Flavors have exploded in the spirits industry, starting with vodkas and spreading to whiskeys, rums and tequilas. So what do bars and restaurants make of—or with—flavored spirits?
Many operators find that these products can aid creativity and provide their bars with a point of differentiation to help drive traffic. They also appreciate the convenience and consistency that flavored spirits offer.
“Flavored spirits have definitely increased the variety of cocktails we can offer our customers,” says Don Rodgers, general manager at The Mill at Spring Lake Heights, an upscale restaurant and banquet facility in coastal New Jersey. The Mill’s bar stocks 16 different flavored spirits, which it uses in an extensive list of signature Martinis and other cocktails.
Those creative drink offerings drive sales considerably, says Rodgers. “We have guests that ask for these signatures, or even come here especially for them because the cocktails are often mentioned in reviews.”
Reel Seafood Grill in Greensboro, NC, carries 12 different flavored vodkas used to mix up a dozen signature drinks. “Flavored vodkas add a fresh twist to our cocktails,” says owner/partner Steve Stern.
Spirits such as whipped cream-flavored vodka and coconut-flavored rum also figure into the casual contemporary restaurant’s menu of four Dessert Martinis. Guests will often order one of these sweet Martinis instead of dessert, says Stern.
That’s a bonus, he notes, because the drinks are priced $2 more than Reel’s house-made desserts. And some guests opt for both at the end of a meal.
Quaker Steak & Lube’s 62 units are required to stock a core of eight flavored base spirits, but most locations carry 20 or more, says Kate Malaniak, senior director of purchasing and beverage management for the Sharon, PA-based casual-dining chain. “We have customers come in and just peruse all those labels on the backbar,” she adds.
Sweet on Flavors
Flavors are a key driver of the volume in behemoth vodka segment, which grew 1.1% to 66 million cases in 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS). Vodka comes in an ever-increasing variety of flavors, including chili, popcorn and wedding cake variations, to name just a few. And it’s not just vodka tapping into the trend.
“The flavor fascination is expanding to other spirits categories,” noted president Peter Cressy at DISCUS’ annual industry briefing. Flavored whiskeys accounted for a full 45% of that category’s volume growth last year. Rum and tequila also have healthy flavor subsets.
While all age groups and genders enjoy flavored spirits in cocktails, Millennials (consumers born in/after 1980) and women seem especially drawn to these drinks because they tend to be a little sweeter, Malaniak says.
These fancy flavored cocktails do appeal to younger legal-aged drinkers, says Rodgers. “They tend to be more experimental, and usually don’t stick with the same drink but try several.” That propensity helps bump up checks.
“Younger people, those who are new to drinking in general, find all the flavors exciting, and they like to try new things,” concurs Matthew Flora, beverage director at D’Amato’s Italian Restaurant and Goodnite Gracie Jazz & Martini Bar in Royal Oak, MI. The two establishments, owned by Hanna Development & Management, use a lot of the flavored vodkas, he says. “They are versatile and work really well in cocktails.”
A balancing act
Since many of the flavors are on the sweet side, even sugary, a deft hand is needed to offset that tendency with other, often fresh, ingredients.
“These drinks need balance to take the sweet edge off, with acidity and fresh ingredients, and to build depth,” Malaniak says. Quaker Steak & Lube’s Skinny Dragon Berry Lime-N-Ade, for example, starts with Bacardi Dragon Berry rum, which is hand-shaken with fresh lime juice and strawberry purée.
The Loop de Loop Lube-n-ade cocktail has a base of Three Olives Loopy (breakfast cereal-flavored) vodka, balanced with cranberry juice and fresh lemonade. And Jack’s Honey Lemonade is a blend of Jack Daniel’s American Honey whiskey, sweet-and-sour mix and a splash of Sierra Mist soda. Prices for the cocktails range from $5 to $7.
“We’re looking for the right acid-sugar balance when we create these cocktails, and not overpowering with too much alcohol—something that is easy to drink and appealing to the eye,” says Stern at Reel. The grill’s Cherry Blossom Martini, for example, has a base of cherry-flavored vodka balanced with cranberry and Key lime juices, while the chocolate whipped cream-flavored vodka in the Orange Milano is offset by Cointreau and orange juice.
Reel’s Spiced Apple Pie cocktail mixes spiced rum and apple vodka with fresh apple juice and a splash of ginger ale; the drink comes with a graham cracker rim for thematic eye appeal and texture. The drinks are served in double glassware, the liquid in a glass nested inside a slightly larger bowl of crushed ice—which keeps the drink cold without diluting the flavor. All cocktails are priced at less than $10.
For the popular Sunburnt Martini at D’Amato’s and Goodnite Gracie, Flora blends three different flavors of rum—coconut, banana and pineapple—and enhances them with tart cranberry and pineapple juices. He pumps up the flavor of his Espresso Martini with freshly brewed espresso. “The coffee complements the Kahlua in the drink and the vanilla from the Stoli Vanil we use.” All cocktails are priced about $10.
Balance is important, agrees Rodgers: “Not too strong nor too sweet—those are turnoffs for people.” The Mill’s popular Huckleberry Lemonade cocktail starts with a 44 North small-batch huckleberry vodka from Idaho, enlivened with tart lemonade and muddled with fresh blueberries to enhance the berry flavor.
House-made Bloody Mary mix melds the spiciness of Hanger One Chipotle vodka and Absolut Peppar vodka in his Bloody Chipotle cocktail. Drink prices at the Mill range from $6 to $8.
Riffing on the Classics
Liquor producers usually provide a few recipes for their products as a starting point, but most operators want to offer unique signature drinks. One approach to developing new cocktails with flavored spirits is to seek inspiration from traditional recipes.
At D’Amato’s and Goodnite Gracie, Flora one-ups the Boulevardier—which itself is a variation on the Negroni—by substituting flavored bourbon for the gin. His Cherry Boulevardier uses Jim Beam Red Stag.
“The whiskey has a subtle black cherry flavor, which works well with the bitter orange in the Campari and the herbal qualities of the sweet vermouth without masking them and without too sweet of a cherry flavor,” says Flora. His riff on the Bellini starts with Stoli Peach vodka, which is accented with peach nectar and topped with Champagne.
The Mill offers a take on the traditional Mojito, says Rodgers. The Mangito has a base of Brinley Gold Shipwreck Mango rum, a local product, muddled with lime and mint, club soda and grapefruit juice for aroma and balance. The Floridian Mojito starts with Bacardi Orange rum and adds muddled oranges, mint and raw sugar for even more oomph. A variant of the Dark and Stormy adds flavor with The Kraken black spiced rum.
Quaker Steak & Lube’s Purple Pop is a skinny twist on the classic Cosmo. The drink gets its color and grape flavor from Three Olives Purple vodka, and a low-cal mix keeps it at just 150 calories. (Guests can opt for the grape lollipop stirrer, which adds 20 calories.)
With an ever-expanding palette of flavor variations debuting every week, it’s hard for busy operators to stay on top of all the innovations in the marketplace. It’s also not easy to find space for those debuts on an already crowded backbar.
“Real estate is always a problem, especially now with so many new spirits products coming out,” Flora says. So he is selective about additions, tasting extensively and experimenting. “Some of the flavors just don’t work—they don’t seem to be genuine, and can be too sugary or overpowering,” he notes.
With all the flavored rums and now whiskeys on top of all the vodka variations, “the backbar has exploded,” says Malaniak. “There are so many choices available, and you have to be very selective.” She works with the chain’s locations to select brand standards, “those we think are well-established brands and long-term flavors.”
Flavors do double duty as shots at Quaker Steak. The Fire Bird is a shot of Fireball cinnamon whiskey dropped into a half pint of Angry Orchard cider. The Moon Rover is a shot of Pinnacle Whipped Cream in Blue Moon beer.
How do you narrow down the flavor selection? Malaniak advises against flavor duplication: No bar needs a coconut rum, a coconut tequila and a coconut vodka, for example.
“I try not to duplicate flavors—one mango, one blueberry, one chocolate is enough,” concurs Rodgers. But he stocks several citrus variations because those flavors are popular, versatile and varied.
The Mill’s Duck, Duck, Goose cocktail, for example, mixes both Grey Goose Le Citron and Grey Goose L’Orange, which are shaken with ice and served straight up. (Quaker Steak also has a Duck, Duck, Goose cocktail, shown above.)
“I generally stay away from extreme flavors—the candy and cookies—and stick to more mixable flavors,” Rodgers says. There are exceptions: A cake-flavored vodka is a key component of the popular Boston Cream Pie Dessert Martini.
Next in Favor
Like everything else, flavors fall in and out of favor; keeping ahead of the curve is important. At Goodnite Gracie and D’Amatos, Flora is always looking for new ideas to spice up the drink menu, which changes with the seasons. “Flavored tequilas have begun to intrigue me,” says Flora, who plans to experiment with them in his summer menus.
“I’m not married to just flavored vodkas,” says Stern, who will be creating with rum for the summer menu, as well as a new pear vodka. And he wants to mix up a fishbowl-type drink, “because we are a seafood restaurant.”
At the Mill, Rodgers was crafting a drinks supplement for summer, working with some flavored tequilas and gins, as well as Grey Goose’s new Le Melon vodka.
Moscato is the hot flavor right now at Quaker Steak & Lube, says Malaniak. The chain’s Moscato Grape Sangria gets a double shot of the flavor: It combines Skyy Grape Moscato vodka and Barefoot Moscato wine, and it’s served in a logoed bar jar that guests can take home. “I got some kickback from the managers for introducing a new flavor, but we have to stay on trend,” says Malaniak.
Sidebar: Low Enthusiasm For Infusions
A fashionable way to imbue cocktails with more flavor is infusion, a method of soaking various ingredients in spirits to extract their essences. But the process is not right for every operation.
“I love infusions, but they need to be managed,” says Kate Malaniak, senior director of purchasing and beverage management for Quaker Steak & Lube. Otherwise, she notes, “they can start to ferment and bubble, or not extract enough flavor.”
Overall, the technique doesn’t work for the Steak & Lube chain, she says, although some locations have experimented. It’s hard for infusions to offer the breadth of variety that commercial products easily provide, Malaniak notes, plus after you’ve done all the work, “what if no one wants lemongrass-infused vodka?”
Another problem is storing infusions, along with all the other bottles. “We have tried infusions, but space behind the bar was an issue,” says Don Rodgers, general manager at The Mill at Spring Lake Heights in New Jersey.
Rodgers also appreciates the consistency of commercial products vs. house infusions. “We are not so experimental here, but we can still provide variety” with different flavors.
Infusing your own spirits takes time, plus fresh fruit costs money, “and there is waste because the discarded fruit grabs some of the liquor,” says Matthew Flora, beverage director at D’Amato’s Italian Restaurant and Goodnite Gracie Jazz & Martini Bar in Royal Oak, MI.That said, Flora does make the Serrano-pepper vodka used in the LemonPepperCello cocktail. And he infuses vodka with raspberries for the signature Vixen, which combines the house infusion with melon and raspberry liqueurs and pineapple juice.