How Top Bars Are Mixing with Flavored Spirits

Sep 12, 2018by Jack Robertiello

Editor’s note: As many beverage trends begin on-premise, we occasionally cross-post content from our sister publication Cheers, which covers bars and restaurants. 

The flavored spirits explosion has calmed down considerably compared to five or 10 years ago, when new and wild vodka flavors seemed to hit the market every week. Consumers experienced flavor fatigue to some extent, plus the newer wave of legal age drinkers look for different sorts of entry-level experiences at bars and restaurants.

But flavors remain an important part of the mix: They helped fuel the brief moonshine surge, and still keep vodka and rum sales up. Some American whiskey brands have found success with flavors especially as a way to attract customers toward the arguably more complex taste profile of the spirit.

Flavored Vodka Pays the Bills

Despite some perceptions, vodka is alive and thriving—both plain and flavored says James Blystone, vice president, franchising and communication for the Whitefish, MT-based Glacier Restaurant Group. “We are seeing the specific demand for flavored vodkas down a bit, but we are seeing them do well when they are used in one of our cocktail creations,” he says.

Most of the growth at Glacier Restaurant Group, which includes 26 Mackenzie River Pizzas and 30-plus Max & Erma’s locations, comes from premium vodkas and American-made vodkas, Blystone says. “Locally produced flavored vodkas such as Prairie Organic have been a great hit with our guests, and we have had quite a bit of success with Prairie Organic cucumber vodka in a few drinks.” One is the seasonal Prairie Huck Fizz, made with Prairie Organic cucumber vodka, huckleberry, simple syrup, lemon juice and soda.

Another top seller is the Huckleberry Mojito, with Bacardi Limon rum, huckleberries, mint, simple syrup and lime.

Westlake, OH-based Quaker Steak & Lube uses several flavored spirits in the cocktails in its beverage program, says Shannon Salupo, corporate beverage manager for the 45-unit chain. “The spirit, as well as the flavor itself, needs to make sense, and some certainly work for our guest. The vodka category still performs well for us in many areas.”

A few Quaker Steak cocktails that use flavored vodka include the Moscato Grape Sangria, made with Three Olives grape vodka; the Deep Eddy Peach Palmer (Deep Eddy lemon vodka, peach purée and fresh-brewed sweetened iced tea); and Cherrilicious Lemonade (Three Olives cherry vodka, lemon sour, lemon juice and grenadine). Drink prices vary by location but range from $6 to $9.50.

Whiskey and Rum Fun

Quaker Steak & Lube recently offered a shake made with Cruzan tropical fruit rum.

Max & Erma’s offers a number of flavored-spirit drinks, including Spiked Sweet Tea (Firefly sweet tea vodka, simple syrup, iced tea and lemon); Mom’s Time Out (Malibu rum, Sprite, pineapple and cranberry juices); and Max’s Spicy Mary (Absolut Peppar vodka and a spicy Bloody Mary mix). Cocktails run from $6.75 to 7.75.

The market for flavored spirits, while still strong for flavors that have worked well in cocktails, has become mostly stable, Blystone says.

“We are not seeing much movement of the flavored rum side, outside of the traditional flavored rum we use in a few drinks.” And flavored whiskeys have seen little interest from customers, he says.

For certain, flavored whiskey variants have been rolled out much more slowly. And beyond the heat and the honey, a few fruit flavors—notably apple for both American and Canadian whiskies, as well as peach—seem to have developed strong followings.

Flavored whiskies haven’t so far had the impact on-premise that other flavored spirits have, although some creative cocktails have worked. Several flavored whiskeys have also boomed as shooters.

“At our resort, guests are focused on trying something they haven’t tried before,” says Eric Jenkins, director of food and beverage at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego. “They are typically asking for something local.”

Being in tune with regional distilleries has become more important, Jenkins says. “We have found that most local distilleries have flavored-spirit offerings, from gin variations to peanut butter whiskeys.”

He has worked with some flavored whiskeys, including the peanut butter expression from Ocean Beach, CA-based Skrewball, and national brands such as Jack Daniel’s Fire and Honey.

“They can make some fun and easy cocktails or first time sells,” Jenkins says. “However, we’ve found the best expressions in a whiskey cocktail come from the other ingredients—home-made bitters and syrups, smoking planks, etc.”

Flavored whiskeys such as Fireball and Crown Royal Apple—often served as a shooter accompanied by beer—fit the customer profile at Quaker Steak and Lube. Salupo says that both brands are in the top-20 spirits sold system-wide.

The chain recently added a signature drink that uses flavored whiskey: the Coconut Whiskey Colada. “We launched it in May, and it has been a top performer immediately,” Salupo says. “ It’s our play on the Pina Colada, but made with Stillhouse coconut whiskey, ice cream and banana puree.”

In-house Delights

Some beverage executives believe that a successful and unique in-house infusion will nearly always trump those commercially produced and sold by suppliers. Brad Manske, vice president/beverage director of the three-unit, Denver-based ViewHouse bar and grill, says it is the perceived freshness and care communicated by house-made items that matters to customers.

“People prefer alcohol infused in-house. The freshness and quality of the fruit allows ViewHouse to remain true to the brand by selecting local products and spirits,” he says. “The fruit-flavored spirits are more popular and add credibility to the cocktails.”

ViewHouse boasts a long list of cocktails—Martinis, Mules and more craft-oriented options. Many use either house infusions or commercial brands of flavors.

Some examples: the Blue Basil (house-infused blueberry vodka, basil, blueberries, sour mix and soda); Berryfizz (Grey Goose Le Citron vodka, blueberry liqueur, blackberries, raspberries, lime juice, soda); and Viewhouse Lemonade (Skyy Infusions raspberry vodka, raspberries, lemon juice, simple syrup), all priced at $9.75.

ViewHouse has become known for its many Mule variants ($9.50) and here, too, a mix is included. The titular Moscow Mule (Spring 44 honey vodka, craft ginger beer, lime) and the Viewhouse Mule (house-infused cucumber vodka, ginger beer, cucumbers, mint, lemon juice, lime) are among the more popular.”

Flavored-sprit cocktails at Denver-based ViewHouse incude the Viewhouse Lemonade (Skyy Infusions raspberry vodka, raspberries, lemon juice, simple syrup).

Fresh and Local Flavors

But the restaurant’s infusions are the flavored leaders in general—$5 shots of spirits that have been infused with fresh fruits or vegetables for two weeks. The summer lineup included vodkas infused with cucumber, blueberries and oranges, and tequila with pineapple. The tequila, made with fresh pineapple, is a guest favorite, Manske says, and used in one of ViewHouse’s top-selling Margaritas.

And then there’s the vodka with pickles. “For our pickle vodka, the vodka is first infused with dill to bring out the true pickle flavor and essences,” says Manske. “We then add pickles to the infusion, making it one of our more popular flavors.”

Manske says ViewHouse’s beverage folks have found that certain fruits and vegetables lend more robust flavor to infusions. “We use fresh and local ingredients in our infusions.”

At 23-unit, Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen, the beverage program requires all flavors to be house made, says director of beverage Jon Augustin. “We will always purchase a base spirit and flavor with seasonal ingredients.”

This is strictly culinary, he notes, “as we can make a fresher and more natural flavored spirit. We find the trend our guests are following is seasonal versus one style of liquor.”

True Food Kitchen currently infuses three spirits: lime rum, lemon vodka and mulled spiced brandy. “Citrus is always a great flavoring to add in the use of peels. They provide a great flavor, and the oils in the skins help to enhance the citrus used to balance the cocktail,” Augustin says. One frequent cocktail using the house citrus infusions is the Basil Cucumber Collins, with lemon-infused vodka, cucumber and basil.

But whiskey, too, gets the in-house treatment. “We have not considered purchasing an already flavored whiskey due to the sweetness and artificial flavoring used,” Augustin says. “We have infused our whiskeys in the past with various seasonal fruit and herbs.”

Creative Combinations

At Brabo in Alexandria, VA, the Blackberry Mojito Sour features Bacardi rum infused with blackberry and mint, egg white, and lime. At Washington, DC’s Firefly, the B Side combines Ruby Red Belle Isle Moonshine infused with bergamot orange and tarragon from Firefly’s rooftop garden, and the Didn’t Cha Know includes marsala-infused Plantation rum, lavender-infused Dolin Blanc, chai syrup and cinnamon.

When developing your own flavored spirits, the house-made item should fit the setting and moment, says Jenkins of Loews. “When flavoring or infusing our own spirits, we try to focus on seasonal ingredients that fit the spirit of the bar or restaurant.”

What’s more, “We have a citrus grove and chef’s garden on property, which gives us the unique advantage of creating infusions with fruits and herbs that we grow and harvest ourselves.”

Cocktails at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego include Summer Fixx (citrus vodka, rosemary simple syrup, fresh lemon juice and raspberries).

Jenkins echoes what many beverage pros say these days: “I’ve found that it’s best to let the flavored spirit do the talking in a cocktail. They’ve gone to lengths to put a twist on that spirit, so you need let it be heard..”

Try not to crush it with other flavors, he adds, “and don’t double down by adding the ingredient of the flavor. I like using ginger, soda, or lemonade for simple expressions.”

But Jenkins is somewhat dubious about the future for on-premise growth for most flavored spirits. “I actually believe that a well crafted cocktail menu can flourish with just base spirits.”

There will always be an ask for coconut rum or citrus vodka, he notes, “but these spirits will never be program definers and won’t influence decisions. The trend now is to have a simple and balanced cocktail.”

Blystone agrees. “Guest are more interested in a great cocktail versus the specific flavored vodka,” he says. “It all comes down to the quality of the drink.”

In short, he adds, “we choose the spirit that make makes the best cocktail for our guest. We are looking to develop both quality mainstream and seasonal cocktails that evoke an emotional connection with our guests.” 

Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY. Read his recent piece Tequila Trends On-Premise in 2018.

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