Opinion: How and Why to Strive for Brand-less Cocktail Menus
There are five major corporations that own most of the market share: Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Beam Suntory and Campari. It is illegal to buy menu placement, but here’s how you do it:
- Donating product and equipment. Slushy machines, copper mugs, draft cocktail systems, elaborate (expensive) menus, glassware, et cetera, are all fair game. Anything you want you can negotiate for. Highly allocated spirits (such as Pappy Van Winkle) are also used to bait managers into purchasing lower tier products for their rail program.
- Buy backs. Reps walk in, swipes a credit card for an agreed upon amount every month.
- Trips. It is legal for international distilleries to purchase travel for American bartenders. It is illegal for American distilleries to purchase travel inside the states, but they’re really good at finding loopholes to make it look legal. Every single larger house does this.
- Branded parties, advocates, and social media Influence. This hasn’t hit secondary markets like Minneapolis too hard yet, but you go to San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, and at every big cocktail bar you’ll find at least one of the bartenders is an advocate. In accounting it’s labeled under marketing. That bartender is getting paid to pour that spirit. If you ever go to a major cocktail conference, the amount of “marketing” dollars being passed around is obscene. This is extremely dangerous for our industry, it’s pervasive and toxic.
Someone has to pay for this. The quality of liquid inside the bottle rarely equates to the price tag.
So let’s do what every major producer does: blend.
The idea of blending spirits is not new or novel. The best example is the tiki craze in the ‘30s and ‘40s, where two titans (Trader Vic & Don the Beachcomber) waged battle over the Polynesian throne. They would blend elaborate libations and store them in differing colored/shaped bottles in case their enemy sent spies to gather intel on the other. The bartenders didn’t even know what they were pouring.
We purchase product in 1,750 ml format, by the case, which drops the price point, on average, by 20 percent. We blend the spirits and label how many spirits are in the blend on the menu (i.e. London dry gin4). This allows us to have a “rail” program filled with products we like and charge considerably less for classic cocktails. The spirits are blind tasted by our bartenders and we collaborate on the blend until we’ve created a flavor profile that is ours. This is helpful from a training perspective since everyone behind the bar “owns” that blend. It also creates a unique experience for our guests, since they will never—unless you come back—taste this flavor again. Autonomy, idiosyncrasies, and supporting our micro economy versus white-washed, bribed, and overpriced hooch.
All of our blends have small producers, brands that don’t spend on marketing, and yes, we purchase product from large houses, but no one really makes any money off of us considering the percentage. Reps have stopped offering buy backs, equipment, donated product, et cetera, since then.
Also, bacteria is really cool and we should ferment everything.