A well-crafted cocktail is meant to be a journey. Through sensory experience, it is designed to take one out of the mundane and away from daily stresses. But creating this inner voyage can be difficult when it’s five deep at the bar and people are screaming for Mojitos. Enter flavored spirits. Previously they were all about time elimination, but not anymore. This category has morphed from being a super sweet, syrup-based one aimed at saving time and punching up flavor to one of fresh ingredients and painstaking processes in distillation, bringing both balance and authenticity to cocktails.

 “When you heard the words ‘flavored spirit’ years ago, you immediately thought of something a little gauche,” laughs Somer Perez, president of Couture Cocktail Concepts in New York City. “Flavored spirits were somewhat cheesy and a bit of a shortcut in drink design. I think now you are seeing a more all-natural, organic approach with the essences of fresh, seasonal ingredients.”

Perez’s experience includes working as a beverage director for the Morgans Hotel Group and designing drink menus for establishments such as Restaurant Elizabeth in Manhattan and Cornelius in Brooklyn. She reports that exotic fruits, like the açai berry, dragon fruit, jalapeno, kaffir lime, mandarin orange blossoms and Buddha’s hand, are all now found layered into spirits ranging from vodka to rum to tequila. The new-found popularity of these exotics points to a two-pronged trend, the first element being that the consumer’s palate, Perez says, has “absolutely grown and evolved.”

The Worldly Palate

“In the big markets, like Miami and New York, consumers are willing to try something a bit different because they have been inundated with so much up this point,” Perez explains. “They want something more exotic than an Apple Martini. In the bar world, we have had products like Hangar One’s Kaffir Lime for nearly 10 years, but now we are finally seeing consumers exploring these spirits on their own.”

Todd Appel, a bartender at Crimson in Chicago, is an alchemist playing to the trend. “We use a lot of the flavored spirits here,” he says, “from Navan to Absolut Pear, Citron and Apeach to Veev acai spirit. We haven’t had a chance to get Bacardi’s new Dragon Berry flavor, but I’m sure we will soon. There are a lot of good main line brands out there doing flavors. I like anything by Stoli, and Grey Goose makes nice flavors, although I try to find ones that are a little less sweet. When extra sugar is added in, it can over-sweeten a cocktail.”

The trend in world flavors and education, says Appel, is due to the culinary side. “I think a large portion of the consumer knowledge [of flavor] comes from the food industry,” he explains. “Look at something like kaffir lime. Not that long ago, no one knew what that was, but with the rise of Thai restaurants, people are now familiar.”

Backed Up by Quality

The second part of the trend is the fact that the mixologist and skilled bartender are coming back to the category of flavored spirits with assurance that there now is a serious array of quality products with which to work.

“The big reservation with using a flavored spirit originally was that we didn’t want brands that overpowered the cocktails,” Perez explains.  “Fruit syrups result in this overpowering taste, whereas macerated fruit does not. In a spirit with a syrup base flavoring, automatically, you don’t get the essence of pear. You get a pear cocktail, and no matter what else you add, pear is all you taste.”

Vodka is an obvious choice when it comes to adding flavor to a base spirit, and brands like Absolut, with its Mango and Pear labels, and the new SKYY Infusions, which include Raspberry and Pineapple, have had sales success. Both Absolut’s flavors and the Skyy Infusions line are made with all-natural ingredients.

David Commer, owner of Carrollton, Texas-based Commer Beverage Consulting, agrees. During his 13 years as director of beverage for T.G.I. Friday’s, he witnessed firsthand the morphing of flavored spirits.

“Years ago, you’d throw a bunch of pineapple juice and Chambord in something, and it was just a sugar-fest,” he says. “They’re now using these flavors in how they craft the cocktail, so it’s a little lighter and fresher tasting and not so sugary sweet.”

Commer applauds the development work that went into the Skyy Infusions line: pulling flavors back and launching as infusions with more authentic flavors. “As you using the different flavors, you quickly see that to use all those fresh fruits can be cloying. If you can get some of that flavor from a spirit – through infusing -- it still allows you to do some manipulation of the finished product without it being a fruit bomb or sugar bomb.”

While vodka allows for some stretching of the imagination, with exotic fruits from the tropics and Asia becoming popular, other spirit categories are playing with flavors, as well.

Make Room

In June, Beam Spirits will launch Red Stag – the world’s first full-proof infused bourbon. This 80 proof spirit involves black cherry flavors infused into four-year-old Jim Beam bourbon. Adam Graber, senior brand manager of Red Stag by Jim Beam, is hoping this will help bartenders tap into a stalwart but positively trending category.

“The Manhattan cocktail has a strong cherry base to it. The cherry flavor has notes that are found naturally in bourbon, so it pairs well with bourbon,” he says.  “Flavored vodkas and similar things are doing well, but it’s not a one-to-one comparison. There’s not the same kind of usage of a flavored vodka as with an infused bourbon. It’s easier to imagine your Martini coming to life with a flavored vodka than to imagine how to use an infused bourbon.” Indeed, a product like Red Stag demands some experience and experimentation by the bartender; Beam also offers recipes developed by its mixologists, such as the Brass Buck: equal parts Red Stag and Cruzan Light Rum with four ounces of orange juice. 

“When making an infused bourbon, you can’t do it in an artificial way,” says Graber of the development of Red Stag. “You have to choose the right flavors and do it with the right craftsmanship.”

Going the exotic route are recently released Bacardi Dragon Berry, which offers strawberry flavor infused with dragon fruit, and a new line of flavored tequilas by Tanteo, which includes a tropical, jalapeno and chocolate flavor. At Suenos in New York City, the Tanteo line has already increased sales. General manager Eric Mason says he was a little hesitant when approached by the brand’s reps, due to previous experience with poor-quality flavored tequilas.

“They came in and did a tasting for us, and I totally took back everything I’ve said about flavored tequilas being a bad idea,” Mason laughs. “We stand for quality, and this product provides that. I think you can substitute tequila in for vodka in a lot of cocktails, which makes this an interesting option for us.”

Looking over the horizon, herbs may just be the next thing trend in flavored spirits. “The worldwide trend for some time now has been all natural,” Mason continues, “but within that, buzz words like fresh and seasonal will continue to apply, and we’ll see herbs and spices within spirits next.” NCB

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