Sep 21, 2017

Single-Handedly Raising the Bar on Spirit Trends

Chicago’s The Northman (a cider bar)


September 21st, 2017   |   By Renee Lee

What do you call a bar that only has one option, but also endless options at the same time? It’s not a trick question – in recent years, bars across the country have been zeroing in on offering just one specific type of spirit or alcoholic beverage, all the while showcasing as many varieties as possible. These single-spirit or single-focus bars are following the trend of restaurants that have moved away from lengthy, multi-page menus to, instead, offer a more curated selection, often showcasing a central niche theme.

What’ll it be? Whiskey? Rum? Sherry? Absinthe?

Think of a spirit, any spirit, and chances are there’s a bar that specializes in it – Rum, Whiskey, Gin, or even bitters. Whiskey bars are especially prevalent across the country, which is fitting, as Whiskey is one of the top-menued spirits at restaurants. It’s found on nearly 45 percent of alcoholic beverage menus at restaurants, according to Datassential MenuTrends. Bar patrons can find large Whiskey collections at several bars dedicated to the spirit. For example, there are 1,800 bottles of Whiskey at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., including a Whiskey Cellar offering a rotating selection of Whiskey on draft; while at New York’s The Flatiron Room, there are over 800 bottles along with a private locker system (a concept found at many single-spirit bars) that allows regulars to purchase bottles to consume at their own pace. Nashville’s Tempered Café & Chocolate turns green every weekend night during “Green Hour,” when it transforms into an Absinthe bar (the start of the event is marked by a green light in a window that turns on).

Even if specializing in one spirit, many single-spirit bars have at least a few other options for customers who want something different. Seattle’s Canon bar has 2,000 varieties of Whiskey but also offers an additional 1,500 other spirits (making up the largest spirit collection in the Western Hemisphere, according to the bar). The bar’s menu, called the Captain’s List, is essentially an encyclopedia of alcohol as it spans nearly 200 pages. Whatever the size of the menu, these bars often need knowledgeable servers and bartenders who can help customers navigate the options. Why should a customer choose this Gin instead of one of the other 300 options? With such large spirit collections, many single-spirit bars are placing emphasis on servers and bartenders being able to guide customers through making a selection; assistance can also be offered with a well-organized menu (perhaps dividing varieties into origins or taste profiles) and options that encourage sampling (Chicago’s Longman and Eagle, whose philosophy is “Eat Sleep Whiskey,” offers a daily selection of 38 Whiskeys that can be poured as $3 shots).

Mojito cocktail

Mojito cocktail

In addition to Whiskey bars, operators focusing on spirits such as Rum (tiki drinks, anyone?), Tequila and specialty spirits are also popping up across the nation. Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles features over 250 types of Rum and requires a membership to enter and enjoy the expansive Rum collection complemented with a selection of cigars. El Agave in San Diego features both a restaurant/tequileria and a Tequila Museum with over 2,000 different Tequilas. Mezcal, a smoky alcohol made from agave, can offer consumers a different take on Tequila (both are made from agave but have quite a few differences). Mezcal, known by its marked smokiness, is the star of the show at bars such as The Pastry War in Houston, which offers a full list of agave spirits sourced from family-run distilleries in Mexico. The bar includes unique options such as pairing your selection with an agave accoutrement such as the Chapulines y Pina (dried, spiced grasshoppers with pineapple and tajin) as well as having the option to pay with pesos instead of U.S. dollars. Sherry, a type of fortified wine, is at the forefront of concepts like Bar Vivant in Portland, Oregon, named one of the country’s top Sherry bars with a collection of over 100 varieties. In New York, Amor y Amargo (“love and bitters”) focuses in on another type of fortified wine, Vermouth, which is available on draft along with a variety of bitters.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Going Single

If most bars operate with a vast selection of multiple spirits, beers, wines and alcoholic beverages, what’s the point of going against the grain in offering just one spirit? First, the trend of focusing in on one spirit resonates with consumers. Datassential covered single-spirit bars like Amor y Amargo in our issue of “Creative Concepts: Next-Level Cocktail Bars” and found that 57 percent of consumers were interested in concepts focused on one spirit. Concentrating on one alcohol can also help operators better train staff – instead of learning about a whole slew of cocktails, beers and wines, employees only need to focus on one specific spirit. Single-focus bars can hone in on a central theme that’s easy to communicate and easy to market, such as Rum bars that integrate tiki and island accents. Some corporate entities are also using single-spirit bars to differentiate themselves from others. Richard Sandoval restaurants, along with InterContinental Hotels, have used single spirits as a theme that joins together concepts under their corporate umbrella. At the InterContinental in Boston, bar patrons will find The Scotch Room (which, as its name suggests, focuses on single-malt Scotches); and in San Francisco, it’s all about Grappa at the hotel’s Bar 888. Having a single focus can even go beyond spirits into including various types of beer or brews. Mead bars, which focus on the ancient beverage made from fermented honey, are now also trending, taking microbreweries and brewpubs to the next level.

With the array of upsides to focusing on a single spirit, however, come a few challenges. Often, these barriers to overcome are related to consumer perceptions and preferences. If your customer base is entirely made up of the population of consumers that say they’ve had Whiskey many times (11 percent of consumers, according to Datassential FLAVOR), that’s great. However, for non-connoisseurs, or for those looking for a drink outside your concept’s wheelhouse, it can be a challenge to educate those consumers on your offerings. For those who aren’t well versed in how one variety of Gin differs from another, consider approachable menus with descriptions of varietals and be sure to offer plenty of opportunity for sampling. At Chicago’s The Northman, a cider bar, customers are greeted with a complimentary sample of the bar’s house cider. From there, the staff guides customers into choosing the best cider to match their tastes.

Chicago’s The Northman (a cider bar)

Chicago’s The Northman (a cider bar)

This article has been provided by Renee Lee, Senior Publications Specialist at Datassential, a leading consulting firm and supplier of trends analysis and concept testing for the food industry.