Nearly every restaurant has specialty cocktails these days, but there’s one way to make them really different: by using local liquors.
Local distillers not only provide very distinctive beverages, but they also appeal to customers interested in the “eat local” trend, while at the same time supporting and promoting these small-batch producers.
These drinks appeal to just about everyone, says Nathan Gerdes, lead bartender at H5O Bistro & Bar in Portland, Oregon.
“Locals want to see local products, and outsiders want to drink what’s from local providers,” he says.
H5O has an entire shelf behind its bar dedicated to local distilleries, including House Spirits Distillery, Integrity Spirits, and Deco Distilling, and it’s not surprising since Portland has an enormous number of distilleries.
Gerdes serves spirits on their own or in specialty cocktails, including the Portland Peppermint Patty, which is made with New Deal Distillery’s Mud Puddle chocolate vodka, Northwest Distilleries’ Lavishmint vodka (both are local distilleries), half and half, and simple syrup. It is shaken, strained, and served in a cocktail glass and garnished with cocoa powder.
“It’s a relatively simple cocktail, which is something I try to focus on, especially for my listed menu cocktails,” Gerdes says.
He has dozens of specialty cocktails containing local liquors, another of which is the Portland Proper. It features WhipperSnapper whiskey, a young local whiskey “with some great feisty and funky flavors,” he says. The drink also contains Fernet Branca, the restaurant’s own chai spice simple syrup, and Angostura bitters.
It is stirred, strained into a coupe glass, and garnished with a flamed orange peel. “It is a very heavy, slightly bitter, and complex cocktail, great for people who like drinks like Manhattans.”
A Talking Point
Every cocktail on H5O’s menu is specialty “because I think the public is being a little more aware of what a good bartender and a good bartender program can do for them,” Gerdes says, though he adds that he will make classic drinks, too.
What he really likes, he says, are the slight changes in flavors from one distiller to another.
“It makes a huge difference, and I like those subtleties for my cocktails. It allows us to go one step beyond having specialty cocktails.”
Featuring local distillers is also a great talking point and a way to connect with guests.
“People who are visiting have never heard of many of these products before,” Gerdes says. “It’s really fun for them to see this shelf, and I can start up a conversation about these and Portland.”
The increased demand for local liquors can help restaurants grow sales because of the number of consumers interested in “local,” says Brandon O’Dell, a restaurant consultant with O'Dell Restaurant Consulting, Kansas City.
“Additionally, products produced in smaller batches typically cost more than mass-produced products, and consumers are aware of this, so restaurants will be able to charge more for these local products,” he explains.
The only possible downside he sees to serving local liquors is if demand should outgrow supply, creating a shortage. “A shortage would drive prices for these liquors past the point where they are still a value to the consumer," he says, “and result in consumers going to restaurants that serve cheaper, mass-produced liquors.”
Gerdes says that because of the plethora of distilleries in Portland, he can find local liquors at just about any price point.
But Christian Schaal, mixologist at Fatta Cuckoo on New York City’s Lower East Side, says the local liquors he serves are slightly more expensive but on a par with high-end liquor brands.
But just the fact of being local makes these drinks more appealing to customers, he says.
“I think that if people know that [a spirit is] local, they become more interested in it,” he says.
Fatta Cuckoo uses Breuckelen gin from Brooklyn’s Breuckelen Distilling in one of its most popular cocktails, The Orchard, along with Prosecco, peach puree, Cointreau, lime juice, and sage leaves.
“I like using Breuckelen gin because it has the flavor profiles I was going for," Schaal says. The gin's rosemary and juniper notes complement the fresh sage to balance the fruit flavors, and give the drink the herbal quality I wanted.”
Unique flavors are what Ryan Layman, assistant bar manager at Steuben’s in Denver, was aiming for, and he’s been using local spirits for around four years.
But what he most likes is the variation between each batch. There are changes, he says, of fullness of body, of spice and sweetness levels, and color variations.
“These changes are usually dependent upon distillers deciding to use more or less of certain grains in their mash bills, changing the herbal/botanical recipes. I personally like watching the development of certain distillers' products over time,” he says.
He uses spirits from Peach Street Distillers and Leopold Bros. in four cocktails.
“I like the complete uniqueness of the products we have at our restaurant. Using local small-batch spirits adds unique flavors found in very few markets and piques the interest of guests who are willing to try something new,” Layman says.
“We don't carry a lot of widely recognized spirits so we actually, by design, lead our guests to try new things like local products that excite us with the hopes that they, too, will be just as excited.”
The restaurant features a Barrel Aged Martinez cocktail, featuring Jackelope gin from Peach Street, sweet vermouth, Leopold Bros.’ maraschino liqueur, and Angostura Bitters.
“We age it for seven to eight weeks and bottle it to stop the aging process. Traditionally the Martinez is served up, but for the barrel-aged version we serve it on a single block of sculpture ice with a lemon twist.”
The restaurant also has a 100 Years cocktail, containing Leopold Bros.’ rye whiskey, Peach Street peach brandy, Ramazzotti Amaro, and Bitter Truth orange bitters.
Local beverages are also featured in two classics, The Last Word (Beefeater gin, Chartreuse, Leopold Bros.’ maraschino liqueur, fresh lime juice) and The River Street (Peach Street peach brandy, Earl Grey syrup, lemon juice, and sage leaves).
Simply Supporting Local
But it’s not just about creating great drinks. Layman says he just simply likes to support local producers.
“It’s good to support local,” he says. “The Peach Street guys come into the bar and hang out whenever they’re in town. Not only are we supporting good guys, but they make a great products so there’s no reason not to. And we have a really busy restaurant and it’s fun to offer something that not everyone can get, especially for visitors from another state.”
Henry's Farm to Table at Buttermilk Falls Inn & Spa in Milton, New York, serves bourbon and vodka made at nearby Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery.
“It is a natural partnership,” says general manager CJ Hartwell. “That said, if the products were not worthy, we would not incorporate them into our cocktail program.”
Tuthilltown's Baby Bourbon whiskey is one of the three bourbons the restaurant carries and is by far the most popular, despite its expense—$42 for 750 ml. at wholesale. Drinks made with this bourbon cost $11 to $13. Henry's, which has just 60 seats, routinely goes through at least two $42 bottles a week.
“We’re really looking to localize our restaurant, which has a farm-to-table theme,” Hartwell says. “We also infuse some spirits with ingredients grown on our Millstone Farm, as again, it is consistent with our concept. That got a great response, so we thought we should use local spirits.”
These beverages are popular, she says, “because of the whole trend of people wanting to know where their food is coming from.”
Henry’s offers the drinks straight up and in cocktails—both specialty and classics.
Specialty cocktails include the Elder Fashion—a take on the Old-Fashioned—whose ingredients are Tuthilltown bourbon and St. Germain elderflower cordial. Another cocktail is the Milton Cooler, which features Bootlegger vodka, St. Germain, lime juice, and soda.
Shout from the Rooftops
Restaurants that serve locally sourced liquors should be shouting it from the mountaintops, O’Dell says, “Especially if no one else in their market is.” This includes traditional and social media marketing.
They should also make sure their employees are experts on the products and the companies that make them.
“[Education] creates an emotional bond with any consumer who values local businesses and wants to see them succeed. They, in turn, support the restaurant that is supporting those other local businesses,” he says.
Despite this, some restaurant operators choose to keep their local liquors under the radar.
Henry’s doesn’t highlight the local liquors on its menu, but, Hartwell says, “the employees are prompted to ask about those first—they are the first we offer.”
“We don’t want to hit people over the head with this because then you feel like you’re being smug,” he says. “We mention it on Facebook wall postings and tweets but it’s not loud and in your face. The restaurants already have that reputation [of serving local foods].”
He’s been serving local drinks for about 18 months. He has an apple ice wine from Harvard, Massachusetts, a gin from Vermont, a Berkshire bourbon, Privateer rum from Massachusetts, vodka from Boston, and an unaged white whiskey (Bully Boy) from Boston.
“It’s one of those things, within the past year, there has been a lot more produced,” Graeff says. “Before that it was much more limited, but then the locavore movement really started to take off.”
But it’s important to be selective, he says.
“One of the challenges is not to carry locals for locals’ sake, but to carry locals of a certain quality. And that’s the beauty of it—when you do find something, it’s particularly exciting. They have much more idiosyncratic characteristics to them. They definitely have more of a subjective seasonal essence, and you can taste that they’re handcrafted.”
Both of the restaurants Graeff works at typically serve the bourbon straight, on the rocks, “since it’s so clean,” he says.
But in terms of specialty cocktails, there’s the Gin and Jazz, with Barr Hill gin, which contains honey, cucumber, lime and lemon syrup, green tea, and dry vermouth. “The aromatics of the gin are really enhanced by some soft tannins from the tea,” Graeff says.
There’s also the White Boy Manhattan, a clear drink that’s a twist on the classic Manhattan, which is brown. It contains Bully Boy white whiskey, Cocchi Americano, a vermouth-esque aperitif from Italy, and is finished with Regan’s orange bitters.
Local liquors don’t just work well in independent restaurants—they are a great differentiation point for chains, too.
Smith & Wollensky serves the same drinks and cocktails in its restaurants, but many of them also carry some local liquors, says national beverage director Stuart Roy.
He encourages restaurants to carry them because of their popularity with local customers, he says.
“I do it mostly for the locals. When tourists come to town and want to learn more, they usually go to the local restaurants. Our thing is to give the ultimate experience, and I want the best spirits available for our guests.”
But it’s important to carry a selection of nationally recognized brands as well as the smaller products from local distilleries, he says.
“The big brands are sourced for the entire company. It’s OK to have some esoteric things, but you have to have the comfort ones that everyone is familiar with too.”
The chain’s Boston restaurant carries Whistlepig rye from Vermont; in Houston the eatery serves Tito’s Handmade vodka, from the Mockingbird Distillery in Texas, and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, which Roy says has a cult following; in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, Watershed vodka is a big seller.
The local liquors aren’t highlighted on the menus because the locals recognize them simply from their name. And, Roy says, “we don’t have specialty drinks with those because obviously I have my corporate partners. But they’re on our cocktail list and can be added to cocktails if guests want them.”
Sourcing these local liquors is left to each individual restaurant location.
The big brands are all sourced at once but the local ones are done store by store.
“Our restaurants are the same, but there are these small things that make the little difference. We pride ourselves on our iconic locations. I want [each location] to do what they want to do, but I want a little control in there so I make sure we have the right stuff that makes sense for our company.”