Friday, March 26, 2010

Rum Business

Last week, I judged at the International Rum Fest (results here,) an annual affair that often attracts entrants from countries not usually associated by Americans with rum making. Still, some have shown terrifically in the past, but not always. In this year's tasting, one of the aged rums reeked of a sulphury note, and we asked for a new pour of the spirit from the secondary bottle we always ask for in case of accident or if one of the judges believe the first bottle is off.

It happens - sometimes a bottle is corked with TCA, which gives off a moldy, damp newspaper aroma that's hard to forget. TCA is usually associated with wine, but it does appear in spirits and is most notable when the bottle holds vodka, since vodka has little natural aroma. Like with wine, though, the problem is that cork taint often isn't strong enough to be discernible, but can dumb down a bottle and leave consumers with the impression that the spirit smells and tastes the way the distiller and blender planned.

I don't know if it was guilt by aromatic association or if the second bottle still seemed too rotten eggy to the judges, but the rum which has scored extremely high in the past didn't do as well this year. Afterwards, Luis Ayala and I talked about the problem - according to Luis, who consults frequently with rum companies, it's not only inconsistent distillation methods or shoddy warehouse control or poor barrel management that can cause problems like the one we confronted.

He worked recently on a project for a company that had started seeing a light green tinge in their white rums. Turns out an efficient and industrious distillery worker found a leaky pipe and replaced it with a pipe that fit the size requirements perfectly, thereby saving the plant the added cost of ordering a new part and waiting for it to be shipped in. But the copper pipe was contributing an  unattractive green color as the rums ran through it at high proof, and it reacted with the copper.

What's the solution if you get a bad bottle? For consumers. it's hard enough to get retailers to take back flawed wine bottles. When it comes to spirits, I doubt many retailers would even believe your complaint. But earlier this year, the folks at Van Gogh vodka shared the tale of how the recipe of one of their flavored vodkas had been changed, as in the rum above, by a distillery tech. So it happens more than you'd think that spirits are different than you remember. So much for the idea of spirit production as an industrial monolith churning out endless streams of identical liquid.  

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Asked and Answered #2

Claire Smith, head of spirit creation & mixology for Moet Hennessy’s Belvedere Vodka, came to work on the brand last year after working on Belevedere in London and the UK for many years. Now that brand ambassadors are everywhere in the U.S., it seemed a good time to check in with former bartender Smith about the differences in working with American and U.K. bartenders, and the vodka business.

You’re now working with American bartenders as a brand representative after some time doing the same in the UK – what are the main differences you see in general between the two groups?

Claire Smith: Firstly, let’s start with the similarities. Both the U.S. and UK ‘serious’ bartender set share a deep and passionate love of their craft. It is especially exciting to see areas outside of the London/New York areas developing increasingly strong cocktail cultures. Examples would include Edinburgh, Leeds and Glasgow while in the U.S., Boston, LA and Miami are all burgeoning cocktail hotspots, created by passionate bartenders who wanted to generate a scene of their own. It’s very exciting to witness.

Now for the differences. I do believe there are a few fundamental distinctions between the two groups of bartender and while it is always a challenge to generalize, the differences seem to be acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic:

1) Freedom of expression. While this is a firmly upheld constitutional right in the US, ironically the UK bartenders tend to run a little freer and wilder with their cocktail creations. In contrast, the US bartender is very much grounded in history and provenance of the drinks they create and as a consequence we tend to see a lot more reworking of Jerry Thomas’ revered creations in the US and more creative license being exercised in the UK. That being said, of course there are new and innovative cocktails being created in the US just as much as there are studious applications of Thomas’ recipes in the UK, but in general terms the former feels confident and comfortable working with historical references and breaths new meaning into them, while the latter will feel just as comfortable using the references as a spring board for creativity.

2) Dress sense. Hands down U.S. bartenders win, although there is something of a uniformity of fashion when you get into the upper echelons of bartender in the U.S. Facial hair, braces and dapper little suits all seem to feature highly in a U.S. bartender’s wardrobe and while there are fewer female bartenders, their look is always extremely polished. There is generally a more relaxed approach to dressing for your job in the UK. While bars such as London’s Connaught Hotel excel in their presentation of a team, overall the British bartender is simply more relaxed wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. Perhaps again reflecting their less conventional approach to cocktailing.

3) Fun. For some reason there seems to be a lot more fun and silliness in a UK bar than I tend to find a US cocktail bar. There is something of a seriousness or reverence of the cocktail in the US that you rarely find in the UK. At bars such as Mahiki, Portobello Star and Kalloo Kallay, all very successful, their grounding is in entertainment while still managing to deliver sublime drinks. But perhaps I just haven’t found the silly fun stuff here yet. All suggestions welcomed! 

What's the biggest challenge for you working in the U.S.?

Smith: The sheer size of the U.S. I’m not sure it ever really became obvious to me until I moved here how vast a country this is. The U.S. is essentially 50 mini countries in their own right if you consider cultural and consumption differences as well as cocktail relevance and communication of a brand message. Fortunately however, Belvedere is enjoyed all over the U.S. so there is always a commonality wherever I visit, but also there is always a slightly different approach to communication or focus depending on where one is, which is both refreshing and a little daunting at the same time!

What has surprised you about working with U.S. bartenders?

Smith: Their generosity and openness. I spent seven years building a great network of fabulous bartenders and friends in Europe and left them in order to start all over again in the U.S. In a way, it has felt a little easier to start all over here because the majority of bartenders I have met have been gracious and willing to hear me out. Despite the many bars that restrict entry or make you wait outside in the cold or pouring rain, the hostility you may feel outside a bar or club is immediately reversed once you get in and start chatting to U.S. bartenders. Most want to share their craft with all they meet and the door restrictions are there to permit dialogue and interaction, something you recognize when you can actually have a conversation with a bartender.

Outside the major markets, how do you view the level of American bartender skill?

Smith: Overall very good, in places excellent. It would be great to see more of a consistent delivery across mid tier bars and restaurants, but it is our responsibility as brand ambassadors to continue to inspire and innovate in order to raise the bar through education and communication. In this way we constantly help develop and improve budding bartenders and help provide a fertile breeding ground for exceptional talent to grow and advance.

In some parts of the bartender community, there’s been a vodka backlash, with some of the more cutting edge bars doing without. How do you overcome that attitude when working with Belvedere, your brand?

Smith: Belvedere is always a quality choice and while it is true that a very small number of bars have decided to do without vodka for the short term, in the long term this only benefits a brand such a Belvedere that stands for heritage, consistent quality and provenance. The vodka backlash has allowed bars to consolidate their vodka offering and as such they are choosing to be more particular about the brands they carry, preferring to move away from overly marketed or gimmicky brands to vodkas that represent tradition and authenticity. While of course I don’t want to encourage a backlash per se, it has been interesting to note that Belvedere is often the vodka of choice for those bartenders that claim not to drink vodka; I think this has as much to do with our provenance, heritage and flavor delivery than whether or not vodka is currently ‘in’ or ‘out’.

All the media focus is on the high-end mixologist, but vodka is traditionally more popular at the nightclub side of the business, where volume is important. Do you work much there and if so, what sort of insights do you focus on there?

Smith: As with most things in life it is always essential to maintain the optimum balance. Belvedere is fortunate to have relevance and credibility in both the nightclub and cocktail bar environment. In terms of how our focus differs in the nightclub environment, Belvedere is seen to constantly provide an excellent drinking experience and so we work hard to maximize this through education and mixer recommendation. We do not endorse energy drinks, for instance, with our bottle service and while we acknowledge this is a popular mixer choice, we love to see Belvedere served with fresh juices and premium mixers such as Fever Tree sodas. These really enhance the positive characteristics of Belvedere rather than overshadow it, and so even though Belvedere is being consumed in different environment than a cocktail bar or lounge, the experience should still essentially be one of quality.

Your current favorite cocktail?
Smith: The Pickled Gibson

2oz Belvedere Intense
3 cocktail onions muddled and shaken with Belvedere over ice.

Double strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with an atomizer of sea salt water.
PS. Only drink if your date is drinking one also!

(This interview originally ran in the current issue of Mix.)


Friday, March 12, 2010

Tequila Trades Up

David Suro has been in the hospitality business long enough to remember the days when getting customers to think “quality” when they ordered tequila was no easy task.

Suro, who owns Tequilas restaurant in Philadelphia, has been trying to make that connection for nearly 25 years, and for him, the change in awareness over the last few years has been surprising…and encouraging.

“Today, many, many times, the customers who come into our place already know more than our servers, about the various distilleries and regions as well as how tequilas are made and aged. It’s so exciting to see this and realize how far we’ve come.”

Suro has also witnessed this from the seller side, as he, like other agave-loving entrepreneurs, brings in his own brand, Siembra Azul. We spoke in the midst of another sign of the remarkable Mexican spirits evolution: on a cold January morning in Manhattan, dozens of bartenders clustered around a dozen or more sampling stations at the bar and restaurant Los Feliz. The brand reps at the tables, stocked with mostly new or small production tequilas and a dozen mescals, served alone and in cocktails, were doing a brisk business with the crowd eager to get a handle on the various spirits. New York until very recently hasn’t been known much as a tequila haven, but Suro says the organization that oversees tequila industry figures that Gotham is now the biggest market for premium and above tequilas. The attendance at the seminar, put on by bartender John Pomeroy of Brooklyn’s The Hideout, was just another sign of how well tequila is doing.

Dori Bryant has hosted the Spirits of Mexico Festival in San Diego since 2004. “Through those years, I have noted a steady, constant upward trend, not only in the number and quality of agave spirits on the market, but in consumer awareness and savvy. The consumers are not asking, 'What's a reposado?', they're asking 'What distillery is it made in? How long is this reposado aged? What barrels are used for aging? Is this tequila made from agaves grown in the highlands or elsewhere?’”

Like no other spirit, tequila has benefited from an uncoordinated but devoted educational effort by bartenders like Tony Abou-Ganim and restaurateurs like Suro and Julio Bermejo of San Francisco’s Tommy’s. At hundreds of small and large restaurants and bars across the country, tasting dinners, frequent sampling clubs, agave classes and, most beneficial, tequila flight programs have set the contemporary standard, having hit home with consumers while bringing tequila front and center as a quality spirit.

Brands have done their best to educate customers, sending distillers to the US time and again on tour for samplings and events. Recently, tequila suppliers have started appointing bartender brand ambassadors, like Brian Van Flandern for Don Julio, to speak the gospel of tequila as both a sipper and a cocktail ingredient beyond the Margarita. And it’s working.

Take what Ivan Iricanin, bar manager for Mesa 14 in Washington, DC, is up to. He not only carries every 100% agave tequila he can find in the area (currently 126); he also brings in a handful of brands on his own, a collection from small family distilleries in 375 ml bottles, like Don Celso, El Caudillo, Arette Unique and Penacho Azteca, and is selling them in flights.

“Guests are ordering these tequilas more than I expected – we haven’t really been trying to sell them, and at half an ounce per glass you’re not really getting a lot but guests have been more than willing to try,” says Iricanin. He offers the standard option of a vertical flight through a brand, a region or an age statement, or customers can pick their own three to sample. Recently, he added an extra anejo flight for $35, a deal considering a few of these tequilas wholesale for as much as $300. He sold five flights the first week.

But no mixto tequila at all? Not even for house Margaritas? Not for Iricanin, His special Margarita uses only blanco tequila blanco, agave syrup and fresh lime – no sweet and sour mix and not even orange liqueur. “It’s very simple and very crisp, and people really like it.” More and more this style of Margarita is making its presence felt. His Paloma is made with Patron, grapfruit juice and half a lime,

Customers, as Suro suggest, are beginning to be able to tell the difference, and even in slushy frozen Magaritas, a cash cow for many restaurants, a little upgrade can do wonders and make a program stand out among many competitors. He’s also established a tequila lounge at Masa, where he serves cocktails such as the Red Star with Herradura tequila, Chambord, Agave Nectar, raspberry pure, fresh lime juice.

Competition in such cities as DC is fierce: Jose Andres’ Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, last year became the first restaurant in Washington and one of only 15 or so in the country to receive the Agave De Oro, the highest certification from the Tequila Regulatory Council. (Establishments are judged on staff training, proper storage and display of tequilas by category and type, menus, proper service and staff knowledge.)

Tequila producers like what is happening and are responding to the opportunity this tequila revolution offers. Some are finishing their spirits in wine barrels, though most employ used bourbon barrels. At least one tequila new to the US is distilled four times. Limited release, vintage, estate produced and even single barrel tequilas emerged onto the market last year, and finally, even the mescal producers are figuring out that times have changed. At the recent New York tasting, in addition to Del Maguey, Sombra and Ilegal mescals, bartenders sampled the unsmoked Fidencia. Like other recent imports, these spirits showed that mescal is a legitimate sipping spirit, and potentially a killer cocktail ingredient. Cutting-edge bartenders like Phil Ward of Mayahuel in New York are building their businesses with new and creative cocktails based on tequilas and mescals.

Even operations not traditionally known for having a smart tequila program are on board with the contemporary way to feature tequila. Last fall, Southern Hospitality BBQ in New York hosted a tasting featuring 37 or so tequilas, including Patron Gran Burdeos, which retails for around $500 per bottle. Beverage director Chris Russell was on hand to discuss participating brands 1800, Maestro Dobel,
901, Gran Centenario, Cazadores, Corzo, Herradura, and Casa Dragones among others.

He’s found that his customers connect easily to the stories of tequila’s history, craftsmanship and artistry, creating excitement in a way brands would die for.

With about 25 tequilas on their list, Southern stocks more than most bars, and Russell carries only one mixto. Even their machine Margaritas are made with 100% agave tequila – in this case, Cazadores , while the house Margarita is made with Herradura. Customers are even getting picky about all the ingredients in their Margaritas. T’s jst another sign, he says, of the sophisticated American tequila drinker. “In the last 15 years there’s been an exposure to super premium spirits in general and tequila is one of those that has become much better known as a sophisticated spirit.”

( A slightly different version of this story appears in the March issue of Nightclub and Bar.)