Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How to Sell Uncommon Spirits at Your Bar

These are ways to get your guests comfortable with less-familiar categories of booze.

Spirits bottles
Image:

Liquor.com / Laura Sant

One of the joys of being in the booze world is trying, and often falling in love with, spirits that are only just beginning to rise in popularity, then watching them grow. But how do bartenders best convince customers to try bottles or entire categories with which they’re unfamiliar? We talked with several top bartenders to see how they get customers to embrace the uncommon. 

1. Use Them in Cocktails

"The worst thing we can do is make a customer not feel confident in our places, and one way to do that is by having ingredients they don't understand," says Ivy Mix, the co-owner of Leyenda, a pan-Latin bar in Brooklyn. Not that she thinks bartenders should forgo using unusual spirits and mixers. It is, after all, the basis of her bar. "When we first opened Leyenda, I told everyone we aren't selling Manhattans, Martinis and Old Fashioneds,” says Mix. “We’re selling things they don't know, let alone know how to pronounce."

Mix's spot focuses on spirits of Latin America, one being Singani 63. This spirit, in essence a Bolivian brandy, was one of the bottles she found many drinkers weren’t familiar with. So instead of constantly explaining the spirit to customers, she mixes it into cocktails with ingredients that are already familiar to her bar guests. 

"The customer might say to themselves, I know what Aperol is and watermelon and jalapeño, but I don't know what Singani is or even how to pronounce it, but the other ingredients look good," says Mix. She adds that guests often order the cocktail first and then afterward ask what Singani is. "The coolest thing about cocktails is teaching people about flavors and ingredients," she says.

2. Liken Them to Something Familiar

Jesse Torres, the bar manager of American Elm in Denver, finds that his eclectic menu of about 30 drinks can confuse a novice drinker. But the main spirits people ask about are sugar-cane-based, primarily the Haitian spirit clairin.

"Distilled from dozens of native sugar cane varieties and with a unique sense of terroir uncommon in spirits, clairin is the funky and wild rum you’re glad you met," says Torres, adding that it's nothing like Bacardí or other well-known sugar cane liquors. "What you get instead is a full-flavored rum that encapsulates the Haitian climate and natural beauty."

Torres loves using this spirit in drinks to give cocktails layers of complexity featuring "lush tropical notes of overripe guava, pineapple and green banana, along with meaty, herbal and earthy flavors," as he describes it. But explaining all of that to customers doesn't happen often. To familiarize drinkers with this less-common spirit, he adds it to classic cocktails such as Daiquiris, Negronis and Palomas, likening it to rum when asked. 

Only when pressed does he wax poetic about how clairin showcases terroir and how many of the distillers use recipes and techniques passed down through their family for generations. While you can get bottles of clairin commercially, a lot of this typically small-batch booze gets distributed around to relatives, friends and others within their village. It's often unaged and made with wild yeast fermentation, almost as soon as the sugar cane gets pressed. All of this makes the spirit stand out, and it's something Torres hopes customers will learn to appreciate as well.

3. Share Compelling Details

For Kenta Goto of Bar Goto and Bar Goto Niban, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, it's selling Japanese shochu that proves challenging. "Any new spirits go through this stage, and when I first started bartending, it was pisco, then it was mezcal, now it's shochu," says Goto. "I think it's always good to offer unusual spirits, and we only include things on our menu that we think are delicious, so it's exciting for us to be able to navigate our customers and introduce them to new spirits that we think they will enjoy."

Shochu is a spirit from Japan that can be distilled from barley, rice, sweet potato or other ingredients, all affecting the spirit’s eventual flavor. "I describe the flavor profile differently for each product, and what makes shochu special and different from other spirits is that koji is used to make shochu," says Goto. A Japanese staple, Koji is a type of fungus used to ferment rice for sake and shochu and to ferment soybeans for soy sauce and miso. By sharing this unique tidbit about the liquor, Goto is able to educate and entice people with shochu. Then he can pour it neat or on the rocks or suggest one of his cocktails that features the spirit. 

4. Sell an Idea

Likening a unique spirit to a place, whether it's the history, terroir, distillation processes or all of the above, is a familiar path of selling booze for Ben Long. He’s the marketing mind behind Trakal, a Patagonian spirit that, he says, tastes like brandy and gin had a baby. 

"You have a couple of avenues you can take with a unique spirit,” says Long. “For us, at the end of the day, we’re selling Patagonia. It's a spirit to remind people about outdoor adventure and for people who like cocktails and also like to explore the different parts of the world."

5. Educate Your Servers

It's not just hard liquor that can prove challenging to sell. In Denver, at Italian restaurant Olivia, bar manager and co-owner Austin Carson offers uncommon wines and fortified tipples. For him, the secret is in educating his staff so they can then share information with customers and sell the unique bottles. 

"I really wanted to start small and then introduce esoteric items on a one-off basis, so we can ensure that our service staff has enough time to taste and properly train," says Carson. The items he most often encourages customers to try are grappa and fortified wines, such as vermouth and some rancios.

Rancio, an oxidized wine that's shelf-stable like an aperitif, gets a lot of quizzical looks from guests, but that doesn't stop Carson from encouraging them to try it. "It's a fun one [that] plays really well with Madeira, whiskey and rum,” he says. “On occasion, I’ll slide one into a Bamboo cocktail." He uses his collection of small cordial glasses to give tastes of some of the lesser-known bottles to customers. "Our servers are trained to offer tastes, oftentimes as a surprise, to our guests."

Another way Carson gets customers to try something new is by offering it as a dessert pairing. "It's a really fun way to introduce people to new things behind the bar, and the same principles apply to spirit and liqueur pairing with dessert as wine," he says.

Bartenders agree that working with less-common spirits is both invigorating and challenging. As Mix says, there was a time when no one knew what mezcal was. She’s confident that one day soon, these "unusual" spirits will rise in popularity as well. The first step in that process is, as it was for mezcal, for bartenders to keep introducing them to consumers.