Fresh is best in many cases, but with cocktails it’s not always feasible to make everything from scratch. Craft mixers, gourmet syrups and produce purees enable small operators, high-volume bars and national chain restaurants to offer and execute quality cocktail in a timely and cost-effective way.
“Most bars can’t afford to dedicate all those hours to creating consistent syrups and mixers,” says Matt Grippo, bar manager at Blackbird, a San Francisco cocktail spot.
Blackbird lacks a kitchen, so it relies on mixers such as Shrub & Co. and Tippleman’s syrups for some cocktails. “I use craft mixers in certain situations when I cannot create a desired flavor or texture,” Grippo says. “That’s why these companies exist.”
For instance, Blackbird incorporates Tippleman’s barrel-smoked maple syrup in its Scotch Old Fashioned cocktail ($11). It’s not a cost-saving move: The smoked maple syrup was more expensive by the ounce in the Scotch Old Fashioned that the whisky, Grippo notes. But, “The flavor is so dynamic and truly elevates the cocktail
Blackbird also uses mixers in its Don’t Sweat The Technique ($11), made with coconut-washed Scotch and the Tippleman’s barrel-smoked maple syrup, as well as the Game of Thrones-inspired cocktail The Red Wedding, comprised of Spring 44 Gin and Shrub & Co.’s cranberry Doug fir shrub, and topped with Graham Beck sparkling wine.
While bespoke bars and cocktail lounges that stand out for their homemade ingredients may shun mixers, many other operators find them a quick and effective means to enhance a beverage program.
“Not all bars have time to make everything behind the scenes, but they still want a nice menu,” says Felicia Vieira, founder/president of mixers company Crafted Cocktails.
And while guests today have come to expect a decent drink at bars, “Many people do not want to pay a premium price or wait 15 minutes for a cocktail to be made,” says Anjoleena Griffin-Holst, corporate beverage director for Table 301 Restaurant Group.
The group operates Soby’s, a contemporary/classic Southern American fusion restaurant in Greenville, SC, which uses Jack Rudy Small Batch Tonic and Shrub & Co.’s grapefruit shrub in its Rittenhouse cocktail, and Shrub & Co.’s spicy ginger shrub in the Basil Bulleit cocktail. “They can definitely be a time saver,” Griffin-Holst says.
Crafted Cocktails recently added a line of shrubs—drinking vinegars made with sweetened fruit—in pineapple, ginger, Asian pear and blackberry flavors, with a 100%-agave alcohol base. Each 16-oz. bottle contains 30 servings and is priced at $12.99.
Vieira says that a shrub typically takes two to three weeks to make. “We’ve been able to reduce that time for bars while keeping the consistency,” she adds.
A Case For Consistency
Consistency is an important factor when serving cocktails in high volume. Craft mixers can offer a standard quality that’s not always easy to achieve with fresh produce, says Griffin-Holst.
For instance, citrus fruits can have varying levels of sweetness, she notes. “So if your bar team follows a recipe without adjusting for the change, the cocktail will taste differently than you had intended.”
Particularly with large-scale operations and many different employees making drinks, there’s bound to be discrepancy. But if you incorporate a mixer, “the quality does not depend as much on what bartender is behind the bar that day,” says Jennie Ripps, cofounder of Owl’s Brew, a line of artisanal tea cocktail mixers.
Launched in 2013, Owl’s Brew is also available for consumer purchase, but Ripps reports a recent rise in sales to restaurants and hotels. Besides the high-volume advantage, she says that businesses buy her products to upgrade cocktail programs.
Seasonality is another factor with fresh. The all-natural qualities of modern mixers also allow bars to use certain flavors that are difficult to come by throughout the year. Blackbird uses Shrub & Co.’s apple shrub and a cranberry Douglas fir shrubs—highly seasonal flavors—in two of its cocktails.
“If you intend on having a drink for a longer time period than a fruit is in season for, this is the perfect way to keep that flavor on your menu in consistent levels,” says Grippo.
Fruit and vegetable purees also work well for produce not in season. When making large quantities of cocktails for at home or high volume, “products like The Perfect Puree are wonderful in that they provide consistent products, and the end result is always balanced and delicious,” says beverage consultant Jonathan Pogash, a.k.a the Cocktail Guru. “When things are not in season, then I can use a puree to substitute that ingredient.”
Consumers have developed a deep interest and discerning palate for craft beer, wine, spirits and cocktails. “Every other beverage category on the back bar had been thoughtfully upgraded, and now we’re finally getting to mixers,” explains Mike Gorman, U.S. sales manager for Australia-based Bundaberg Brewed Drinks, which dates back to the 1960s.
Bundaberg’s line includes ginger beer, lemon lime & bitters, guava and other cocktail-ready ingredients made with real fruits and roots ($6.99 per four-pack of 375-ml. bottles and $1.99-$2.50 for singles). That is a large part of the appeal behind the modern boom in craft mixers, Gorman says.
Bundaberg is planning the release of a sparkling mixers line, plus expansions within the U.S. of its guava and blood orange brewed drinks. The latter mixer is made from blood oranges picked fresh, Gorman says.
Craft and all-natural mixers do have an expiration date, however. Griffin-Holst of Table 301 Restaurant Group says it’s important to be mindful of handling the products once they’ve been opened and partially used. Owl’s Brew, for instance, is good for two weeks after it’s opened if the product is then kept refrigerated.
Due to their all-natural, craft qualities, listing craft mixers among cocktail ingredients on the menus can also be a selling point. Griffin-Holst will use these products talking point when she sits at the bar and converses with customers.
Nearly everything “craft” has become interesting, particularly for Millennials, says Mark Mahoney, cofounder of Powell and Mahoney, a vintage-inspired mixers brand launched in 2010.
“A lot of the rise of craft mixers has to do with the demographic,” he says. “The younger generations are more exposed to the craft side, and as a result they’re really into trial and experimentation.”
Millennial-aged customers are more likely to pay a premium price for a drink, if they know that it’s made with natural and high-quality ingredients, Mahoney says.
Less Is More
A few years ago, Gorman says, the trend in cocktails was using a large number of ingredients—the more obscure, the better. Although these types of drinks remain popular at many bars, “we’re also seeing the return of the more standard cocktail,” he says.
The recent rise in popularity of brown spirits has also brought back classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, which tend to have less-complicated recipes. Many mixers have targeted this trend, Powell says, particularly with ginger-related products for Moscow Mules and mixers that can put modern twists on heritage cocktails.
Powell & Mahoney has also had much success with their Peach Bellini cocktail mixer ($6.99-7.99 per 750-ml. bottle), which also plays into the retro cocktail movement. Marriott Courtyard, Seasons 52 and Stoney River Steakhouse and Grill are three accounts that have adopted the mixer, Powell says.
Man vs. Mixer?
Mixers may remove elements of craftsmanship in making cocktails. But the purveyors of these products do not see themselves as replacing the work of mixologists—nor do they want to. Vieira of Crafted Cocktails says she would never want her mixers and shrubs to “jeopardize the craft of mixologists.”
Rather, the goal is to provide high-quality products that can streamline the responsibilities of bartenders. “We’re not trying to compete with their craft, but complement their craft,” Vieira says.
Mixologists have also expanded the potential of mixers, Vieira reports, with some bartenders making ice cubes out of the blackberry shrub. For a flavorful flourish, they will freeze a mint leaf in the center of the cube.
Indeed, Ripps says that Owl’s Brew works with many high-level mixologists, who appreciate that the product can “do a lot of the heavy lifting.” For instance, mixologist Patrick Abalos at The Westin at The Woodlands hotel in The Woodlands, TX, uses Owl’s Brew Wicked Green tea in the Abalos’ Rhubarb Spiked Tea, along with Absolut Citron vodka, Art in the Age rhubarb tea liqueur, house-made black pepper honey syrup, Fee Bros. rhubarb bitters, a splash of fresh lemon juice and a habanero garnish.
On a national level, the casual dining chain Houlihan’s uses Owl’s Brew Coco-Lada in its Blue Taboo cocktail, made with Bacardi pineapple rum, Blue Curacao and soda water, Ripps says.
What’s more, Crafted Cocktails, which is launching a strawberry shrub this summer, has found that that it’s not only the bartenders that like to play around with its shrubs.
Cooks at one San Diego restaurant, for instance, have started making sauce for sushi using Crafted Cocktails ginger shrub, Vieira says. Another restaurant uses her blackberry shrub in its vinaigrette.
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org