New products are the lifeblood of the beverage alcohol industry, as are new and rediscovered usages of traditional products. If nothing else, the popularity of the cocktail culture and the new wave of mixologists have spurred interest in some forgotten and seldomly used spirits. And suppliers, always sensitive to untapped markets and emerging trends, have taken note, and are creating, importing and re-introducing a range of spirits barely seen on retail shelves as recently as five years ago. Here’s a brief discussion of some of these ‘outlier’ spirits categories and products creating a buzz.
Rye is in the midst of a real resurgence. Remember the small-batch bourbon craze? Well, rye is aspiring to take its place. When it comes to classic cocktails such as the Manhattan or the Old-Fashioned, some consumers are taking up rye in lieu of bourbon. One brand has been so popular of late that demand has surpassed supply. ‘There is a total shortage of Rittenhouse. There’s not much we can do about it; you can’t rush the aging process. We were unprepared. All of a sudden, almost overnight, we were faced with the difficult decision of allocation,’ admitted Larry Kass, of Heaven Hill Distilleries. ‘This fall, we will finally be able to put that right and expand; we’ve had to allocate the 100 Proof Bottled In Bond to the East and West Coasts. But now rye is popular in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Dallas,’ he added.
It wasn’t marketing or advertising that turned industry and consumers onto Rittenhouse; it was purely a grassroots movement. Kass said, ‘For years, Rittenhouse was a sleepy little brand for us. David Wondrich was an early proponent and we were encouraged by that to get Rittenhouse registered in New York. I clearly remember the dark days of rye when you just couldn’t sell it. Now, lo and behold, consumers and trade are coming to us. We didn’t even market our rye; it was an honest organic interest ‘ the kind that marketing can’t create.’
Rittenhouse Rye’s appeal has a lot to do with the quality in the bottle, but the packaging appeals to the throwback trend too. ‘People look at the Rittenhouse and Mellow Corn [another whiskey product finding favor with industry tastemakers] labels and think they are really cool, but we didn’t create some hip new retro-style label. We just haven’t changed the label in years,’ he said.
Last year Jim Beam debuted a boutique rye whiskey phonetically named (ri)1. Clearly aimed at the new rye consumer, the packaging is modern and clean. Brand Manager, Mara Melamed, noted, ‘(ri)1 stands apart from other whiskeys on the shelf because of its smart, sleek packaging. The packaging also adds an element of attitude and intrigue to the brand. The bottle is modern and does not include any of the traditional packaging cues for whiskey.’
Meanwhile, Skyy Spirits markets Russell’s Reserve Rye, a six-year-old, small batch produced whiskey created by renowned distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie Russell. Bottled at 90 proof Rusell’s Reserve Rye launched a new package a little over a year ago.
The micro distillery, Tuthilltown, which was the first distillery to open in New York State since Prohibition, features a distinctive package for its whiskies. ‘We make a 100% rye whiskey,’ said Tuthilltown distiller Gable Erenzo. ‘Rye was the quintessential New York whiskey before Prohibition, when every farm had a still. Single grain rye, these days, is very rare. We try to make a number of single grain whiskies.’
Still, the Buffalo Trace Distllery (Sazerac) leads the field, offering several brands of superpremium, limited-production rye whiskey. Among them are Sazerac Rye, aged for six years (90 proof); Thomas H. Handy Rye, aged a little over eight years and a barrel-proof whiskey (132.7 proof); and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, aged 13 years (95.6 proof).
After the legalization of absinthe two years ago, countless new and old-recipes for the anise spirit have launched and re-launched. Pernod Absinthe made its comeback last year. ‘What’s interesting about Pernod Absinthe is that it was the first ever absinthe. Pernod Absinthe spawned absinthe,’ said Jamie Gordon, brand specialist at Pernod Ricard USA.
Word has is that spirit is gaining momentum and drawing cocktail-geek consumers and the curious alike. Gordon continued, ‘Absinthe attracts because of the mystique surrounding it, but its comeback is also due to the interest in classic cocktails. So many classics contain absinthe, including what is considered America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac, but beyond that, it is leading to experimentation and nouveau cocktails.’
Simon Ford, director of trade outreach and brand education for Pernod Ricard USA, added that ‘vintage brands are definitely coming back.’
Besides Pernod, there are now several other absinthes on the market, and with proof levels ranging from about 100 to nearly 130, retailers and consumers should be aware of the techniques to use in making various cocktails using this highly potent spirit. The most famous, of course, is the classic Absinthe Drip cocktail, the details of which can easily be sourced on the internet. At the same time, many absinthes now in the U.S. market certainly have signature cocktail recipes available to be tried. The most visible of them include Lucid Absinthe Superiore, Grande Absente Absinthe Originale, La Fee Absinthe Parisienne, Versinthe Aux Plantes d’Absinthe, Mata Hari Bohemian Absinthe, Kubler Swiss Absinthe Superiore.
The cachaÃ§a trend is still going strong and some might argue that it isn’t so much emerging as it has arrived, but Steve Luttman, owner of Leblon CachaÃ§a, says there is room for growth and he anticipates pop Brazilian culture will make its ways to U.S. shores. ‘I passionately believe we have a culture that will grow dramatically, especially as we get closer to the world cup [in 2014]. We have the potential to make it to a half million category in five years and a million in 10 years.’
The biggest news on the cachÃ§a front has been the campaign, Legalize CachaÃ§a. Luttman explained, ‘We want to remove Brazilian Rum from the label, so we’ve petitioned the TTB and we are making headway. It is the ultimate insult to a Brazilian person to call cachaÃ§a rum. Tequila is the best example of what happens when you have an appellation, and that is how cachaÃ§a should be.’
Cachaca is more than 400 years old and Brazil currently produces 1 billion liters a year through more than 4,000 brands. In the U.S., of course, the lineup is much smaller, with some of the other better-known brands like Agua Luca (Heaven Hill Distilleries), Cabana Cachaca and Sagatiba hoping to benefit from the continuing popularity of the Caipirinha.
Sagatiba, initially launched in the U.K. in 2004 and made its way across the pond in 2008. Though the cachaÃ§a category is mostly associated with the clear, fresh, cane-character spirit, Sagatiba has a range of age expressions in its line: Sagatiba Pura, a clear spirit meant for mixing; Sagatiba Velha, aged for two years in American oak casks; and Sagatiba Preciosa, aged for twenty-three years in French oak casks. Gonzalo de la Pezuela, the managing director for Sagatiba tells us, ‘The role of Sagatiba is to demonstrate the breadth of world class spirits which can be made from the first press of sugar cane.’
Another South American spirit winning over cocktail consumers in the U.S is pisco. The grape distillate from Peru has a strong following in San Francisco, where there’s keen interest in local and historical cocktails. The Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum arabic and distilled water) was created by bar owner Duncan Nicol, at the Bank Exchange in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. It is a concoction that Elizabeth Asher uses as a selling point for her brand, Macchu Pisco.
‘The Pisco Punch is one of the oldest cocktails in America. The rediscovery of old, classic cocktails has been a blessing for us,’ Asher said. ‘I personally do all our in-store tastings and I find that when I say ‘pisco’ most people automatically think of the Pisco Sour. It’s great to have an anchored cocktail associated with pisco, but the danger of that is that you get boxed in, so I prefer to feature the Pisco Punch. Plus, you need to make it easy for people to replicate what they taste at bars. The Pisco Punch is super simple; all you need is pisco, pineapple, lemon and sugar. I look at what’s happening on-premise and then I take the Rachel Ray approach. You can whip this up in five minutes.’
Half the battle for Asher is educating retailers and consumers on what pisco actually is. Another brand owner, Herbie Loebl, proprietor of Artisan Brands and owner of Gran Sierpe Pisco, said, ‘It is an ongoing battle to educate people on the category and on our brand. We do a lot of work online to activate awareness. We’ve found conventional, big-brand advertising and marketing doesn’t really work for us; we’ve had to go one step beyond. I mean if I put a banner on the highway, the first question I’m going to get is: What’s pisco? So we do a lot of social media and organize events with Yelp, Thrill List and Urban Daddy instead.’
Loebl points out that the still emerging stage of pisco is what draws bartenders and home-mixers. ‘A lot of mixologists like the underground element of pisco. Trendsetters want something cool and new. They are our primary targets.’
Agave spirits have been experiencing an upward trend recent years, and mezcal, in particular, is an up-and-coming niche segment. Domaine Select Wine Estates is the national importer for the much touted craft mezcal, Sombra. Said Allison Domeneghetti, the company’s COO, ‘One of the more recent additions to our portfolio that I definitely consider emerging is Sombra Mezcal. I find trade and consumers are paying attention to where and how spirits are produced. Some of these spirits, like Sombra, are microcosms of cultures and an example of how spirit production can help sustain a culture.’
Sombra is the brainchild of Richard Betts and Charles Bieler, both veterans of the wine world. Bieler explained their foray into mezcal, ‘We went to Mexico and were amazed to discover that there are about 10 major tequila distilleries and almost every brand is made through them. We felt this meant loss of terroir, but we learned that in Oaxaca there is still a tradition of single village mezcal. And they make it the way they’ve been making mezcal for centuries.’
They toured Oaxaca with the granddaddy of exported mezcal, Ron Cooper of Del Maguey. Del Maguey has cult-status following, but it was a long time in the making. Scott Tallon, Spirits Director at Winebow, which distributes the brand, said, ‘I’ve worked with Ron Cooper for over 15 years now. When I first started working with him retailers would say they loved his mezcal, but they couldn’t sell it. Now the market is more accepting of products like Del Maguey. Consumers and retailers understand that it is an artisan spirit.’
Along with Pernod Absinthe, another true vintage brand on the market is Bols Genever, which re-launched in 2008. Bols has since become a trailblazer in educating the industry on the category. It was commonplace to find genever lumped it in with the gin. It is now common knowledge that genever is gin’s precursor and people are discovering the spirit, as classic cocktails like the Improved Holland Gin Cocktail find their way into the mainstream.
San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling makes a genever-style spirit called Genevieve, which is developing a following. Scot Tallon of Winebow (the product’s New York distributor) is enthusiastic: ‘It is like a genever, but it is rye-based and the flavor profile is off the charts.’
Spirits hipsters in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and beyond will tell you they’ve discovered white dog ‘ not be confused with crude moonshine. The New York Times fashion and style T blog recently wrote about the trend, and the San Francisco Chronicle stated that white whiskey is hitting the mainstream. Tuthilltown Distillery’s white dog is called, New York Corn Whiskey. ‘White dog is simply whiskey before it goes into the barrel. You get the true essence of the grain before it is overpowered by wood. Our New York Corn Whiskey is the white dog for Baby Bourbon. I’ve found that you can take any whiskey cocktail like an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan and use white dog as the spirit ‘ it almost always works,’ said Tuthilltown distiller Erenzo.
House Spirits Distillery (makers of Aviation Gin) in Oregon also makes white whiskey, as does Death’s Door Spirits in Wisconsin. ‘Death’s Door has made an impact with its white whiskey, which launched about two years ago,’ said Domeneghetti of Domaine Select. ‘There are advantages ‘ distilleries don’t have to wait for the whiskey to age, and on the bartender side, it offers the nuances of whiskey but is clear and so versatile.’