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Author and Bartender Thad Vogler on the Spirit(s) of Exploration

Thad Vogler is best known for his Bay Area bars, Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, which feature tight, thoughtful spirits lists. His debut book, By The Smoke & The Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail (Ten Speed Press, 2017), serves as a memoir, manifesto and travelogue, tracing his journeys through France’s brandy-making regions, Scotland, Cuba and more. We talked with Vogler about his life of writing and traveling.

What made you decide to write this book?

I bartended for decades and had all these incredibly short conversations about things I’m interested in… I had a thoughtful conversation with an agent who said why don’t you do a memoir? And brought up a book that I love, the Kermit Lynch book, Adventures on the Wine Route, which is just a really cool wine book about trying to find stuff that was good, and the challenges of that. It’s as much a travelogue as much a treatise on wine. That appealed to me.

As often as we can, we try to go and look and see what the real story is.

What has been your favorite place to travel?

France. We go every year, and we have relationships we renew every year. The group I travel with, it’s very familial, so we have a real chemistry and a real history. It’s like a reunion… You have lunch, you have cheese, it’s just so civilized. It restores my faith in what we do.

Where are you headed next?

I am going to Italy, to visit [vermouth producer] Bordiga. Vermouth is a huge component that’s called for in tons and tons of old drink recipes… We often will like something, and want to use a lot of it, but as often as we can, we try to go and look and see what the real story is.

 The Smoke & The Smell by Thad Vogler
The Smoke & The Smell by Thad Vogler

There’s a line in your book: “Good spirits are grown first.” What do you want people to know about “grower spirits”?

I have seen people enjoy thinking about food on the plate that way, wine, now coffee: Wow, there’s someone in another country that grew this stuff… I just wish people would see spirits the same way, and that marketplace would open up, and those producers would get the support they could use, and independent distilling would survive.

Tell us about Obispo, your new rum bar.

I’ve always loved the Caribbean, and I’ve always loved rum. It’s a troubled and difficult category of spirit. So much of it is junk. But when it’s good, it’s so good. And I’ve enjoyed these moments in the rum-producing world. There’s a relaxed way of eating and drinking that I’ve wanted to take inspiration from…The food[s] of these islands are really ideal for drinking. They’re spicy, starchy stuff that stands up to booze.