While the current overall market for spirits is level or slightly contracting in some categories and price points, one segment, the craft segment, is experiencing robust, albeit regional growth. Much as the craft beer market experienced rapid growth in the early ‘90s, craft distillers, many of whom were or are brewers and wine makers, are taking advantage of relaxation in laws limiting the licensing of stills and the demand of sophisticated drinkers for new and exciting products. This new age of distilling in America represents a solid opportunity for restaurateurs to introduce interesting emerging, unique and, importantly, local spirits brands to their customers.
Most of these new craft spirits brands are inherently “super-premium,” since they are literally handmade products. They offer restaurateurs attractive profit margins. However, there are two important concerns that need to be addressed before bringing on craft spirits: taste and brand story.
Because most craft distillers are new to the business and many approach their business with highly individual styles and ideas, the products can taste very different than traditional brands. Whether it is due to the freshness, uniqueness or high quality of ingredients; unconventional distilling techniques; or, sometimes, a lack of experience, the flavors found can either be great or not so great. In short, be careful and taste everything yourself, neat and at room temperature, before using it in any cocktail the supplier may be promoting. The unique flavors these products offer are perhaps their greatest asset for your bar, but you have to make sure they are the right flavors, and ones that you can work with.
Another aspect presents a challenge: These brands are probably unknown to your customers, who may resist trying them. This is where the brand story is so important. The idea is to support local distillers and their brands and help them tell their stories. Their brands can help you create a bar that is more distinctive than your competitors', but you need to help them help you do this. Create a relationship with the distiller, learn their story and why their products are different than the routine. Let your customers know the difference. Do customer tastings with the spirits, neat and in specialty cocktails, or have the distiller do a spirits dinner or cocktail party that introduces your customers to the range of their products. It's a symbiotic relationship that will make your establishment's bar cutting-edge and attractive to “cocktailians,” not just in your market, but nationally.
Your mission is to seek out local and regional spirits, find the ones that will work for you, and creatively introduce them to your customers.
Below is a list of spirits that have displayed merit in the Beverage Testing Institute's International Review of Spirits Competition. Many of them ranked as best buys. They're good kindling for starting a hot trend in your bar.
Vodka: Bardenay (ID) Vodka, 80 Proof, $20. True North (MI), Vodka, 80 Proof, $29.99.
Gin: North Shore Distillery (IL) Distiller's Gin No. 11, 90 Proof, $32.99. Bluecoat (PA) Bluecoat American Dry Gin, 94 Proof, $28.
Rum: Sergeant Classick (CA) Gold Rum, 80 Proof, $19.99. Old New Orleans (LA) Cajun Spice Rum, 80 Proof, $24.99.
Liqueur: LOFT Organic Liqueurs (CA) Lemongrass Cello Liqueur, 50 Proof, $29.95/375 ml. Flag Hill (NH) Sugar Maple Liqueur, 50 Proof, $18.95.
Brandy: Essential Spirits (CA), Pure Pear Brandy 80 Proof, $30. Yahara Bay (WI) Apple Brandy, 80 Proof, $24/375 ml.
Whiskey: Templeton (IA) Small Batch Rye Whiskey, 80 Proof, $39.99.Stranahan's (CO) Colorado Whiskey, 94 Proof, $54.95.