Bigger isn’t always better, not when it comes to beverage programs. As restaurants and bars seek to distinguish themselves, many are creating specialized bar programs that focus on just one spirit. In so doing they differentiate themselves from competitors, create a strong identity, establish credibility and appeal to the media and the greater public.
However, before deciding to be the next best Bourbon bar it’s important to lay the groundwork with a well thought out action plan: establishing your concept, building the framework and marketing it to consumers and the media.
Pick your poison carefully. Just because you like a mean Martini doesn’t mean you should open the next Martini lounge or gin joint. The first step before embarking on a specialty bar program is establishing a clear concept that meshes seamlessly with that of the restaurant.
Picán, a popular restaurant that we work with in Oakland, CA, fuses Southern traditions with the sophistication of California cuisine. Owner, Michael LeBlanc, a New Orleans native, had fond memories of his father drinking Bourbon as he was growing up. Despite a background that included owning a landmark brewery, at Picán, he created an extensive Bourbon program, a natural fit for a Southern restaurant. Calling themselves the “Westernmost point on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail” the bar boasts an impressive selection of over 100 specialty Bourbons, American whiskeys and Ryes.
Likewise, Philadelphia’s aptly named Rum Bar is based on the foods of the Caribbean islands, offering everything from Jamaican Jerk Chicken to Puerto Rican Pernil (roast pork). An unparalleled collection of rums and rum-based cocktails complements the food choices. Owner, Adam Kanter has put together a list of nearly 200 rums ranging from $10 to $250 for a two-ounce shot. Kanter cites improved brand knowledge and general awareness for the sales increase of sipping rums. However even with a singular focus, it is important to make sure that the beverage program includes alternatives.
Building the Bar and the Cred
Build a comprehensive library or portfolio. Seek out single-batch or small production spirits, something guests won’t be able to find anywhere else.
Staff training is also critical. Your staff needs to be well versed in the selection and able to answer any questions. Your bartenders are your ambassadors; give them the training they need to succeed. They should be equipped to guide your guests as they explore unknown spirits and producers. Then promote their personalities and their expertise.
Highlight your spirit selection across multiple platforms, including specialty flights and cocktails. Nic’s Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, CA is famous for their vodkas, or perhaps more specifically the 28˚ walk-in exhibition freezer called the VODBOX. Guests don fur coats and hats for guided tastings in the 28˚ room where they can sample from a selection of vodkas or order bottle service. The restaurant offers over 80 vodkas to be enjoyed neat, in flights or guided tastings, in 26 specialty cocktails or Martinis and with food pairings. Prices for a taste run from $14 to $45.
Such focused interest makes for interesting public relations angles. With the new popularity of beverage-driven blogs such as Liquor.com, singularly focused bars and restaurants can establish themselves as experts and get ongoing coverage. Once a solid reputation is established, the media will come to you with questions, further establishing your restaurant and reinforcing its position as the go-to spot for your chosen spirit.
I’ll Toast to That!
In building out your bar program you will also build strong relationships with some of your distributors. They can be an invaluable marketing tool. Use them to partner with a distillery for a special event showcasing their talents (and spirits) and gain access to all of their fans and followers. You can even tie in a specific location; say a Scottish highlands meal with Scotch Whiskies. If facilities and staff allow, offer a program of dedicated tastings which can be booked for private parties and events.
Just as the so-called “locavore” movement is big in food, people are also taking notice of local spirits. Build relationships with local distilleries, chances are they have a local following that would be happy to know they can count on you to provide another taste.
For frequent guests, it also pays to develop a passport program. Smuggler’s Cove, a bar in San Francisco, launched the Rumbustion Society, a special interest club whose members strive to taste more than 200 rums. Anyone can join and participation is free. Members are given a passport which the bartenders stamp to keep track of drink orders. Three levels designate progress with incentive prizes along the way. Members who make it to level III are invited on a private distillery trip to see rum being made. Programs like this encourage repeat visits and generate interest.
Build a mailing list for these enthusiasts and let them know when you get new and unique spirits. Social media should supplement these ideas: build out a personality for the bar where you post about new spirits you have tasted, interesting distillers you have met and any last-chance opportunities to taste a particular edition or spirit before you run out.