Before Thad Vogler owned and operated a handful of San Francisco’s most notable bars; before he was roving the globe chasing (and writing about) Calvados in Normandy and vermouth in Turin; and long before he accepted a James Beard Award this past May, for which his bar had been nominated every year since 2012; he was pouring vodka. Lots and lots of vodka—the same stuff every other bartender in America was pouring night after night, every single shift. Back then, it was impossible for Vogler to imagine a day in which he would be making drinks with anything but vodka; certainly not with bottles of carefully distilled, small-batch gin made just across the Bay.
In the ’90s, Vogler was tending bar in San Francisco, but the scenery each night could have been anywhere: in front of him, customers asking for vodka cranberries, vodka tonics, vodka sodas, and later, Lemon Drops and Cosmos—“we made those by the thousands,” he says. Behind him, a backbar laden with hundreds of bottles of mass-produced spirits. In between was Vogler, looking and waiting for something interesting to pour into a glass. He remembers one ahead-of-its-time San Francisco bar, Club Deluxe, where the servers wore rockabilly clothes and put bitters into their Manhattans. “It was a very cool place to go, and I remember appreciating that they stirred their drinks there,” Vogler says.
He laughs now—the bar, back then, was pretty low.
Over the course of the ’90s, Vogler had worked for a handful of bars and fine-dining restaurants. But in 2001, he signed on to manage the bar program at The Slanted Door, a pioneering Vietnamese restaurant that opened in 1995 (and, nearly two decades later, won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant).
Tasked with stocking the bar’s shelves, Vogler—who came of age in the post-punk era of the late ’70s and ’80s—was reminded of digging through bins of vinyl. “Buying booze became like buying records: lame, lame, lame, cool, lame, lame, lame,” he says. Vogler began looking at each bottle critically. Five bottles of mandarin orange-flavored vodka? “Maybe all I need is one,” he recalls thinking. “So, which one's the best? And then, why do I need any of these if we have fresh orange juice? It just became a process of whittling down.” Over a period of three or four years, the bar went from stocking a few hundred bottles to roughly 50. (Including, years before peak bourbon mania sucked so many whiskey barrels dry, the Pappy Van Winkle 15-year. They bought a few barrels and used it in the bar’s well. “It kills me to think of all the stuff we went through,” Vogler says.)
After all those vodka cranberries, it’s a little bit striking to learn that what brought St. George Spirits into Vogler’s orbit was, in fact, more vodka.
Even back then, St. George wasn’t at all new; the distillery had been around since 1982, when founder Jörg Rupf set up shop to produce the kind of fruit eaux-de-vie his family had distilled in Europe for decades. Lance Winters began working on the production floor of the distillery in the mid-’90s, when St. George was still exclusively producing those fruit brandies. (Prior to his distilling career, Winters served in the Navy, and was at one point stationed on the now-decommissioned base that St. George calls home.) The philosophy behind the brandies, Winters says, was “to take a piece of fruit you absolutely love at the peak of ripeness, and find a way to take all those characteristics that you love about that fruit, and get them into the bottle, so that when somebody pours a glass, they understand why you loved that piece of fruit.” At the time, Winters was going out into the field with sales reps, and saw the ubiquity of fruit-flavored vodkas firsthand. “Uniformly, they smelled like either air freshener or furniture polish,” he says. “And they were selling like crazy.”
Winters saw an opportunity in the market, and he pitched it to Rupf: he wanted to try his hand at making flavored vodkas, but channeling the ethos of fruit brandy, with fresh produce from the area and a base of good grapes rather than grains. “Instead of it just being something where you're trying to get more people to drink, you're making something that's an ode to the best orange you've ever had, or the best lemon you ever smelled,” Winters says. The distillery launched Hangar One in 2002; its three flagship bottles were infused with buddha’s hand, mandarin blossom, and makrut lime.
In spirit production at that time, Vogler recalls, “the notion of provenance, or having a sense of what stuff was made from, was still so foreign.”
While drinkers in San Francisco and the rest of the country were swilling Lemon Drops, the Bay Area’s culinary scene was exploding. “People were just starting to be attentive to the ingredients in the kitchen,” Vogler says. “Particularly in San Francisco, there's this celebration of local agriculture and farm-to-table, for lack of a better expression.” But Vogler couldn’t reconcile the dissonance between the kitchen and the bar in much of San Francisco’s fine dining. “These restaurants would claim great provenance of all their food, but the booze was just disgusting,” he says—like dining at a Michelin-star restaurant that unceremoniously serves you a Snickers for dessert.
What Winters was doing with these vodkas felt different, disruptive. Most of all, it wasn’t lame. “They'd come up with these four flavors made from real fruit, and made in an Austrian still,” Vogler says. He stocked Hangar One and got rid of almost all the rest they had on the Slanted Door’s backbar. Shortly thereafter, sales reps panicked. Some even went over Vogler’s head, calling the restaurant’s owner and warning him that Vogler was driving the restaurant into the ground. But Charles Phan, who himself was meticulous about sourcing his kitchen’s ingredients, trusted Vogler’s judgment. “So,” Vogler says, “we just kept going.”
By the early aughts, bargoers still wanted vodka. But in Vogler’s hands, and with the help of Winters, they were at least drinking decent ones.
Meanwhile, in New York, a man named Sasha Petraske had opened a little speakeasy called Milk & Honey, and its impact began rippling outward all the way to the West Coast. Bartenders started working with fresh juices, paying attention to the quality of their ice, and dusting off and referencing old cocktail books. “That first watershed of using fresh juice was when it all started to line up,” Vogler says. “There was fresh juice, and then everyone gets into classic cocktails … and then it's suspenders and whiskers and that whole thing.” Though the suspenders-and-whiskers set were interested in ryes and bourbons, they were still leaning on spirits from big corporate portfolios, says Vogler. “So we were thinking, how do we get away from that? How do we start to use better and better produced spirits?”
With that quest in mind, Vogler opened Bar Agricole in 2010. It was the same year St. George sold off Hangar One to focus on new spirits, and the same year Winters took the reins as St. George’s master distiller. Bar Agricole’s first event was a launch party for a new agricole-style rum Winters had made.
St. George is known for experimenting with one-offs—”distilling things that have no business being distilled,” Winters once told PUNCH, “like crabs, foie gras or porcini mushrooms.” Winters tinkered with a California agave spirit. He spent over a decade perfecting an absinthe that he couldn’t even commercially sell—until he could, when regulations lifted and St. George Absinthe Verte became the first domestic absinthe sold in the U.S. in nearly a hundred years. “In a world where you can get something reproduced thousands of times exactly the same, sometimes having something that's limited like that is really lovely,” says Winters. “I hate the idea of preciousness, but I don't mind the idea of scarcity.”
But beyond the mad-scientist tinkering, the distillery’s three flagship gins have become synonymous with St. George—and in Vogler’s eyes, with San Francisco itself. He remembers tasting along as Winters riffed and refined. After so many years of filling jigger after jigger with bland, mass-produced vodka, Vogler was again struck by Winters’ focus on provenance, the way in which he infused his spirits with such a distinctive sense of place.
“I think in general, his eye for agriculture is very California, and very Bay Area,” says Vogler. “The term ‘small-batch’ is just a meaningless, offensive term now ... but Lance actually makes three barrels of something, and it's so fucking good. Maybe you get some, and you sell it, and it's never to be seen again … just like a good year of tomatoes, or a good vintage.”
In 2011, after a year and a half of steady refining, St. George released three gins: Botanivore, Terroir, and Dry Rye. Botanivore is floral and juniper-forward. Terroir is St. George’s ode to Northern California, an earthy gin redolent of fir needles and sage leaves. Dry Rye, built on a rye base, is malty and drinks more like an Old Tom gin, minus the cloying quantity of sugar some producers add to that style. Winters chose to use rye because he wanted to experiment with how a gin’s base spirit could fundamentally alter its character. “It's like painting on black velvet, where it changes all the colors and your perception of the imagery painted on top of it,” he says. As soon as he made it, Winters knew that it would likely only appeal to a small fraction of gin drinkers, probably mostly bartenders. “It's very, very different from other styles of gin, and it's our slowest mover of all of them,” he says. “But I won't stop making it, because I think it's a very important statement piece.”
While Terroir might transport a drinker to a hike through the redwoods, Dry Rye is Vogler’s favorite gin and, in his opinion, the most emblematic of San Francisco’s culinary and agricultural ethos. “There's an insistence on, and appreciation for, the base material, which is really what we're most interested in, because that's very agricultural,” says Vogler. “It's thoughtful, understanding the history of gin and putting that into making this certain type of gin. It's a heady, intellectual product, but also just delicious and soulful.”
St. George Dry Rye is a critical component in a staple cocktail on Bar Agricole’s menu, the Dry Rye Old-Fashioned, which Vogler says is a perfectly San Francisco drink: made with two kinds of housemade bitters, a little bit of housemade gomme syrup, and maraschino liqueur from another craft spirits pioneer, Leopold Brothers. “The drink is an intersection of great, independent distilleries that we've always supported, and that have always supported us. It really speaks to what Bar Agricole's all about.”
Drinking culture has changed meteorically since the days Vogler was pouring glug after glug of vodka. The drinks that netted Bar Agricole its long-awaited Beard Award share little resemblance to the Lemon Drops and Cosmos that Vogler spent so many nights handing off to guests. But in a city besieged by ever-rising costs, Vogler thinks the thrill of risk-taking and experimentation has quieted in San Francisco.
“The pressures of doing business in the Bay Area are so great right now that people, myself included, are so fucking terrified,” he says. “10 years ago, San Francisco was a very interesting, innovative market.”
Now, Vogler says, a liquor license is a quarter-million dollars, and opening a new place might realistically cost $1 million or more.
In a city where a six-figure household could still be considered “low-income” and where rent is more expensive than anywhere else in the country, opening a bar that breaks rules or refuses to bow to mainstream palates is a risk fewer and fewer operators are willing to take, even if it earns them national acclaim. Vogler jokes that when people congratulated him on Bar Agricole’s Beard award (saying things like, “You did it!”), he thinks, “Did I really ‘do it?’ Because I’m pretty sure I still owe all the same people money.”
When faced with these staggering costs, operators are far less inclined to get weird, to experiment—which is part of what makes St. George so crucial. Just recently, Vogler tells me, he unexpectedly came into 1,400 pounds of organic heirloom red butcher corn. A Bar Agricole chef had ordered an entire lot of it from an area farm, right before Vogler had to let him go (for reasons unrelated to corn-hoarding). Vogler found himself stuck with, as he phrases it, “all this fucking corn”—beautiful crimson corn, but far too much to make use of all of it at once. So, he threw 800 pounds of it in his truck, drove across the Bay to Alameda, and gave it to Winters, who decided to use it for a small run of butcher corn bourbon. Neither of them knows what might come of this “California borrowing,” as Vogler terms it. But that isn’t really the point.
“Maybe it'll be shitty,” says Vogler. “But that's the spirit of experimenting. And that's what interests me.”