Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Why Jack Rose Sold Off Its Record-Setting Whiskey Collection

In unprecedented times, a bar can best survive by pivoting to previously unconsidered business models.

Jack Rose Dining Saloon backbar in Washington, D.C.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon backbar in Washington, D.C. Image:

Jack Rose

Walking into Jack Rose Dining Saloon, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., has been a near-religious experience for many whiskey drinkers. At its peak, the bar showcased more than 2,700 different bottles of whiskey occupying the multi-tiered shelves wrapping around the enormous space. It's what made the bar a national and international sensation. Of those 2,700-plus bottles that had been on the shelves in mid-March, about 40 remained by late May.

Unloading the Stash

"Three weeks ago, there wasn't a bottle on any shelf, anywhere," says Bill Thomas, the bar's proprietor. "It's been crazy, and it did get a little depressing. It wasn't until I put some more bottles on the shelf and stared at it for a while, maybe 80 bottles, that I realized I was a little bit sad."

When Washington, D.C., ordered the closure of bars and restaurants in March 2020, the District quickly pivoted to allow for the sale of full bottles from on-premise establishments as well as the sale of to-go cocktails. Thomas looked at the staggering inventory on his shelves and knew what had to be done. 

"We just had so much debt, like any restaurant right now, you're running behind, you're probably 30 days behind on your bills," says Thomas. "We pay our people really well, and we have a lot of salaried employees, so we had such a substantial amount of payroll that was due. But you have dwindling revenue, and then you have no revenue. It was a substantial hole to dig out of, so we had to do something."

Even for business owners who are able to get a reprieve on rent, there's still a long list of other debts to pay. Smaller vendors, partners and suppliers depend on payment from the restaurants and bars they supply, and while the public's attention has largely been focused on the bars and restaurants themselves, it's also important to remember the entire supply chain. "There's always this snowball effect. This group of people stops paying, and then these people can't pay their bills, and eventually someone has to draw the line," says Thomas. "And we tried to be that line."

Continuing the Cycle

Those roughly 40 remaining bottles have withstood the fire sale, but Jack Rose didn’t stop acquiring more along the way. With the bar's original collection plundered, the purchases, and subsequent sales, have continued. "We've been purchasing this whole time," says Thomas. "We haven't stopped purchasing from the distributors, and we've been purchasing from importers."

He has been snapping up single cask releases and focusing on his favorite stateside producers, as well as overlooked distilleries both at home and abroad. For the time being, it has enabled the bar to stay solvent. "We generated enough revenue to dig out, get stable and give us a moment to just breathe and figure out what to do," says Thomas.

Jack Rose bar
 Greg Powers

And Thomas has been there in the bar the whole time, offering recommendations and advice for shoppers. "I've been there every minute of every day we've been open," says Thomas. Being able to receive direct one-on-one purchasing advice from one of the world's preeminent whiskey collectors is itself a unique opportunity. "When people are looking around and go, 'What should I buy?' I say, 'You should buy this. I'm here tomorrow; you can come back and yell at me directly if you want.' If we tell you to buy it, we believe in it."

The Future 

Will the bar built on 2,700 bottles restock its shelves to the same historic levels? "No, actually, and for the most part, the whole idea of having the most bottles and all that kind of died out," says Thomas. "And honestly, I don't care whether we do. Obviously, we could put that many bottles on the shelf; I could literally get it done tomorrow."

Instead, Thomas is going to take a more restrained approach, at least until things have had a chance to pick up steam and return to normalcy. That said, his idea of restraint might be a bit more expansive than yours. "I think I'll probably open up somewhere in the 1,500-bottle range, tops. Or maybe 1,000, and then over the course of a few weeks, it'll grow. But really, we'd rather be spending the dollars on the whiskey we know we can stand behind. That's the focus: It's on having the right whiskeys."

What Thomas does believe is crucial is being able to continue offering to-go sales, something that D.C. seems set to enact. According to Thomas, the city, considered progressive for its liquor license laws, was already working on similar legislation prior to the pandemic while extending the platform of a traditional on-premise bar and restaurant. "I do think that the modern business model for a restaurant will have to include packaged goods, on- and off-licenses, carry-out, delivery," says Thomas. "A restaurant will not be able to isolate and just be an on-premise business model anymore. We're going to have to have everything in the arsenal."

No matter how long the waves of this crisis continue cresting, this diversification is a crucial means for restaurants and bars to remain viable along the way. "I think it's common sense across the U.S.: If you're a restaurant and you're not pivoting to this kind of multifaceted business model, you're doomed," says Thomas. "And the next time this happens, you're guaranteed to be out. I'll tell you what's not a sustainable business model: being bailed out by the government." 

Still, Thomas hopes that there will be a day soon that first-time and returning guests alike can walk into his bar and soak up the grandeur and extravagance of its whiskey collection. "It'll be a slow rebuild,” says Thomas. “I'm more concerned right now about making sure the inventory is what we want it to be and that it represents Jack in its best light. So that's why I've been working every minute of every day."