Break-Out Brands

If you’re in charge of selecting spirits for a bar, restaurant, nightclub or hotel, then you’re in the midst of the best buyer’s market in years. Spirit distillers and suppliers have spent the decade crafting products that often are as good as the hype, and in some cases as good as have ever been produced.

Add to that the fact that entrepreneurs have been scouring the international marketplace for spirits once hard to source. The result is a stream of quality products flooding the market, and now that bar and restaurant operators are being more careful about spending, buyers find themselves in a prime position to drive deals. But besides deal making, the real opportunity is in selecting the best from what is available.

Some brands are worthy of special attention because they fill a void, or because they’re being smartly supported by suppliers or because they offer an operator a swift way to exhibit their drink-making savvy. Stocking only best sellers may be a low-risk strategy, but it does nothing to set your establishment apart from the pack. So allow me to suggest a few high-quality spirits that have developed great buzz and can help bar owners craft a better spirit mix and a memorable guest experience.

White-Hot Buzz It’s the exceptional bar that can operate without a broad and up-to-date vodka profile. But pouring the cheap stuff from the well while you’re serving the high profile national brands from the back bar is bad form at best and poor business practice at worst; you’re telling your customers that if they won’t dig deeper for the best known brands, then it’s Brand X for them.

So think about investing a little more in your rail with something like Sobieski, a pure rye Polish vodka made since 1846 that has exploded onto the U.S. scene in the last 18 months, partially due to aggressive pricing (suggested retail $10.99 for a 750 ml) by importer Imperial Brands. As a spirit, it succeeds due to its lip-smackingly assertive flavor of anise and pepper. Yes, vodka has flavor, and Sobieski’s is crisp, herbal and refreshing. Inexpensive vodka doesn’t get any better than this, and in a fair taste test, Sobieski would beat some of the major international brands hands down.

The brand’s marketers have taken on bar stars Junior Merino and Tad Carducci to create cocktails, and restaurants such as Macondo in New York now sport drinks including the Maracuya, made with Sobieski, passion fruit, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, lime juice and jalapeños.

Not every bar needs to be on the cutting edge, but consumers increasingly are responding to national media coverage of trends on the two coasts, where bartenders are focusing on gin as their go-to white spirit for cocktail creativity. Two of the fastest growing cult gins provide different flavor profiles and signal to customers that you’re paying attention to quality trends.

Plymouth Gin predates Prohibition and almost disappeared not long ago, but it’s come roaring back in classic cocktail-focused bars with great support from ambassador Simon Ford, who tours the country on behalf of the brand. Plymouth offers something in the middle of the gin flavor spectrum, balancing sharp citrus peel and tangy juniper with earthy orris and angelica and the pop of cardamom and coriander. It gains its characteristic softness from water flowing through the moors near its production home in the west of England.

With this flavor profile, it’s clear why bartenders like it for experimenting; more junipery gins can dominate a drink, while more ephemeral brands fade when matched against assertive flavors. Now in the Pernod Ricard stable, look for further support for the brand.

Hendrick’s Gin, on the other hand, is a completely modern concoction marketed to seem old. Distilled in Scotland with a botanical mix that includes cucumber and rose petals, Hendrick’s, like Plymouth, has less of a juniper bite. It’s also distinctively crisp, fresh, welcoming and easy to drink neat as well as in mixed drinks.

The brand has developed a big following for its cocktail usability and a guerilla style on-premise support led by brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey, whom supplier William Grant has given great leeway to build the brand. Lately, muddled cucumber is making its way into summertime cocktails, especially long drinks — PF Chang’s lists the Zen Press made with Hendrick’s, cucumber and lemongrass — and the brand makes excellent sense if cuke drinks are in your future.

Big Browns and Rums In some markets, an old style of American whiskey is back with a vengeance, and according to distillers who are making the stuff, they can’t get it into bottles fast enough to satisfy current customers. As most whiskey makers are ramping up production, it may become easier to find the best of the current ryes. One such spirit is a new high-end offering from Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell and son and associate distiller Eddie Russell, called Russell’s Reserve Rye. Aged six years and bottled at 90 proof, it’s robust — fitting the Wild Turkey house style — and tangy with notes of allspice and pepper.

Similarly worth checking out is Rittenhouse Rye from Heaven Hill, a 100-proof classic flavor monster that will astonish you for its value pricing. Most bartenders in markets where cocktails are king have found inspiration in employing the spicy, less sweet and more powerful rye signature, and, like Audrey Saunders at New York’s Pegu Club, have built their classic Manhattans and new creations with rye.

We may be living in a time when distillers are making the best bourbon ever, and while American whiskey overall is one of the world’s best spirit bargains, many of the high-end, single barrel or small batch products can get pricey, especially the limited production numbers. If you’d like to introduce your customers to an award winner to test their interest in better bourbons without breaking the bank, then bring on the latest Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon, distilled in 1999. With a retail price of about $26, this is an annual bargain from Heaven Hill that connoisseurs eagerly await.

Each bottle is marked with the date it was placed in oak and bottled and the number of the barrel from which it was drawn. At 86.6 proof, it’s a lean and sinewy bourbon, with the natural corn sweetness restrained by 10 years of aging.

If you haven’t had a chance to sample the charms of rums produced in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, now’s the time, as rums are surging in popularity. Rhum Clement, like other rhum agricoles, is produced with fresh pressed sugar cane rather than molasses, the by-product of sugar used by most other producers. As a result, even the aged rums offer fresh aromas, with a grassy quality and some sweet pungency.

For elevating your top shelf white rum cocktails, try Clement Premiere Canne white from Clement USA for its fresh herbal and sugar cane nose and its great spice, balance and body on the palate.

At the other end of the rum spectrum is Ron Zacapa Centenario from Guatemala, a deep, dark spirit that fills the room with aromas of cooked fruit, bananas, roasted nuts and sherry. Producers season the rum in the Guatemalan highlands, where the weather is perpetually spring-like, allowing it to age longer than the steamy Caribbean will allow; try the 15-year-old and you’ll convince the greatest skeptic that there is such a thing as great sipping rum. Recently taken over in the United States by Diageo, the brand is gearing up for some serious support.

Extra añejo tequilas are very pricey, but with more and more agave fans demanding a chance to sample some, doing business without at least one variety is a bad decision. I was unconvinced about the whole idea until I tried Gran Centenario Leyenda, available since 2006 (now through Proximo Spirits) and aged an average of four years in French oak with reserves aged up to 15 years.

Sweet notes of cinnamon and cedar are followed by clove and toasted almond, and yet it tastes fresh and light, with vanilla and Cognac overtones. I still prefer blanco to any other type of tequila, but this one is certainly special enough if you’ve got customers willing to pay well for a sipping tequila; Gran Centenario Leyenda’s retail price is about $300.

As long as we’re on tequilas, let’s highlight Partida Blanco (Partida Tequila LLC) for its incredible freshness and unparalleled brand support, with bartender ambassadors (including Jacques Bezuidenhout and Anthony Alba) all over the country supporting the brand. Fresh, crisp and filled with a luscious agave and herb character, Partida’s small production, slightly more expensive positioning and broad support makes it the rare trendy spirit that also offers quality.

Cachaças and the Caipirinha have broken through in chains such as Bahama Breeze, and if you have even the slightest connection to festive drinking, you shouldn’t be without one of these Brazilian rums. I recommend two of the lesser known brands — Belleza Pura (Excalibur Enterprise) and Sagatiba, which I see as truer to the authentic Brazilian style than many of the brands made exclusively for the sweet-seeking American palate. Beleza Pura in particular offers a balanced sugar/smoke/heat character, and works great in cocktails.

Both are worth consideration, as they present a nice balance between the hot traditional style and the extreme sweetness of the modern style.

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