Comeback Spirits

Rye Whiskey, Gin and Absinthe Are Once Again Bartender Favorites — Here’s How to Make Them Work at Your Bar

There’s one sure way to tell if a bar takes cocktails seriously: Count the number of drinks on the menu using rye, gin, Pisco, absinthe or any of the other spirits suddenly back in drinking vogue.

Sure, tried and true spirits such as vodka and rum still bring home the bacon, but increasingly, competing for the attention of the cocktail cognoscenti — or even just an adventurous imbiber — means turning to liquors available at the creation of the American drink revolution. By understanding what’s re-emerging on the backbar, any operator or bartender can stay ahead of the game by creating more innovative cocktail menus that delight existing guests and bring in new clientele — a perfect recipe for generating more profit.

A Rye Deal

Rye WhiskeyTake rye, for example. Once bourbon reestablished itself as a spirit requiring attention, completists discovered that rye, its spicier cousin and the original American whiskey, played a major role in early cocktails. Rye has advantages that appeal to sippers and bartenders alike: inexpensive price points that encourage experimentation, flavor characteristics not found elsewhere and the sudden cachet a liquor returning from the shadows offers.

A bargain among most brown spirits, rye has loyal fans among many contemporary bartenders based on its position in the development of the cocktail, with the return of the spicy rye Manhattan and the Sazerac only the start of the rye revolution. Among whiskey connoisseurs, the buzz about the return of rye has created a halo effect, with brands like Rittenhouse and Sazerac Rye selling out their small productions.

The cocktail revolution is largely responsible for the resurgence of rye, according to Larry Kass, director of communications for Heaven Hill, the maker of Rittenhouse. Kass credits spirits writer Dave Wondrich for convincing makers to relaunch the brand nationally after it was unavailable for a cocktail program Wondrich was working on in New York City. Today, bartenders there and in other cities fight to get their share.

New ryes from micro-distillers like Tuthilltown and Templeton have helped create a buzz, as did the national launch of ri(1) from Beam Global last year. And new brands are on the way — Redemption Rye was released in May, and Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey, aged for a minimum of 10 years and selected by former Maker’s Mark distiller Dave Pickerell, soon will launch. Even Canadian whisky makers have heard the call of the rye, as Beam Global is working on a pure rye version of Canadian Club.

Sometimes, rye drinks that make their way onto menus become so popular they’re hard to dislodge. Last year, customers launched an online revolt to keep PDT in New York from removing the Staggerac from the menu (a Sazerac-style drink made with the high intensity, 140-plus proof George T. Stagg rye, Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters and Edouard Absinthe). Bottom line: If it’s popular and it’s not killing your budget, keep it there!

Brands to watch: Pikesville, Sazerac, Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey, Templeton

Absinthe Gains Steam

AbsintheAbsinthe became legal in the U.S. in 2007 and, almost immediately, the floodgates opened. The powerful anise-flavored spirit already had a hardcore following of anxiously awaiting enthusiasts, many enchanted by the belle époque imagery of the French spirit and its elaborate traditional serving method — the slow dripping of cold water into a glass of absinthe, sometimes over a sugar cube nestled on a slotted spoon, creating the cloudy, “louche” effect.

Because absinthe seemed like a forbidden fruit for so many years, its return inspired bartenders to experiment with different cocktail-making methods. They immediately started looking for cocktail flavor applications, first using tiny portions to rinse a glass, a la the original Sazerac cocktail. Others explored various service possibilities, aware of the effect a 120-plus proof spirit can have on customers.

Most aggressive in embracing the absinthe rush may be InterContinental Hotels Group, which opened Sarah B., the first absinthe bar in North America, in its renovated Montreal hotel last year. Designed to evoke 19th century drinking establishments, Sarah B. captures the French forerunner of happy hour, the “heure verte;” its developers hired barman Alexis Morisseau and Southern Wine and Spirits’ Francesco Lafranconi to create drinks to complete the experience. Signature cocktails include the Jacques Cartier Collins (Versinthe Absinthe, ABSOLUT Pears, Limoncello, sour mix and soda) and the Seasonal Absinthe Frappe (Versinthe, Anisette Marie Brizard, Angostura bitters, basil leaves and seasonal fruits).

Others have found different uses. Neil Dundee at Volt in Frederick, Md., uses absinthe in his High Ball, which is handcrafted and served warm. The drink starts with grated ginger, sugar, lemon juice, filtered water and Sazerac Rye, served from a soda siphon and then topped with a cold absinthe foam to mix the flavors of anise and ginger.

Lucid, brainchild of enthusiast Ted Breaux and so far the best-selling of the new absinthes, has found success in refreshing drinks like La Fee Verte from Pigalle in New York City, made with lime juice, simple syrup and soda water, garnished with lime and star anise. This simple concoction highlights the absinthe flavor profile and marries it with familiar flavors, thus making the ethereal spirit accessible for both guest and bartender.

Two larger companies recently joined in the absinthe gold rush: Sazerac launched Herbsaint Original, made according to the recipe first used by J. Marion Legendre for Herbsaint in 1934, and Pernod markets Pernod Absinthe with press events in New York and other progams in tandem with the Absinthe Museum in New Orleans.

Absinthe is a growing spirit in all parts of the country thanks to the intrigue surrounding it; take advantage of its money-making potential by including it in cocktails on your menu and offering education on the spirit and the styles.

Brands to watch: Lucid, La Fée, Herbsaint, Vieux Carré, Pernod

Picking Up on Pisco

Pisco SourPisco — generally an unaged grape brandy made in either Peru or Chile — was the cornerstone of two turn of the century classics, the Pisco Sour and Pisco Punch. The spirit reappeared in cocktail culture briefly in the 1980s, but without large supply available or star bartender backing, it fell by the wayside until the likes of Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim brought it back to life in the U.S. Today, Pisco is gaining fans all over the country, but perhaps nowhere more than San Francisco, birthplace of the Pisco Punch, as no serious cocktail-focused bar there seems to operate without at least one Pisco drink.

The biggest purveyor may be the city’s Pisco Latin Lounge, where 26 Piscos are served and available in flights. Nine cocktails made with Pisco are on the menu, including a Pisco Negroni, the El Capitan (Pisco and sweet vermouth) and the Sideways Sour, made originally by Las Vegas bartender Ray Srp for BarSol Pisco. Made with white grape juice, lemon juice, Pisco and Pinot Noir, the Sideways Sour reveals how easy it is to work with contemporary Pisco. It helps that, like rye and other comeback spirits, Pisco is relatively inexpensive.

Other barmen are way into Pisco: Duggan McDonnell of San Fran’s Cantina recently returned to Peru to oversee the production of his own brand, set to release later this year. But Pisco isn’t solely a Bay Area phenomenon, as bars in other parts of the country, especially those with a Latin flavor, are exploring its benefits. Yuerba Buena in New York, for example, now offers four Pisco-based cocktails: the Pisco Sour, Pisco Punch, Pisco Guava and Pisco Yerba Maté.

Pisco can’t help but benefit from the growing and already familiar Latin population in the U.S., but it’s really the cocktail crowd that will be behind any success the category achieves. And while most of the interest in pisco is for Peruvian varieties, producers in Chile are actively looking for a chance to create interest in the U.S. market for their varieties as well. It’s no surprise, then, that many entrepreneurs see this as an opportunity to increase revenues and  are flocking to the category, similar to what happened with cachaça in recent years.

Brands to watch: BarSol, Macchu Pisco, Gran Sierpe, Payet, Ocucaje

Gin is In

Gin & TonicGin’s return to the cocktail scene is well documented, and its place as a bar ingredient is once again secure. While most gins have tottered along without major growth, one new domestic gin, New Amsterdam from E. & J. Gallo, has had an amazing few years on the market. Besides its low price, the brand’s flavor profile, featuring light citrus notes with muted juniper flavor, seems to have struck a chord with consumers.

While bars and restaurants in major markets like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston have included gin drinks on their menus for years (many coming from classic cocktail sources such as The Savoy Cocktail Book), gin’s popularity has only recently surfaced in other markets. That change has helped turn the imported gin sub-category around from an annual loser to a strong on-premise performer.

Gin has been pushed to the forefront hard by brand ambassadors like Simon Ford for Plymouth and Charlotte Voisey for Hendrick’s, who both have guided their respective brands from almost nothing five or so years ago to major successes, through close contact with mixologists and via tastings, mixing seminars, competitions and events.

Beefeater also has focused its attention on the mixology community, recently launching two new limited-release line extensions, Beefeater 24 (made with green tea and grapefruit), and Beefeater Summer Gin, made with elderflower-, hibiscus- and black currant-tweaked gin.

Newer brands breaking in the UK, like Bulldog and Oxley, and from the U.S., like 209, Right and Aviation, are expected to expand the category’s base. Genever-style gin, a traditional malty type made in Holland, is back in the U.S. after many years, as are various bottlings of Old Tom, a British style gin made with more herbality and sweetness. Both these styles have returned due to bartender demand, as they appear frequently in antique cocktail recipes. Volume is tiny now for both sub-categories, but for a new generation of bartenders, they are important ingredients in the mix.

Many bars today stock 10 or more gin brands. New Heights in Washington, D.C., for instance, launched a series of drink specials late last year, designed to showcase the nuances of gins from around the world. Priced at $15 for a tasting of three varieties, the gin flights change monthly, drawing from the restaurant’s 30-bottle gin menu, called “The Gin Manifesto.”

Thanks to the variety of styles available, gin is now an approachable spirit that is gaining popularity everywhere — a cocktail menu without it is missing out on serious profits.

Brands to watch: Beefeater 24, G’Vine Nouaison, Oxley, Bluecoat, Bols Genever, Aviation

Other categories experiencing something of a renaissance include classic liqueurs (think Benedictine and Chartreuse) and bitter aperitifs (Aperol, Campari, Amer Picon). As the saying goes, everything old is new again. But what never goes out of style are the profitable pours that come from staying ahead of the trends. NCB

Capitalizing on the Comebacks

Rye, absinthe, Pisco, gin — whether these spirits are already on your backbar or you’ve never heard of them before, they each offer opportunities to increase your profits. Here’s how to make them pay off:

Education. Do some digging into the origins, styles and uses for the comeback spirits that interest you most, and then share that information with bartenders and servers. Suppliers and wholesalers of these spirits are great resources for such information; invite your vendor partners to present quick and objective seminars that cover the history, distillation, application and proper service. In addition, search the web, including, for information and articles about the spirits and the classic and contemporary cocktails associated with each one to share with your staff.

Experimentation. Once everyone is familiar with the spirit, hold a tasting and creative cocktail development session with bartenders and enthusiastic servers to develop new or signature drinks. Sample different styles to determine what fit best with your clientele’s palate and your bar’s drink-making style. Be sure to assess availability and costing; many comeback spirits are reasonably priced, but certain brands may be more difficult to source than others.

Promote. These comeback spirits need more than a drink special on a chalkboard to take hold; a little patron education must be part of the mix. Bartenders who educate guests are the best salesmen for any spirit, so instruct them to share their newfound knowledge with patrons. Offer flights, tastes or cocktail samples as part of the process, and tell the story of the spirit and the brand to draw drinkers in and engage them. Also, make local media aware that you’re offering something different and using it in unique ways, which helps drive the buzz factor.

Be Patient. When developing a comeback spirit in your establishment, allow it some time to catch on with both staff and customers. There’s a learning curve, but you soon may find your establishment’s on the cutting edge in your market.

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