Lowering the Bar
Ever try a Tiki cocktail with not a drop of rum? Hard to imagine but there it is: the Mauser (Fino, Amontillado and Moscatel Sherries, lime, grapefruit, ginger, grenadine and two types of bitters) on the menu at Donostia, a Basque-style pintxos restaurant in Manhattan.
Getting attention for a drink menu today isn’t easy, as a thousand bars seem to bloom every month. But as cocktail culture continues to evolve, those aperitif, lower alcohol drinks like the Mauser that are neither excessively boozy nor overpoweringly complex are attracting curious attention. Tending to offer a more subtle, appetizing experience, and based frequently on Sherry, Port, amari, vermouth or other fortified or aromatized wines, these drinks provide a different sort of savory beverage experience. The trend is welcoming to both seasoned and neophyte palates, even serving as a bridge cocktail for those who tend to prefer wine.
Lower-alcohol drinks also provide some operational values—an operator can charge almost as much for something like the Bamboo (dry Sherry, vermouth and bitters) as it can for one made with full proof spirit. But four Bamboos will leave most guests compos mentis, while that many Manhattans can set the room aswirl.
This isn’t a quirk in cocktail culture, but a step in awareness that not all consumers have iron palates and constitutions. It’s easy to make an impression when ingredients include a 100-proof spirit—what’s harder is the merging of more subtle spirits.
Take the menu at the renowned NoMad Hotel in Manhattan, where head bartender Leo Robitschek and staff host numerous spirit and cocktail events. Even non-alcohol is well thought out here (basil-fennel house soda, anyone?) here, as well as aperitif cocktails like the Shuttlecock (Cabernet Franc, Moscatel Sherry, maraschino liqueur, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, blackberries mint and orange) and the Sippy Cup (Averna, Vermouth di Torino, ginger and lime).
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Time to buy rye
If there were an endangered species act for American spirits, rye certainly would have qualified for protection at the turn of this century. Down to only a few brands that were mainly stuck on the periphery of the shelf or out of the line of sight on the back bar, rye had fallen far from its pretty perch as arguably the original American spirit. While bourbon had survived Prohibition and later the vodka craze, rye had slowly but surely faded from relevance.
But since its lowest point, rye has come roaring back, growing by double digits each year for the past few and up more than 35% in the 52 weeks through October 2014 according to recent figures, building on numerous trends that have created the perfect climate for the American spirit more closely associated with Maryland and Pennsylvania than Kentucky.
Of those trends, the return of classic cocktails in which rye often plays a prominent role has been most important. Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds aside, the international American whiskey boom has returned focus to authentic styles of bourbons and ryes alike. And finally, contributing is the contemporary craving for authentic products with real stories and the concurrent surge of micro-distillers, who in many cases are working with rye (or selling rye made elsewhere,or both).
Even Canadian whisky makers, who have lagged behind their U.S. counterparts in featuring rye as a key component of their wares, have gotten into the mix. Pernod Ricard has in the past year or so started to push J.P. Wiser’s Rye, with smaller brands Lot 40 Pot Still Rye and Pike Creek also receiving attention. Canada has already been the source of two of the minor success stories in the category: WhistlePig and Lock, Stock & Barrel. (Different rules in the two countries can create confusion, however; while in this country, to be called a rye a product must be at least 51% made from that grain, Canadian rules are less bothersome and allow almost any product containing some rye to be called “rye.”)
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Belgians Take Flight
Waterzooi. Moules-frites. Carbonnade flamande. Frites with a side of mayonnaise or curry sauce. It’s not like Belgian dishes aren’t well represented in the pantheon of European dishes served worldwide. But somehow, the beers of Belgium—most of which are well suited for drinking with food—haven’t made it here past the bar.
It’s puzzling to such chefs as Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Ore., who has long put beer, especially Belgian styles, at the core of his beverage program. Nearly half the beers on his extensive list are Belgian or Belgian style, with more than 35 in all. To him, it’s the overall balance and food-friendly characteristics of Belgian beers that make serving them, pairing them and even cooking with them, interesting.
“Our approach to beer always has been to focus our core list on things that we think are remarkable examples or new interpretations of a classic style,” says Higgins. “Having beer and food matches is key to our approach, and the balance of these Belgian beers as well as the range makes them great to be able to serve. And from a food perspective, they are marvelous beers to work with.”
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Wine for a new generation
Lauren Friel, beverage director at Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., a Mediterranean-Arabic restaurant that consistently garners great reviews for both the food and wine programs, has more refined tastes and a more experienced palate than the average person. Still, she represents the way Millennial wine drinkers think, and what she says about her own wine list contains a viewpoint every restaurateur should keep in mind these days:
“I get bored easily, so I don’t want to see the same wines all the time. Exploring the varietals that are native to a particular area or only grown in certain parts of the world or even near extinction is very interesting to me. Why wouldn’t you want to know more about these rare breeds and what people are doing with them?”
Friel, a 30-something at the far edge of the Millennial group, plays out her point of view in her list, which is loaded with varietals like Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Scheurebe and Frappato, as well as wines from Lebanon, Corsica and other areas less known here for wine making. It may be more culturally relevant to have nuanced and balanced wines from the region rather than the oaky sort so traditionally popular in this country, but there’s also a sense of curiosity and exploration that places a list with this sort of diversity right in the sweet spot for Millennials.
An adventurous selection of wines for tasting is best accompanied by interesting small bites for grazing, as served at Belly in Cambridge, Mass. photo courtesy of belly.
As the Millennial cohort ages (the group, according to think tank Pew Research Center, defined as those 18 to 33 years old, born between 1981 and 1996), their behavior becomes more crucial to understand, and so marketers and researchers are busily slicing, dicing and scrutinizing what they like and why. Already known as consumers exhibiting very little brand loyalty, Millennials are frequently said to be food and drink explorers on a quest for new experiences, especially compared to older age groups like Baby Boomers, whose predictable habits operators have depended upon for many years, giving rise to wine lists dominated by Napa Cabernets and California Chardonnays.
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Try to find someone in Kentucky (or Tennessee, for that matter) in the whiskey business who ISN’T optimistic. Go ahead, try. You’ll have about as much luck as a consumer looking for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.
Of course, most American whiskey brands sold today come from a plentiful supply, and there’s little worry that the Jim Beams and Jack Daniel’s and Evan Williams of the world will be hard to get anytime soon. To make sure that supply stays steady and grows, though, most of the major and some minor players are splashing money around for new facilities like there’s a gold rush all over the Bluegrass State.
For instance, in May Diageo announced plans to spend $115 million on a 750,000-case Bulleit distillery in Shelby County. Campari recently completed its $100-million-plus investment in expanding Wild Turkey including a shiny new visitor center. Brown-Forman plans to spend at least $30 million on a distillery and visitors facility for its founding brand, Old Forester, in downtown Louisville by fall 2016. This follows the company’s $35M spend at Woodford Reserve and $100M for Jack Daniel’s.
Smaller but no less significant investments—like the creation of a distillery for Michter’s—are merely proof of what retailers have had an inkling of in the past few years: Customers are crazy about the real American spirit.
Sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey jumped nearly 20% from 2008 to 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Last year, more than 18 million 9L cases were sold domestically, totaling $2.4 billion in revenue for distillers. Inventories reached roughly 5 million barrels last year in Kentucky, the highest level since 1977. Whiskey exports from the United States exceeded $1 billion in value for the first time ever in 2013, and might have been higher had distillers had greater capacity.
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The Value of Vermouth
Perhaps the two most important drinks in the cocktail renaissance have been the Manhattan and the Negroni. And while it’s common today for customers to voice their preference for the gin or rye used in these drinks, the other major component, vermouth, is only now starting to emerge from the shadows.
At cocktail-centric bars, the likes of such artisanal vermouths as Dolin and Carpano have established themselves at the core of beverage programs, especially as the 19th and early 20th century drinks that feature different types of vermouths have returned to prominence. Several restaurants have started creating vermouth sections on the menu to highlight the wine-based aperitif. Some ambitious bars have launched “design your own” Manhattan and Martini programs, featuring vermouths and their aromatized and fortified wine relations and encouraging customers to mix, match and sample.
It’s about time vermouth regained its luster in the American drinking scene. While an enormous category internationally, there hasn’t been much growth in the U.S. for some time.
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