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Keeping spirits high

Contrary to popular belief, the entire beverage alcohol sector is recession-resistant, not recession-proof,” said Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) CEO Peter Cressy at an annual industry briefing. Revenue growth of the U.S. spirits market slowed to 2.8 percent in 2008, while volume dropped to 1.6 percent, according to DISCUS research. Cressy laid a lot of the blame for that slowdown to precipitous drops in on-premise spirits sales.

Of course, most restaurant operators don’t need to be told that spirits sales are off; many see the evidence daily. A good number are combating that trend with more ambitious bar programs (see sidebar). And there are some bright spots in the spirits picture—hooks to grab customer’s interest.

Green drinks

Like virtually every agriculturally based product these days, some spirits are certified organic. Just a handful are available right now, but the number is growing. These are a few examples.

  • Square One Vodka is crafted from 100 percent organic American rye.
  • Cascade Peak Spirits in Ashland, Oregon, touts its Organic Nation line of certified organic vodka and gin.
  • For every bottle of Tru2 Organic Vodka and Gin you purchase, the company will plant a tree.
  • Made from 100 percent organic corn, Rain Organics Vodka comes in five expressions, including Cucumber Lime and Honey Mango Melon.
  • Blue Ice is made from wheat organically grown in Idaho.
  • From Britain comes Juniper Green, the world’s first organic London Dry gin.
  • Hailing from remote Paraguay, Papagayo may be the first organic rum.

If you tout the organic provenance of ingredients on your food menu, now’s the time to do the same with your cocktail list.

Whiskey a go-go

After years of ceding market share to white goods, especially vodka, brown goods are back. American whiskeys—Bourbon and Tennessee Sour Mash—are demonstrating big sales increases as consumers take more interest in these complex, home-grown spirits. That’s especially true at the high end of the price spectrum. Single-malts have enjoyed great popularity over the past few years, but now the Scottish spirit is being upstaged by its Irish neighbor. Mellow, non-peaty Irish whiskey enjoyed amazingly high growth last year—albeit from a very small base.

93 bottles of vodka on the wall

We’re not kidding around here,” declares the Vodka Menu at Bluephies Restaurant & Vodkatorium in Madison, Wisconsin, which currently boasts 93 selections. “My wife [co-owner Melanie] and I really like vodka,” says co-owner and executive chef Bill Horzuesky.

In fact, when the couple expanded last year, they redesigned the layout to show off and enlarge their vodka collection.
The bar area is right at the entrance and “the vodkas kind of slap customers in the face,” jokes the chef. The lengthy list is divided into three tiers of ascending quality: Bar Stool Vodkas, Dance Floor Vodkas and Velvet Rope Vodkas. Each selection is listed with its origin, what it’s made from and a short flavor profile. There’s no well at Bluephies, so customers have to call their brands, which naturally leads to hand-selling by staffers. Drink prices range from about $5 to $15.

A number of the vodkas are from local producers. Yahara Bay is made right in Madison; Prairie Organic comes from Minnesota; and Death’s Door Vodka is distilled in Door County, Wisconsin. “We buy as much produce and meat as we can from local sources,” notes the chef. “That goes for spirits as well. We get a certain crowd that wants to drink local.”

Bluephies also participates in an annual event called Local Night Out. “Last year, we were fortunate that Nick Quindt, distiller of Yahara Bay, could come to talk to customers,” recalls Horzuesky. “He debuted his apple brandy that night.”

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