After controversy, SF’s most acclaimed bar is back with rare spirits you won’t find anywhere else

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Le Bar Agricole opens its doors on Wednesday after two and a half years of closure, and this new, revamped incarnation of the James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar is very different from the last. This time around, owner Thad Vogler said, the bar is primarily intended to be a showcase for an exclusive new line of single-origin spirits, and it could end up looking more like a Third Wave café or a fair trade chocolate shop than at a traditional bar or restaurant.

Much like you might stop by Ritual to buy the coffee beans it sources from artisan producers and then grab a cortado on the spot while you’re there, Vogler wants people to drop by, have an old fashioned with a Organic Grande Champagne Cognac, then buy a bottle to take away. A retail space will open next month next to the Bar Agricole dining room, and Vogler also hopes to establish a significant online retail presence.

“It will be an amazing little bar where you can drink things that are not available in any other bar in the world,” Vogler said. These Bar Agricole exclusives all come directly from spirit producers who farm responsibly and avoid chemical additions in the distillery – an approach Vogler has long championed. For starters, available bottlings include an Islay single malt Scotch, a 2007 Armagnac and a single cask bourbon, and there will be a steady stream of new offerings over time, Vogler said, with 12 to 15 products launching from here November.

After more than a decade of opening — and closing — ambitious cocktail bars in San Francisco, Vogler said this version of Bar Agricole “is more like what I’ve always wanted to do.” Since the start of the pandemic, it has closed its Nommo, Trou Normand and Obispo bars, while relocating Bar Agricole from the SoMa spot where it has been since 2010 to its new location at 1540 Mission St. This week’s opening has was first reported by Eater SF.

Vogler, who has spoken openly about the failures of his other businesses, said he is trying to do things differently now. Following accusations by former employees of wage theft and an unstable work environment, reported by The Chronicle last year, he is implementing sweeping new management practices at the new location which he hopes , will create a fairer and more enjoyable workplace. All decisions are made by consensus among all staff, for example, and financial statements will be posted online quarterly, publicly available (the first will go up in October). No employee will earn less than $72,000. Everyone shares tasks like washing the dishes and taking out the trash, rather than having one person do these less desirable tasks.

The goal is to eliminate the sense of hierarchy and “autocracy” often seen in restaurants, Vogler said. “We’ll see if it works.”

The menu offers snacks, small plates, entrees and desserts. Chef Will Napoli remains in charge of the kitchen, and Nick Balla, of Bar Tartine fame, consulted on the menu. Balla’s penchant for preserved or fermented ingredients is evident in dishes like summer melons with homemade vinegar and roast potatoes with miso aioli. For the first month, the dining room will be by reservation only, then Vogler hopes to open bar seating that can accommodate walk-ins.

A list of 12 cocktails displays Vogler’s longstanding philosophy of simple recipes that bring out the flavors of single-origin spirits. This includes a single estate Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy, France) blended with pineapple and lemon; or a punch made with Rhum Agricole, the Martinican brandy distilled from fresh sugar cane, as opposed to the molasses from which most rums are distilled. (It’s also the bar’s namesake.)

“It’s so strange that with wine, coffee and chocolate, people want to talk about provenance,” Vogler said. “But alcohol is more like clothes – it’s so branded.” His philosophy, which he talked about in his book “By the Smoke and the Smell”, is that we should demand the same terroir-driven standards for our cocktails.

The closest model to the exclusive line of spirits created by Vogler might be the Scottish tradition of independent bottlers, who buy casks of whiskey from distilleries, then bottle and sell them under their own label. This means that many spirits will be unique and limited editions. In the coming months, Vogler has announced that it will be releasing an amaro from Bordiga, a renowned producer from Piedmont, sweetened with alpine honey and without artificial coloring (a rarity for amaro); a vermouth made from Nebbiolo from Bordiga; a curaçao from California; and a gin from Alameda’s St. George Spirits distilled from biodynamic grapes.

“It’s a nice little bar,” Vogler said. “I think it’s going to be very peaceful – a very grown-up place to have a drink and a snack. I don’t think there’s anything like that.

Agricultural bar. Open by reservation only from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday. 1540 Mission St., San Francisco. 415-341-0101 or

baragricole.com

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: emobley@sfchronicle.com
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley

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