One of the defining aspects of the drinks industry these days is a thirst for the new and the novel. Especially on-premise, bartenders are finding ever-more creative ways to combine spirits and modifiers into new taste sensations for curious consumers, as well as scouring the globe for new spirits to experiment with and add to their toolkit.
Those on-premise explorations often lead consumers to replicate those intriguing cocktails at home, driving them to retail stores searching for bottles of hard-to-find spirits.
“Most of the time customers have had a cocktail out at a bar, and then they come in looking for the spirit so they can recreate it at home,” says Tim Finch, spirits buyer at Zachys Wine & Liquor in Scarsdale, N.Y.
Which spirits are emerging in the U.S. market? Industry observers and retailers nominate players in six categories as current contenders to be the next big thing in on- and off-premise: mezcal, pisco, cachaça, poitin, shochu/soju and baijiu. Savvy retailers are already stocking their shelves just in case.
“I want customers to come into the store and discover something they haven’t tried before. I can’t do that if I don’t have the product to sell,” says Edward Mulvihill, managing partner and director of sales and marketing at Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, DE. The small retail store stocks at least one SKU in of each emerging categories. “Not all of those spirits categories are flying off the shelf, but for the customers who are looking for them, they are happy to find them here,” he adds.
“Mostly we are seeing the younger consumers, aged 21 to 40, looking for these and other new spirits categories,” says Ryan Bolton, spirits specialist at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, Calif. The family-owned, 60-year-old business keeps up with the trends and stocks multiple SKUs of all six categories. “A lot of the interest is fueled by the craft cocktail community,” he says, noting that the emerging categories that do best have an indigenous signature cocktail, citing the Pisco Sour and cachaça’s Caipirinha.
Many of the emerging categories seem to have piggybacked onto a related category. Tequila and Mezcal are an obvious example.
“Mezcal seems to feed off Tequila,” concurs Bolton. Retailers take advantage of these synergies when shelving, displaying mezcal next to Tequila, cachaça by rum, and poitin in the Irish whiskey section. “Most of the time, these items are a cross-sell,” Mulvihill says. “An Irish whiskey guy is looking at the shelves, and we ask, have you tried poitin?”
Cross-cultural fertilization can be another factor in the popularization of some spirits.
“Consumers are traveling and getting excited about these spirits, and bring them back to share with friends,” notes Morgan Robbat, vice president of marketing for Anchor Distilling Company. She also cites the popularity of ethnic cuisines, such as high-end Mexican and Peruvian, in the U.S. as engendering interest. “Enjoying spirits with the respective foods is a key part of it.”
The lure of the exotic is strong, especially among Millennials. “There is consumer demand for brands with authentic and interesting backstories,” says David Ozgo, senior vice president for Economic and Strategic Analysis for the Distilled Spirits Council.
“Pisco is another growing category. People are experimenting with it more, mixing classics like Pisco Sours,” Bolton says. Hi-Time carries about 20 different bottles of pisco, shelved with other unaged brandies like grappa and eaux de vie. “Pisco has versatility and the ability to appeal to a wide range of demographics,” says Mulvihill at Peco’s Liquors. “I’m surprised it hasn’t begun upticking a little faster.” Zachys will stock a bottle or two of pisco in the summertime when sours are a popular quaff, Finch says. But, he adds, it’s not a super seller.
Pisco is a grape brandy produced in the wine-growing regions of Peru and Chile, and there is controversy over where the spirit originated.
Peru exports more pisco than Chile, and that country’s product is more likely to be spotted on retail shelves and backbars in the U.S. Allowable grape varietals include Quebranta, Muscat, Italia and Torontel. Single-varietal piscos are called Puro, and blends, Acholado. A version called Mosto Verde is made from partially fermented grape must. Peruvian pisco is only distilled in copper pot stills. Chilean pisco may be aged in barrels.
Since 2014, the demand for pisco in the U.S. has grown 58%, and Pisco Portón has been the leader in the category since it launched in 2011, with 31% of the U.S. pisco market share, according to senior brand manager Jennifer Logan. Pisco Portón is available in all major markets in 36 states. The brand’s flagship is Pisco Portón Mosto Verde, a blend of four varietals.
“Barsol was a pioneer in the exportation of pisco into the U.S.,” says Robbat at Anchor Distilling. In 2004, the company was the first to export a 20-ft. container load. Barsol has also pioneered the use of modern technology in Peruvian wine-making. The brand’s portfolio includes a puro of each of the seven allowed grape varietals, as well as a mosto verde. “We have been instrumental in educating American consumers about the differences and nuances of pisco,” she adds.
Barsol has produced a feature-length film about pisco, which debuted at the Napa Valley Film Festival, and which it hopes will stream on Netflix. The brand has been executing a series of private screenings with key trade partners in major markets (accompanied by pisco cocktails, of course).
“Cachaça is showing about the same growth as pisco,” says Bolton at Hi-Time. The spirit got a boost from the Olympics in Brazil, he adds. Says Finch, “We have customers come in looking for cachaça who have tried a Caipirinha at a bar and want to recreate it at home.”
Zachys carries one cachaça, which is shelved with the rum. That’s because cachaça is similar to rum; both have sugarcane as the basic ingredient. But whereas rums are usually made from molasses, cachaça is produced from fermented fresh sugarcane juice. Cachaça is only made in Brazil, where most of it is consumed. While it is usually a white, unaged spirit, some artisanal versions are aged in wood.
“Cachaça is no longer just for making Caipirinhas,” says Mark Zatta, marketing coordinator for Niche Import Co., whose portfolio includes CanaRío Cachaça. “Mixologists are constantly looking to explore and innovate craft cocktails; leading them to less-mainstream spirits such as cachaça.”
For example, they are substituting cachaça for rum in traditional cocktails like the Daiquiri. CanaRío Cachaça is produced at the Fazenda Soledade distillery founded in 1827. The brand, Zatta says, has seen an increase in sales over the past few years.
“We certainly saw cachaça get a spotlight through the World Cup and the Olympics over the last couple of years. But we find it to be still one of the lesser-known categories,” Robbat says. Anchor Distilling Company’s portfolio includes Ypióca Cachaça. “We see a huge opportunity there for education,” she adds.
“At Peco’s, poitin is about as popular as pisco,” Mulvihill says. Whiskey is a big category, he explains, and customers are interested in trying new expressions. But white spirits like white dog and poitin require hand-selling. Peco’s Liquors stocks three expressions of Glendalough poitin: Premium, Mountain Strength, both clear, and Sherry Cask Finish. This last has an amber hue and has proven the most popular, at least initially.
Hailing from Ireland, poitin (pronounced poteen or pocheen) means small pot (still) in Gaelic. Its history dates back to the sixth century, and Uisce beatha is considered the precursor to whiskey. The English King Charles II outlawed distilling in Ireland in 1661, and until it was legalized in 1997, poitin was considered Irish moonshine. Now a few brands are available in the U.S. market, such as Bunratty and the newest entrant, Mad March Hare.
“Poitin is the other side of Irish whiskey,” says Dónal O’Gallachóir, brand manager for Glendalough. The spirit is enjoying popularity in craft cocktail bars in Dublin and other major Irish cities, he says, and is on the cusp of a growth spurt.
Glendalough was the first craft poitin in the U.S. market, across 14 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. O’Gallachóir conducts educational seminars and is working with bartenders in America. He cites the rise of traditional Irish bars like the Dead Rabbit in New York City as helping to popularize poitin. There is movement off-premise as well, O’Gallachóir says. “If a retailer carries mezcal on the shelves, you will likely see a bottle of poitin there too.”
Shochu and Soju
These two Asian spirits, distilled from grains—including rice, barley, wheat and buckwheat—as well as sweet potatoes and brown sugar, are often conflated by American consumers. Soju originates in Korea, and the U.S. market is dominated by drinks giant Jinro. Shochu is produced in Japan, frequently crafted by small artisan producers. Often referred to as Asian vodka, the ABV ranges from just 20%-30%.
“At Peco’s, we shelve soju and shochu together, but soju gets the most pull-through,” Mulvihill notes. “That’s the one I get people walking in the door asking for.” He attributes this interest to mentions in beverage magazines or social media.
“Soju and shochu are growing a little bit,” says Bolton at Hi-Time. Although he notes that most of those sales are from bars that don’t have a full liquor license and want to make lower-alcohol cocktails.
“Interest is growing amongst both the cocktail creators and the spirits community. As people are more exposed to the product, they realize its potential for food pairing, cocktails and just enjoying on its own,” says consultant Chris Johnson (aka The Sake Ninja). The U.S. market is still very small, he notes, but it is growing; currently there are about 400 labels in the U.S.
“What makes Honkaku shochu unique is the use of koji, a mold that aids in the conversion of starch to sugars, and its focus on single distillation,” he explains. Johnson regularly conducts educational seminars and tasting events.
“Shochu is the indigenous spirit of Japan; dating back to the mid-16th century,” says Masahiro Takeda, Esq., vice president of Wine of Japan Import, Inc., a leading national importer and distributor of Japanese beverage alcohol. “Shochu is growing incrementally beyond the Japanese expat consumers, but the knowledge base and familiarity pale in comparison to sake.” But, he adds: “Interest seems to be growing slowly amongst bartenders in major cities.”
“Baijiu it is a bit of a hard sell, Mulvihill admits. “We brought some baijiu in because it was new and interesting. It’s definitely different.”
In terms of sheer volume, baijiu is one of the most consumed spirits in the world. However, it is little known outside of China.
Dating back thousands of years, production adheres to Chinese philosophy and tradition. The base for fermentation is usually sorghum or other grains. What’s unusual is the “solid-state fermentation” with a micro-flora agent called qu, which involves burying grain mixtures in ancient fermentation pits for several months. Baijiu uses steam distillation, which is similar to methods used for perfume. Most versions are high in alcohol. Baiju is complex and complicated, classified into half a dozen categories according to “fragrances,” such as sauce, rice, light and strong. It also comes in flavored versions.
“The high proof and unique flavors are unfamiliar and challenging to American consumers,” says Yuan Liu, senior vice president of business development of Bringing Baijiu To America CNS Imports. In China, however, it accounts for 30% of all alcoholic beverage sales, including beer, and is a big deal during Chinese New Year and a respected gift, according to Liu.
Baijiu has been available in the U.S. for over 30 years, mostly in Chinese markets and stores, although it can be found in specialty retailers and large stores like Total Wine & More, according to Liu. Currently, there are about 20 brands here, all with extensive numbers of expressions. The Chinese spirit can be expensive too, with top brands like Kweichow Moutai priced well over $100 for a 375-ml. bottle. Other brands such as HKB and ByeJoe are aimed more at American palates and pocketbooks.
A few bars are creating cocktails with baijiu, such as Lumos in New York and Peking Tavern in Los Angeles. And CNS Imports is planning extensive promotions around the 2018 Chinese New Year celebrations. “Thanks to our marketing, social media and seminars, baijiu is becoming better understood in the U.S.,” he says.
“Mezcal is hot right now,” Bolton says. Hi-Time carries dozens of expressions of mezcal. “A few years ago, Tequila became popular and now customers are looking for artisanal mezcals,” notes Finch, who carries four mezcal brands at Zachys.
“Mezcal is on an aggressive growth trajectory, in tandem with the rise of craft spirits. People are looking for authenticity, heritage and transparency,” says Michael Gardner, managing partner for the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, which was a pioneer in artisanal mezcal when the company was founded in 1995. The company’s portfolio includes a wide range of different mezcales in signature green bottles.
Mezcal is the over-arching category of Mexican spirits (which includes Tequila) fermented and distilled from several varieties of the agave plant. “The biggest difference is, with Tequila the agave piñas, or hearts, are cooked in ovens, whereas mezcal piñas are roasted in stone-lined pits over oak or mesquite fires– hence the smoky finish,” says Lisa Marcus of Riviera Imports. Riviera launched Tres Papalote Mezcal in 2015, which is made from cupreata agaves growing wild in Guerrero.
“Mezcal is creating a lot of interest and excitement in the U.S. We are seeing that tip from the bartending community right now to retail and consumers,” Robbat says. Anchor’s portfolio includes Mezcal Amaras, which was founded in 2010. There are two expressions: espadin and cupreata. The brand has been growing double-digits in the U.S., she says. “We are seeing a lot of new entrants. It’s an emerging young category in the U.S.”
“There are a lot of new companies in the marketplace,” Gardner says, “some following the model we pioneered of environmental responsibility, social responsibility and sustainability—and others not.” Del Maguey’s collection of mezcales are made by individual family palenqueros (producers) in small villages. Del Maguey’s latest release is a mezcal from the state of Puebla, which just received its Denomination of Origin from the Mezcal Regulatory Council.
Sustainability is important to Mezcal Amaras, Robbat says. “There is a commitment to preserving the future of the agave and the people and culture surrounding it. And that resonates with consumers.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions.