Bespoke Spirits Make a Drink Special

Private-label spirits slowly have disappeared from retail outlets, yet as restaurateurs struggle to stand out in a competitive field, the concept has returned with a new twist.

Not only are bartenders turning to spirit suppliers for their own brands of juice, but some are taking the next steps by selecting rare spirits available for short periods or making their own variants. Others are continuing to develop hyper-seasonality as their main focus.

In Tampa, Florida’s oldest continuing operating restaurant, The Columbia, has created a private-label spirits line honoring first- and second-generation family members of the 106-year-old Columbia, with Don Casimiro Classic Silver Rum and Chacho Bourbon Whiskey, named for Casimiro’s youngest son Evelio “Chacho” Hernandez, a coffee roaster who preferred the American whiskey as his favorite tipple. Both spirits get their own drinks as part of the introduction, an essential ingredient if putting your brand on a spirit is to make any operational sense.

Whiskey-makers for a long time have made it easy for operators to get their own barrel of bespoke spirits, but now some Texas bartenders — Bill Norris of Alamo Drafthouse and David Alan of Tipsy in Austin, Alex Gregg of Anvil in Houston, Michael Martensen of Cedar’s Social in Dallas and Jeret Peña of the Esquire Tavern in San Antonio — turned a private barrel tasting at Buffalo Trace into a buying spree meant for the Texas bars. A quarter barrel of each of the four whiskies they selected goes to each city, marked as a Buffalo Trace special selection. Better yet, the barrels then go to select Texas breweries to age the brews.

These are great ways to stand out and build customer curiosity; better, perhaps, is going the final yard. In San Diego, the US Grant’s barman Jeff Josenhans is continuing to explore methods of making unique drinks, following up on his cocktail aging practices. Josenhans now is crafting bottle- conditioned cocktails combining methods of fermentation more common in the production of beer and Champagne. Calling them “Cocktails Sur Lie” — based on the wine-making practice of leaving depleted yeast in barrel or bottle to add certain flavors and characteristics — he’s adding yeast to bottled cocktails to create natural carbonation, then adding sugar and yeast. The results, offered briefly and set for the January menu, include Mule in a Bottle (garden-flower-infused vodka, ginger, rock candy sugar, California hops and Champagne yeast) and the Smokin’ Pumpkin (pumpkin-infused rum, Allspice Dram, applewood-smoked coconut sugar, Laphroiag 15 yrs, saffron, vanilla and ale yeast).

Jeff Josenhans

The US Grant’s barman Jeff Josenhans crafts bottle-conditioned cocktails he calls “Cocktails Sur Lie."

With efforts like these, the bar continues to be raised at all levels, and even restaurants not previously known primarily for the quality of their cocktails have stepped it up; in New York City, the power-luncheon spot Michael’s, more often known as a fine wine and vodka on the rocks sort of place, has inaugurated Mixology Wednesday, where barman Michael Flannery developed a range of autumnal cocktails as a launching pad for the program. Drinks will continue to be seasonally based, and right now, that means refreshers like the Solera Sazerac (Santa Teresa 1796 Rum, brown sugar, Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters with a twist) and the Oaxacan Negroni (Campari, Del Maguey Minero mescal, Dolin sweet and blanc vermouth and grapefruit bitters).

Some operators already are in full winter mode, or at least hinting at it, and homemade spirits can tweak things considerably. Beverage director Francesco Amodeo and bartender Milton Hernandez have joined forces behind the bar at Italian restaurant Bibiana to create 25 new seasonally inspired cocktails made with Bibiana’s homemade spirits as a countdown to Christmas. The Samantha (VSOP Cognac, homemade biscotti liquor, lemon juice and orange bitters), the Rosanna (G’ Vine Gin, homemade prickly pear liquor, maraschino and grapefruit juice) and the Simona (Blackwell Rhum, homemade vanilla citrus liquor, egg white and nutmeg) show how important thenapplication of custom-made spirits can be. Putting your label on something is one thing; making a mark with it is quite another.

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