By Kurt Maitland
In New York, The Brandy Library has a reputation as the spirits connoisseur’s bar. That makes French-born Flavien Desoblin the owner of a major service institution in a town where upscale tastings and product launches are a fixture of the serious drinker’s circuit. As The Brandy Library is one of Kurt Maitland’s favorite bars, he made a point of quizzing Desoblin about his place.
KM: So what was your inspiration to create the Brandy Library?
FD: Creating a unique place where the atmosphere would be relaxed and comfortable while providing the knowledgeable service lacking in even the most amazing-looking bars; taking the wine bar logic to the brown spirits side, and by opposition to the emerging cocktail frenzy. Showcasing the bottle’s content, history, process, etc. I was always an avid reader and was very impressed by great liquor stores decors here in NYC. A love for books and booze combined with formal studies (master’s degree of wines and spirits in Dijon Management School) and that was it! To this day, we are proud to stick to our guns: civilized sippin’, non-pretentious service. As far as it gets from the Upper East Side!
KM: How do you go about training your “spirit sommeliers”? Your staff is one of the most knowledgeable I have ever dealt with, whether it is a bourbon or a scotch or a brandy to finish off the night with.
FD: Well, most have walked up the ladder of knowledge at Brandy Library, from server to service bartender and then Spirit Sommelier behind the bar and on the floor, but it takes years. We are lucky to receive many master blenders, master distillers and brand ambassadors at BL, and they will be so happy to share their knowledge with the Staff, it makes it easy. But they also attend distributors’ portfolio tastings, they are given tests, they have to take the GCD (IBD, based in UK), and they are sent to various countries to learn further, from Scotland to Cognac and KY. Either going with me on their own because they decide to or because they won a trip through an in-house competition. The more they know, the more money they make, and they make really good money!
KM: With so many options as far as whiskeys, bourbons, ryes, etc, how do you go about deciding what will make it your menu?
FD: It could be as silly as getting as many marks as possible of one category because we want to bring awareness like Mezcal 6 or 7 years ago or Craft US spirits more recently (and later scaling back to the few great ones) or even not getting the just “ok” spirits when they’re gigantic bottles when this particular shelf is about to collapse, but focusing only of the great ones; but it can also be buying a variety only for the sake of variety, i.e. being able to oppose styles within a category and make some marks stand out. Generally speaking, we also order based on what we need to have on hand for the many private tastings we do.
KM: In your experience, what do you consider the hardest part of running this bar in this city (NYC)?
FD: Two-fold: first for people to understand our policies: no standing, no screaming, 25 year-old minimum. For those who already patronize, they totally understand and embrace these rules, but for the first timer, going to a “bar” and being turned away on a Tuesday at 9pm because no reservation was made and the place doesn’t look packed is hard to swallow; secondly, the continuing education of the Staff. Add the Health Department visits – (we always have an A grade, but each visit costs us about $1K, and that’s almost twice a year!) and the headaches with the two main import/distributors –Southern and Empire- constantly trying to deliver the wrong stuff, and you have a pretty stressful life!
KM: Are there any styles of whiskey that you have recently found yourself looking at in a new way or that you personally want to know more about and explore? ie American craft whiskeys, Japanese whiskies, etc?
FD: Well, there are more Japanese whiskies to be discovered, and Irish blenders pulling out great stuff, but right now my curiosity goes to South-African Whiskies, and to some extent, Canadian whiskies.
KM: What experience do you want the first time visitor/whiskey fan to come away with after their first visit to the Brandy Library?
FD: Feeling silly for having consumed so much vodka in their previous life! realizing that brown spirits are not a snob’s drink and that looking for flavorful, delicate and well-balanced tipples is not difficult. It only requires the right mind set. I am convinced to keep a lot of people away from coke, just delivering a different kind of escape!