Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Source Spirits in a Time of Small Allocation

Image: Alex Testere

The modern cocktail movement has brought high-minded drinks to every corner of the globe, from swanky hotel lounges to nondescript strip malls. Even dives these days show shelves lined with liquors spanning a dozen-plus categories. By most metrics, there has never been a more exciting time to be sipping on spirits. There has also never been a more maddening time.

The same popular demand that drives success also engenders a less laudable flip side: allocation. We observe it most acutely with Pappy mania, the Japanese whisky craze and any glass of scotch wearing a number north of two decades on its label. Everybody wants it, and there’s not nearly enough of it to go around. For the bars seeking to stay on top of their game, the task is clear: Get the stuff that no one else can, and your relevance remains. Here’s how they do it.

1. Connect, Connect, Connect

“The key ingredient is our relationships with people who are in all positions within the brand, from marketing and ambassadors to the distillery team,” says Nathan Merriman, the director of beverage operations at Inko Nito in Downtown Los Angeles. “Our other relationship is with our account managers who represent our suppliers; we listen to them and work with them when opportunities arise that work for both of us. Loyalty with both brands and suppliers can go a long way and open doors to opportunities for highly allocated or hard-to-find spirits.”

So can passion. Walk into Merriman’s general area, even during a busy weekend, and the Australian barman will find time to wax poetic about whisky. He’s clearly not just serving the stuff—he’s living and breathing single malt. “I love the possibility of finding something unique and being able to share it with friends, family and our guests,” he says.

It’s an energy that radiates not just with paying customers but with suppliers, as well. They only have so many bottles to dispense and feel more comfortable entrusting it to someone who organically serves as an ambassador. No distributor is going to openly cop to that kind of favoritism, but the proof is in the pudding. At Inko Nito, it appears in the form of a backbar stacked with an all-star lineup of Japan’s most wanted: Yamazaki 18- and 25-year-old, Hibiki 17- and 21-year-old, Taketsuru Pure Malt 17- and 21-year-old, and Chichibu U.S. Edition.

2. Stay Informed

At Raised By Wolves in San Diego, co-founder Chris Patino supplements passion with a proactive education. “Study up,” he advises his colleagues. “Knowing when and where new offerings or allocated items are being released can get you in early. We often know about a new spirit or upcoming release before our reps do.” The intel is out there for those willing to keep their ears to the ground—when the next Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is set to drop, when The Balvenie will release its annual 40-year-old treasure. Patino has his shelves stocked with spirits like these that aren’t available elsewhere in the city. It’s because he wasn’t waiting for a distributor to tell him about them—he already knew when to ask.

And he knows how to play the game. “Unfortunately, most, if not all, allocated offerings have strings attached and are used as bait to get you to buy a bunch of products that you don’t really want or need,” says Patino. “Look to see where there might be gaps in your beverage program so that you can add these ‘unwanted’ items to a cocktail on your menu or replace one of the volume drivers in your well to help boost your buying power.” The classic example: a bar hoping to procure a few precious bottles of Pappy Van Winkle starts building drinks based around Wheatley vodka and Corazón tequila—all Buffalo Trace products—to curry favor with the company.

When orchestrated sensibly, the trade-off doesn’t need to feel like much of a sacrifice, says Elias Akiki. He manages Rowes Wharf Bar in the Financial District of Boston, presiding over one of the city’s most exclusive collections of top-shelf liquor. “The trick of the trade is establishing win-win partnerships with the distilleries to make sure that when it comes time to allocate hard-to-get items, we are the first call,” he says. Behind the dimly lit mahogany parlor sits a bottle of The Macallan 40-year-old and Glenmorangie Pride—two of the only such bottles in the entire state of Massachusetts.

3. Share the Love

At Three Dots and a Dash in downtown Chicago, beverage director Kevin Beary secures rare spirits by heading directly to the source. “We’ve been given access to pick barrels of rum from the distillery bonds [aging warehouses] and have them bottled just for us,” he says. But his intent isn’t to have them collect dust on the shelf. He prices it to share. “I think there’s a strong ROI for offering a rare item at a fair price,” he says. “It’s a very memorable experience for a guest to sample a rum that’s otherwise unavailable to them. We will often limit the portion of a rare item to half an ounce per person, as the intent is to allow as many people as possible to experience it.” It fosters good will, not just with customers but with suppliers. They didn’t become one of the most popular Tiki destinations in the country just on vibe alone.

It always involves heavy lifting—an exercise Ivan Vasquez knows well. To build the most expansive mezcal collection in all of Los Angeles, he had to rack up some serious frequent flier miles. The Oaxacan native makes up to a dozen trips to Mexico every year, seeking out the finest spirits that fail to make it north of the border. “We get these special releases because of our relationships with the distillers, and they will give us stuff that people have never seen in the United States,” he says. “Some bottles are 10-bottle lots or 50-bottle lots, and then you will never see those bottles again. We only save them for those who know about mezcal.”

A pretty radical business model, to be sure. But Vasquez’s earnest aim is to share these one-of-a-kind liquids with folks who will admire them most. “In order to appreciate our selection, they need to understand mezcal first,” he says. “With that being said, we do have other basic tasting or open service tasting for new people. We want to educate anyone who’s interested.” Just not with that solitary bottling of ancestral tepeztate.

Sweat equity is an accepted cost of doing business in this industry. Those hoisting the most precious spirits onto their shelves aren’t just working hard, though—they’re working smart. “Build relationships with your reps, both supplier and distributor, and have them help to put together a plan to get you where you want to be,” says Patino. “Just remember we’re all fighting for a lot—or in this case, a little—of the same things.”