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Spirits Feature

Straight Up & Rare

by Jordan Mackay  jorgrama  jorgrama • posted on March 19, 2015

Two years ago, I received an invitation to an unusual dinner at The French Laundry. It was to celebrate the advent of the Yountville institution’s spirits program. No cocktails, just spirits. Chef Thomas Keller had recently returned from Scotland, where he’d become fascinated with The Macallan, and so he based the dinner on a vertical of Macallan Fine and Rare whiskies from the 1940s. Keller cooked to the spirits by concocting dishes such as a traditional meat pie with slow-cooked veal neck, sweetbreads and deviled veal kidneys.

Dennis Kelly Dennis Kelly
The whiskies were deep, burnished, complex and profound. After the dinner, Keller told me about the impression his visit to the Macallan distillery had made on him, the way the whisky had evoked the setting and vice versa and the way he loved that a single spirit can conjure a place, a mood and a thought—just as a great wine can.

I’ve never stopped thinking about how refreshing I found Keller’s concept. Most restaurants acquire a liquor license to serve cocktails. The French Laundry’s emphasis on pure, neat spirits was intriguing, especially since good cocktails, once rare, have become commonplace. A great spirit has the rare ability to serve as both an aperitif and a digestif. A nip of whisky before a meal gets the salivary glands firing, while after a meal, as Keller’s sommelier Dennis Kelly says, “It’s only my own speculation but it’s seemed to me that the alcohol stimulates bodily processes and enzyme production to aid digestion. It’s just always felt like that to me—a digestif after a big meal is a beautiful thing.”

Thad Vogler highlights unique collections of spirits at his two restaurants in San Francisco, Bar Agricole, focused on rhum agricole, and Trou Normand, inspired by Calvados and French brandy. “The grower-producer spirits market is completely untapped,” says the bartender-turned-restaurateur. “Compared to wine, what’s amazing is that I can have access to some of the greatest spirits—the equivalents of DRC in their categories—with no problem at all, just by wandering in.”

Thad Vogler Thad Vogler
Vogler focuses on small distillers who are still connected to their raw ingredients—what he calls “grower-producer” spirits—eschewing the categories now largely dominated by multinationals—Tequila and whiskey, primarily. He mentions a rarefied producer of Armagnac, the 200-year-old Domaine Boingnères: “You can walk around her chai and buy full vats.” It’s only a matter of time before people catch on, he says, “though unlike with wine or food, in spirits I can be right out on the cutting edge of the market without any competition.” Vogler’s restaurants have robust cocktail programs, yet with every chance he gets he pushes education about rhum agricole, Calvados and brandy. “Our bread is buttered by cocktails, but we’re all spirits geeks,” he explains. “So we’ve found a way of geeking out about spirits that is sustained by the cocktail program.”

At The French Laundry, Dennis Kelly trades almost exclusively in rare spirits. Unlike Vogler’s Indiana Jones–like forays into foreign lands to source his spirits, Kelly’s treasure hunt is much more like tracking down a piece of art or an antique, searching through cellars and then negotiating on the old and rare. The Macallan is the only brand of Scotch he lists and it accounts for 20 of his 77 total selections, ranging from a 19-year-old bottled by Gordon & MacPhail for $40 a glass to the 1949 Millennium 50-year-old for $2,500. Besides Scotch, Kelly’s list is heavy on rarities like a Hennessy Cognac distilled in 1900 and bottled in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II ($950) and Chartreuse from the ’40s and ’50s. Spirits sales, says Kelly, are much bigger in spring and summer, when weather permits guests to sit out in the garden and enjoy spirits and cigars. Despite cost and seasonality, he says, “the program has been incredibly successful. We’ve had to expand both spirits and cigars exponentially since we started them.”

In Chicago, Alex Bachman has created a blend of less-explored pure, neat spirits, rare bottlings and cocktails at Yusho and Billy Sunday. He features cocktails, but also offers deep, rare and fascinating collections for spirits purists. Somewhat incongruously, it was at Yusho, a Japanese-inspired restaurant, that Bachman developed his rare amaro program, which featured vintage fernets from ancient greats like Felice Vittone and Angelo Gentile (he describes them as the “matriarch and patriarch” of fernet production in the 1920s and ’30s). This proved popular, but not necessarily in line with Yusho‘s theme, so Bachman moved most of the collection over to Billy Sunday, where he continues to source rare amari from Italy. At Yusho, the spirits theme has become Japanese whisky, a category ripe for the adventurous collector since only two portfolios are currently imported to the US. Bachman has bolstered this collection with suitcase imports and bottlings from two legendary, defunct labels, Hanyu and Karuizawa. As a mixologist and treasure hunter, Bachman hopes to “expand the expectations people have for the spirit genre.”

This story was featured in W&S April 2015.