In recent years, a growing contingent of distillers have been taking a fresh, somewhat unorthodox approach to product development. Acutely aware of the salience of the cocktail, old and new producers alike are exploring how to make spirits and liqueurs that serve, first and foremost, as cocktail components.
To do that, several players within this nascent category have enlisted bartenders to get involved at every stage, from testing early batches of product to scouting underserved pockets of the market, to even “authoring” their own expressions. Other distillers have looked to history to revive extinct styles, and still others have gone the route of reverse-engineering products from the point-of-view of specific cocktail applications.
The question of what makes a spirit superlatively mixable is largely relative, but a few commonalities do emerge when looking at these bottlings as a whole. For one thing, “cocktail spirits” tend to be relatively high-proof, such that they can take to ample dilution. In addition, they’re rarely too costly, allowing them to be guiltlessly tossed in with other mixers without concern that their subtleties will be overpowered in the process. And, lastly, these spirits require the ability to harmonize; key flavors should resemble and complement those of fellow cocktail ingredients.
Here, four of the most exciting cocktail spirits released in the past year.
St. George Spirits Baller Single Malt Whiskey
On the menu at Oakland, California’s celebrated Ramen Shop is the Shop Highball, consisting of Baller Single Malt Whiskey, Q Drinks’ soda water and lemon oil. That a restaurant would feature a locally made spirit—the St. George distillery is in Alameda—on its cocktail menu isn’t noteworthy. What is worth noting is that the Baller Single Malt essentially exists to be in that drink.
“They make delicious, rich broths, and they use great quality ingredients,” says St. George master distiller Lance Winters of Ramen Shop’s proprietors. “I feel like they are kindred spirits with us.”
Winters’ desire to collaborate with the restaurant resulted in the creation of a whiskey made specifically for a Japanese highball, whose carbonation and acidic backbone can cut through a rich bowl of ramen. To begin, Winters dialed back on the whiskey’s malt character, so as not to layer on additional richness, then passed the spirit through maple heartwood charcoal for smokiness that acts as an apt counterpoint to meaty broth. From there, he made the decision to age it not only for two and a half years in used bourbon barrels, but for an additional six months in barrels previously used to age umeshu, an aged plum liqueur, for acidity and nuttiness.
The final decision, to bottle the spirit—which was released in the spring of 2016—at a burly 47 percent ABV, helps it hold up to dilution by way of ice and soda.
BroVo Orange Curaçao
Mhairi Voelsgen, owner of BroVo Spirits, is what you might call a bartender’s distiller, in that many of her labels are the result of her teaming up with people in the bar community. One of her latest projects, produced in collaboration with Laurent Lebec of Chicago’s Big Star, was to build a better orange liqueur—keeping in mind that “he makes a lot of Margaritas,” Voelsgen says.
The two years of development it took to hone the final product, BroVo Orange Curaçao, were guided in large part by two concerns: As one might expect, Lebec wanted to nail the right depth and expression of sweetness in the liqueur, but he also cared a lot about color. A richer orange liqueur would make for a more attractive Margarita—and looks can play an important role in our perception of taste.
The final formulation, released in late 2016, is built on a largely neutral base, though a portion of the 35-percent-ABV spirit is two-year-old French brandy, which contributes some color. Dried peels of sweet California oranges, larahas from the island of Curaçao and Valencias from Spain make up the customary bittersweet-orange foundation, while the spice component consists of coriander, clove, hibiscus and vanilla. During development, the pair found the rich color Lebec was looking for was best delivered through sugar. “We ended up using a turbinado simple syrup,” Voelsgen says, “to lend that darker color to the Curaçao.”
Plantation O.F.T.D. Overproof Rum
Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand was among the first in the industry to introduce a craft spirit squarely aimed at cocktail use with the launch, in 2011, of Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, a revival style developed with an assist from David Wondrich. Recently, he’s made another foray into the cocktail spirits category with his Plantation rum enterprise. Dubbed “Old Fashioned Traditional Dark” (better known as O.F.T.D) and released in late 2016, the bottling is the brainchild of seven self-described rum geeks: Gabriel and Wondrich themselves, plus Scotty Schuder, Paul McFadyen, Paul McGee, Martin Cate and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry.
Their intent with O.F.T.D. was to harken back to the rich, overproof rums of centuries past, which were rationed out to sailors and used often in punches. Reportedly, the group convened a secret meeting in New Orleans back in 2015 to conceive the product, eventually selecting a potent blend of Guyanese, Jamaican and Bajan rums that Gabriel had mixed from old Plantation stocks. At 69 percent ABV and long on caramel, chocolate and cinnamon notes, this rum has no trouble holding its own in cocktails, including those of the tiki persuasion.
“These special moments of communion with a talented and passionate team are the reason I love my job,” Gabriel has said of the project. “These guys are my rum brothers for life.”
Luca Fabris heads up a newly launched, Miami, Florida-based subsidiary of Distillerie Bonollo Umberto, a 170-year-old grappa distillery based in Padova, Italy. In addition to importing traditional bottlings, he’s introducing an entirely new product, Gra’it Grappa, that’s meant to upend the perception that grappa is strictly meant for after-dinner drinking.
Though there’s a minor groundswell of Italian bartenders who mix grappa into original cocktails, no such trend has emerged in America. Fabris attributes this in part to drinkers’ often negative perceptions of the spirit. Part of that, he goes on to explain, is that grappa can often fall prey to the off flavors that come from burning its raw material, a winemaking byproduct called pomace, during the initial heating and extraction.
To better control the final product and eliminate harshness, Bonollo employs more contemporary distillation technologies, specifically by using a continuous pot still for the initial flavor and alcohol extraction, followed by a discontinuous column still to further refine the spirit. During development he also tested numerous blends of different pomaces, consulting bartenders throughout the trial-and-error process. The final product, made from pomaces of several of Italy’s most well-known wines, including Nero D’Avola, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Amarone, offers “a wide range of aromas without being too overwhelming,” says Fabris.
As for how to use it, Fabris says he likes using this grappa in a sour, or in place of whiskey in an Old-Fashioned. But he’s eager to see what bartenders start doing with it, as its cocktail history is scarcely written at all. As Fabris says, “We still don’t have the Mojito of grappa.”