that training process.”

Thomas: “We’re lucky we attract the kind of professionals who want to make a career of hospitality. Our staff is informed, intelligent and many are often drawn to Jack Rose because of their natural interest and passion about the world of spirits, whiskey and cocktails. This includes servers, managers and of course, our designated group of ‘whiskey advisors’ whose sole job is to assist guests in choosing from our selection of 2,700 different whiskeys. We support their constant learning with weekly training, tasting sessions, creative brainstorming sessions and on occasion, exams.”

Keeping boredom at bay

Cate: “With over 100 drinks on each menu, there's quite a bit of diversity in your daily mixing, so boredom doesn't really come easily. Probably the wrong bars to work at if you don't care for either spirit.”

Zerinsky: “While the majority of the drinks on the menu are pisco-based, we do also have a section for non-pisco based cocktails for when we want to change it up a bit. But, we've all become really excited about pisco. It’s quite versatile. We have a lot of fun trying to find new and creative ways to make it shine.”

Thomas: “You can’t get bored with a spirit when you have access to bottles from over a century of distilling. You can spend a lifetime tasting through whiskeys that have already been bottled, not to mention the hundreds of distilleries making whiskey today. When there’s constant creative experimentation in the cooperage, mashbills, still styles, aging, there’s always something new to look forward to.”

Mastering a single spirit

Cate: “It's allowed me to put all of my attention into the history, production and nuances of these spirits. It lets us make a more potent and educated case for our guests. Both venues offer self-guided education programs for our guests that really let them dive into the spirit on their own. I feel like we made hundreds of better-informed consumers who can visit a big liquor store and know exactly what styles of rum and gin they prefer because they've had the opportunity to taste through dozens (or even hundreds) of expressions.”

Zerinsky: “When working with one spirit, it requires a lot of creativity to come up with new and unique drinks which showcase the distinct flavors in pisco. All of us have slightly different approaches, and we're constantly learning from one another. Continuing to learn while on the job is a big component to help yourself grow as a bartender. I've been bartending for over 11 years, but there has already been so much I've learned in the three months we've been open. Pisco was something I knew fairly little about when starting here, and now I love teaching others about it because it's such a fascinating spirit.”

Thomas: “Focusing on the history of the spirit has made me understand the love and care each distiller and distillery has put into making the iconic whiskeys of the past. And, it's made me watchful of today’s distillers and seeing their processes and their passion to create the next great whiskey. Being able to connect these two periods in whiskey-making has allowed me to educate and share the magic that is the spirit of whiskey. The whiskey collection at Jack Rose is like a beacon to the lovers of whiskey. Our whiskey selection is ‘living’ and constantly rotating, with rare and interesting bottles being added to the menu every day.”

The customer who just wants a vodka tonic

Cate: “We have a small selection of other spirits at each bar, and guests are welcome to drink whatever they like, but the selection won't be especially exciting. We sell less and less (other spirits) anyway. Smuggler's now sells 93% rum and rum cocktails. People are visiting us because of what we do, not in spite of what we do.”

Zerinsky: “We've got plenty of options for the non-pisco drinker. We've got a full bar and all of us are happy to make anything. I've made everything from mudslides and Long Islands to Sazeracs and martinis. Drinking should be fun, so feel free to order whatever you want. If we have the ingredients, we'll happily make it for you!”

Thomas: “We always say there’s no wrong way to drink whiskey, and to never make a guest feel uncomfortable about what they drink. We’re in the hospitality industry, and at the end of the day, our only goal is to deliver the guest’s preference the way they want it. If an opportunity arises to help educate or enhance their experience at Jack Rose, our staff is happy to jump in.”

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