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Rising spirits

The economy seems to be coming out of its tailspin and restaurant and bar customers are returning to their seats. Now is the time to give them something to come back for. Off-premise, consumers have been trading down, but when they go out for a drink, they want a treat. Time to dust off the top shelf.

Significantly, product innovation has not totally flagged during the recession. New niches and new products continue to be introduced. A few trends deserve consideration.

Moonshine Although brown goods are seeing a surge, don’t neglect whiskey’s younger brother—“white dog,” a.k.a. moonshine. Without any barrel time, this unaged nascent whiskey is a white spirit that clearly shows its grain bill pedigree. Not only does white whiskey appeal to connoisseurs, but regular customers have taken to the novelty. Trendy operators are offering unaged versions in whiskey flights and mixologists have added it to their cocktail toolbox. Most white whiskey is available on a limited basis from micro-distillers. Among them are Wisconsin-based Death’s Door Spirits, Tuthilltown Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, The Copper Fox in Virginia and Rogue Distillery and House Spirits in Oregon.

Flower power St. Germain liqueur (elderflowers) and Hendrick’s Gin (rose petals) set the floral flavor trend in motion, which continues with new entrants. L’Esprit De June is touted as the world’s first vine-flower liqueur. Recently released by EWG Spirits & Wine (who also market the G’Vine line of vine-flower-infused gins), the liqueur is made in Cognac from brandy and petals of ugni blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and other wine grapes. Elderflowers and hibiscus add their fragrant essence to Beefeater Summer Edition Gin. Containing the same nine botanicals (plus black currant) as traditional Beefeater, this limited-edition gin is softer with floral and herbal notes.

Brown goods are coming back

Overshadowed for decades by vodka, consumers seem to be rediscovering the rich full-bodied flavors of brown goods: whiskies and brandies. Part of this growth is driven by interest in classic cocktails and growing consumer appreciation of fine spirits. The star is Irish whisky, which has grown at double digits, albeit on a very small base, just 1,142,000 9L cases. Single malt scotch is second.

U.S. spirits market by gross revenues
Category    Percent change (2009-08)
Bourbon/Tennessee whiskey    0.3%
Brandy/Cognac    0.5%
Blended whiskey    3.1%
Single Malt Scotch    4.0%
Irish whisky    12.3%
Source: Distilled Spirits Council

Whiskey speaks for itself

We’ve built up quite a collection of whiskies over the past couple of years,” says Marius Donnelly, proprietor of Trinity Hall. The two Irish pubs, one in Allen, Texas, the other in Dallas, each boast over 200 whiskies.

Seven years ago, Donnelly made a strategic decision to invest his marketing dollars in a regular tasting program. Held on the first Tuesday of every month, the tastings draw as many as 120 guests. Often presided over by visiting brand ambassadors, quarter-ounce pours of six different whiskies are compared side by side. “We offer them education and entertainment, more of a night out as opposed to just having a few drinks.” He sees the payback in terms of a better-educated customer. “They become more adventuresome and if they find a whiskey they like, they often come back with friends to show it off.”

Although it’s an Irish pub concept, the whiskey world is also amply represented by Scotch, American, Canadian and Welch spirits. By-the-glass prices range from $6 to $25. Available upon request is a cellar list of rare bottles, priced $30 and up a glass.

Trinity Hall also offers half a dozen whiskey flights, arranged by style, age, distillery or region. “Flights are becoming more popular as guests gain confidence,” says the proprietor. “It gives them a chance to taste whiskies that might cost more than they'd be willing to pay for by the glass.” Consisting of three half-ounce pours, whiskey flights range from $14 to as high as $60. Donnelly continues to add to his collection and change up the flights. “Once customers gain an interest, they’re looking to expand their palates with the next new style or region,” he says. 

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