Thad Vogler Raises the Bar with Regional Offerings
Thad Vogler is many things. He is a California native, in tune with the rich agricultural diversity of the Bay Area. He is a pioneer of the term “regionalism,” having developed a penchant for products that express their own local agricultural identity. He is the co-author of "31 Rules for Bartending" with his colleague Erik Adkins, a guideline for their standards of hospitality. He is the owner of Bar Agricole, Trou Normand, and the forthcoming Obispo, bars that marry his ideologies around sourcing and service. He is now an author, having just released his first book, By the Smoke & the Smell, equal parts memoir and travelogue. He is also my ally, one who agrees that spirits are agricultural products, born from the same foods we eat at our dinner tables.
I’m an interviewer at UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center and specialize in contemporary cocktail history. Though I interview bartenders and distillers about their work in the industry, what brought me to my niche specialty is my background in environmental studies. I believe that spirits, like food, are part of the food system. So when I heard that Vogler speaks about sourcing spirits in terms of regional identity and terroir, demands transparency from producers, and rejects artificial additives, I felt immediately drawn to his philosophy.
During my time inter-viewing Vogler, we discussed his upbringing, his travels, his decision to accept bar work as a legitimate profession, and how he started relating spirits to food. This began when he worked for Charles Phan at The Slanted Door as the bar manager. Phan, like many in the Bay Area, subscribe to the Alice Waters school of responsible, seasonal sourcing. “I didn’t say, ‘Aha! Agriculture!,” he recalls. “It started with food. Slowly, like anything else, I started to realize that spirits are made of the same stuff as food and wine. But we didn’t always think about it that way. Gradually, I’m becoming more interested in ingredient-driven food while coming at it through the back door of spirits.”
Phan gave Vogler the freedom to build out the bar program from this point of view. This autonomy afforded him the ability to take a closer look at how certain companies make their spirits. “It was like, why are we selling stuff that has artificial colors and flavors? Why are we selling stuff that has industrial sweeteners?" he says. When we weeded out that stuff, I realized I was getting closer and closer to the agricultural origin of whatever the product was. I ended up with good brandy, agricole rum, and scotch. There’s a sense of place.”
Adkins, who worked under Vogler at The Slanted Door during this period, remembers when Vogler was starting to draw these conclusions. “He just stopped ordering products and pared everything down,” Adkins says. “He got away from a lot of the branding and actually looked at the bar as an extension of the kitchen. And it made sense. The wine program was very agriculturally based. The food comes from the Alice Waters school. He wanted the bar to be like that.”
Vogler began to travel around the world to meet producers and see their facilities firsthand. This has become an important part of his process. He gets to meet producers (many of whom are grower-producers), taste their spirits, and talk to them about their way of doing things and the state of the industry. He uses these as sourcing trips to pick bottles for his bars. And, the cocktail programs at Bar Agricole and Trou Normand benefit from these efforts. They have become among the most revered in the country, usually nominated for James Beard Foundation Awards.
In By the Smoke & the Smell, Vogler chronicles his travels and his parameters for sourcing. He details his trips to Oaxaca, Scotland, France, and Kentucky (where he was the night of the 2016 presidential election). The result is an inspiring collection of ruminations on his conversations with his colleagues, the producers who try to capture the essence of a crop in the bottle, his feelings about American whiskey, and why engaging in the quest for information is important. Vogler champions the idea of regionalism, finding expressions of place and time most compelling, and why flavor is the most important factor. It’s a look at the world through his eyes.
Carrying spirits from small grower-producers is not without its challenges, and isn’t always romantic. While many people are used to seeing the same bottles of gin on every back bar in San Francisco, a lack of brand familiarity can make consumers uncomfortable. Vogler is acutely aware of this, and uses hospitality to make people feel welcome, not like they are doing something wrong by being there. He chooses to keep his back bars clear of bottles so that it’s not alienating to people who aren’t in the know or serving as free advertising. He hires staff who are friendly first and trains them in his style of service. He uses language as a tool, saying “Welcome” instead of “Hey, how are you,” and “Thank you for your patience” instead of “I’m sorry for your wait.” He encourages his bartenders to make guests feel like they are discovering something new and cool instead of constantly saying, “No, we don’t have that.” Vogler spent a lot of time discussing the power of hospitality, especially at a bar that carries lesser-known products, with Adkins when they worked together at The Slanted Door. “Looking back, it really all distills down to having manners. You’re being a host,” says Adkins. Together they developed the "31 Steps of Service," which was formally published in 2014 by the online magazine 7x7. The guidlines are now used in training manuals at bars all over the Bay Area. Though Vogler has never explicitly told me this, my guess is that much of his contributions to the "31 Steps" stemmed from his experiences being hosted at countless distilleries abroad.
Sticking to your guns is never easy, and can be especially difficult in the bar business. There’s pressure to pay rent on time, ensure your employees are making enough to continue to live in the Bay Area, and keep your barstools occupied. Vogler’s dogmatic approach to staying true to himself and his values has become his local identity, one that I’m happy to support. It’s a big bonus that I know I can always count on a fantastic drink when I pull up a seat at his bar.
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Thad Vogler Raises the Bar with Regional Offerings was originally published in the Fall issue © 2017 Edible San Francisco. Photo © Alanna Hale.