The menu at Bodega Negra inside New York’s Dream Hotel Downtown boasts an array of creative cocktails. You’ll find some stylish tweaks on the classic Margarita, along with several drinks concocted in a lavish, contemporary style using tequila or mezcal as the lead spirit, as fits a Mexican-themed restaurant and nightspot.
But most intriguing, and having a growing impact on cocktail sales is Bodega Negra’s Singani Sour. The drinks is made with singani, a Bolivian spirit produced from Muscat of Alexandria grapes grown at high altitudes.
In the six months that Dream Hotel has been open, managing partner Matt Strauss says that the Singani Sour has become the fourth most-popular drink on the menu. That’s no small achievement for a cocktail based on a spirit that practically no one in North America has ever heard of.
Spirits from all over the world target the U.S. market as a potential honey pot, and few manage to grab a foothold easily. Yet never has the U.S. market been so open to new products, as the rapid turnover of Singani Sours (made with Singani 63, fresh lemon juice and muddled grapes) at Bodega Negra suggests.
“When you as a business believe in a product and think it matches your brand, and you train your staff properly on it and how you’re using it and they get excited about it, these things can move on their own,” says Strauss.
Few spirits today fall outside the realm of contemporary cocktail makers. That’s one reason marketers continue to focus on American bartenders to help them build word about the flavor, quality and utility of their wares.
Pisco and mezcal, both hard to find in most bars until just a few years ago, have both made impressive gains. Various brand reps have consistently worked to tell story of these spirits and familiarize bar folk with what’s in the bottles. Other spirits, such as amari and grappa, have been widely available in the U.S. for some time, but only lately have managed to find their way into cocktails at places outside their cultural roots.
And unusual offerings, like singani and Solbeso, a new spirit distilled from fermented cacao fruit, are finding that—especially among those anxious to place themselves ahead of the curve—the American bartender is willing to sample and experiment with anyone’s juice.
While a few brands of singani are available in the U.S., the recent introduction of Singani 63 with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh as a champion helped its placement at Bodega Negra and the other Dream Hotel bar outlets. (See sidebar “Soderbergh on Singani 63” on page 42.)
But celebrity connection just as often fails to gain a brand or spirit traction. Success usually comes down to a few operations or bartenders becoming enamored with a product and deciding to promote it on their own.
There’s nothing like the enthusiasm of a new advocate to make these spirits sell, and for Solbeso, that’s been Logan Ronkainen, bartender at New York’s Il Mulino Trattoria.
Ronkainen in some ways is a brand or category’s dream: someone who honestly loves a spirit and works with it as his own. After discovering Solbeso, he was taken with its floral aromatic and flavor profile and saw it as an alternative to vodka and other white spirits.
That inspiried Ronkainen to develop an Il Mulino cocktail called the Cobeso, made with Solbeso, lemon juice and oleo sacchurum (a mix of lemon peels and sugar) and finished with chocolate bitters. “It’s become my favorite drink as well, what I order after a shift at the bar,” he says.
Selling better known yet mostly ignored spirits takes the same sort of dedication. Much of what passes as unusual depends on location: A backbar filled with Italian amari in New York or San Francisco might not get much attention, while in Houston, for instance, it may be considered a stretch.
Morgan Weber, who runs the beverage program at Houston’s recently opened Coltivare Pizza and Garden, carries every amaro available in his market—23 at this point, though he’s angling for more. “I like to expose people to things they are not necessarily used to tasting,” he says. “It’s really risk-free, to help them figure out what they might like.”
To make the amari more familiar, Weber has crafted drinks to showcase them, taking classic cocktail recipes and introducing a variety of amari as an accent or secondary ingredient. “The flavor profile of each one will dictate what we do; for instance, using the very citrusy Ramazotti works well in drinks that call for that accent,” he says.
The Ava Crowder cocktail, for example, is made with Weber’s house-made sorghum vinegar, Ramazotti, tobacco tincture, Buffalo Trace bourbon and lemon. Other drinks include the 11th & Hudson (Amaro Abano, Cynar, lemon and orange bitters) and the Coltivare take on the Negroni, made with Lambrusco Rosso, Carpano Antica and Campari.
Of course, many guests have no clue about amari, so Weber and staff use them as conversation starters, regularly pouring tastes if customers are curious. He says he generally introduces novices to some of the easier, fruitier Southern Italian brands first, rather than the more herbal and bitter Northern varieties.
Weber first started experimenting with the Italian potable bitters when he was an original owner and sometimes bartender at Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. “Opening an Italian-inspired restaurant was the perfect opportunity for me to showcase the spirits that the Italians have refined over centuries of making fine aperitifs and digestifs, prepared in the modern American cocktail tradition,” he says.
What’s more, Weber notes, “the wonderful array of quality products, from the spirits to the bitters and tinctures that weren’t available here just five years ago, have made creating these recipes a whole lot more interesting.”
Coltivare educates the entire staff on the cocktails and amaris, but Weber prefers that the bartenders visit any table with curious customers, rather than burdening servers with the task. “If they are interested enough to ask, I’d rather do it myself.”
Grappa and Soju and Punsch, Oh My!
Weber also works with grappa, something other bars with an Italian connection have tried. Bar 888 in Luce Restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco, for instance, sells grappas individually, in various flights and in cocktails.
Grappa, especially infused varieties of the grape brandy, have become more popular in cities with a strong Italian restaurant community. But like amari, they still have a long way to travel.
For Brady Weise, head barman at the 1886 Bar at The Raymond in Pasadena, CA, a cocktail menu that changes quarterly means that drinkmakers on the staff must be introducing new flavors constantly to keep fresh.
Regular customers tend to be adventurous already, he says, so unusual spirits like Swedish Punsch—a combination of rum, spices and Batavia arrack—don’t really faze them. “We established our reputation as a forward-thinking bar, so people expect to try something new when they come here,” Weise says.
Pisco, for instance, got an early chance at The Raymond as a cocktail ingredient because it provides an alternative to vodka, gin and other white spirits, with entirely an different flavor profile well-suited for cocktail making, he says.
Soju, the Korean and Japanese spirit made from rice, wheat, barley or sweet potatoes, is not unfamiliar in California restaurants, due to the proliferation of Korean bars and restaurants. There’s also the effect of the state issuing many beer and wine-only licenses. Because soju is available at 24% alcohol by volume, the legal limit for those licensees, some use the spirit to make cocktails.
“In California there are many restaurants with only beer and wine licenses, like us,” says Thomas Elliott, owner of Venice Ale House and Bank of Venice in Venice Beach, CA. “We have people who come in all the time asking for their drink of choice, like Jack and Coke. For us with our soju cocktails, it’s a process of selling them on how amazing soju can be in a drink.”
The drinks at the Venice Ale House tend to be soju versions of well-known classics, while the Bank of Venice gets more creative; examples include The Mint ($10), made Mojito style with fresh local chocolate mint and served up with raw cacao; and The Heat ($12), made with spicy infused soju and fresh ginger juice. The Bank of Venice also makes its own infusions, such as Madagascar vanilla, serrano chile/papaya and espresso.
Are guests embracing the sojus? “Those customers willing to venture out a little and try something unique almost always enjoy their experience,” Elliott says.
Selling the Story
To effectively market the more exotic spirits, bartenders need to understand the category and brand differences, Weise says. But that’s not too difficult these days, given contemporary enthusiasm for spirit discovery among pros and consumers.
“If bartenders try one of these and like them, they’ll get into it, find out all they can and become advocates,” he says.
Weise cites Fernet Branca and mezcal as two examples of how enthusiastic bartenders can help drive interest and sales. “We like to be tastemakers and trendsetters, like to know what’s going on and be ahead of the curve—it’s part of why we do what we do.”
But no matter how pumped up a bartender might be about a spirit, only when customers start embracing the idea will more obscure brands and categories emerge. As Strauss at the Dream Hotel says, you can create a unique cocktail out of almost any spirit, “but you need a good conversation starter to build excitement, and then that customer will like it, adopt it as their own and want to talk about it, too.”
It’s sort of like being the first to like an independent film, Strauss notes: “You want people to know that you recommended it, because it makes you feel cool.” ·
Soderbergh on Singani 63
Singani 63, a Bolivian grape brandy, is the latest project from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. So why would an Academy Award-winning director get behind an obscure, pisco-like spirit? Because he loves it and he wanted to be able to buy it in the U.S.
Distilled from the muscatel grapes of Alexandria grown in high altitudes of the Andes, singani is considered the national spirit of Bolivia. Soderbergh was introduced to singani by a Bolivian casting director in 2007 while shooting the film Che in Spain. It was love at first sip for Soderbergh, he says, because the aromatic, faintly floral singani was smooth enough to drink straight, it made him feel pleasantly “buzzy” rather than sloppy, and it didn’t give him a hangover.
Sonderbergh initially invested in 250 cases of the 80-proof Singani 63. As with most liquor brand launches, the challenges were more than Soderbergh had bargained for. But he prevailed, and Singani 63 made its debut in the New York City market this spring. As of May, it was available in about 50 outlets.
Soderbergh is passionate about the product and he has no problem with being out in front of Singani 63; the name refers to his birth year. He notes that actor Dan Aykroyd, a founder of Crystal Head vodka, had offered him this advice: If you’re not willing to be the face of the brand, don’t bother getting involved.