Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Making Drinks and Making Do in the Age of Supply-Chain Issues

You’re not the only one wondering where all the Chartreuse has gone.

Missing bottles illustration / Laura Sant

“Green Chartreuse is nowhere to be found,” says Mark Schettler, the bar manager at Bar Tonique in New Orleans. For a few weeks, he could find 375-milliliter bottles, but those disappeared too, as did drinks like the Last Word from his menu. “We 86ed all Chartreuse cocktails,” he says. 

For Ryne Hoffman at Portal Cocktails in Tucson, it’s amaretto, a product he hasn’t been able to source since May. Jake Daniel Smith can’t restock aquavit for his bar program at Motor Supply Company Bistro in Columbia, South Carolina, and when Althea Codamon wanted Nonino for the Italian-focused program at Aita in Brooklyn, her distributor essentially said: Fuhgeddaboudit. 

Welcome to the age of supply-chain-disrupted bartending. After months of closures and selling off inventory to stay afloat, bars are finding it nearly impossible to source everything from amari and Angostura to tequilas, vermouth, and cognac. In response, bartenders are getting creative with substitutions, altering their approaches to cocktail development, and keeping their menus flexible.

“With new drinks, what’s on everybody’s mind is, If we put it on the menu, how long will it last before we have to modify or substitute?” says Taylor Nicholson, the prep manager at Williams & Graham in Denver. 

And it’s not just booze. “It’s glass, anything that comes in glass,” says Lauren Frazer, a bartender at ​​Bar Blondeau in Brooklyn. Melina Meza, the beverage director at Olivetta and Issama in Los Angeles, can’t get Fever-Tree club soda or her preferred brands of sparkling and still water through distributors, so she’s schlepping to retail stores two to three times a month for water runs. “Every brand from distributors is out of stock,” she says.

Sourcing certain paper products and compostable garnish picks and straws has also been spotty. Then there’s fruit. “Grapefruit has been gone from wholesalers, which is fucking our pour costs because we’re buying from the grocery store,” says Schettler.

For his opening menu at The Maybourne in Beverly Hills, Chris Amirault planned to serve a grilled white peach Bellini. It had never been a problem to source peaches in California in fall, but this October “peaches were gone,” he says. “Normally, we could have bought a few cases, made syrup, and froze enough for the whole winter season, but we couldn’t even get five pounds to test the recipe.” 

A Perfect Storm for the Booze World

“It’s a perfect storm of conditions in our industry, in particular,” says Bobby Burg, the senior vice president of operations and chief supply chain officer at Southern Glazer’s, the largest wine and spirits distributor in the United States. 

In addition to managing all of Southern’s warehouses (and its workers, drivers, security, maintenance, safety, design, automation, etc.), Burg oversees replenishment and demand planning logistics—a.k.a., moving product from 37 countries to bottle shops, bars, and restaurants in 44 states. 

In the liquor business, says Burg, the three biggest factors contributing to the current supply-chain snarl are labor, product constraints, and worldwide logistics compression. “Nobody planned for this type of pandemic to affect the ability of distilleries, for example, to hire enough employees to barrel enough bourbon,” he says. “Nobody expected it to last this long.”

Categories like bourbon, cognac, celebrity-endorsed tequilas, and certain vodkas and wines (Australian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and sparkling) are particularly problematic in terms of demand outstripping production. In some cases, production ceased during the most stringent of Covid-19 lockdowns. “The global supply chain is so tight that when you miss two to three months of work, the catch-up takes much much longer,” says Burg.

Producers are also waiting months for glass bottles. While most of the world’s packaged goods now rely on plastic, wine and spirits makers still use glass, much of which is produced in China and most of which got stuck there during the pandemic. Switching to a new glass manufacturer requires design work and testing, a process that can take months. 

A large portion of the cardboard for the liquor business—customized boxes, waffle board inserts, and the like—also comes from overseas, which requires passing through America’s congested ports. 

That brings us to world logistics. “There’s a lack of capacity on the water and on the roads; there are 60,000 to 70,000 fewer truck drivers than needed,” says Burg. “Then there are port issues: a lack of empty containers to get more stuff into the United States, a lack of employees to get stuff off the boats. There are now 84 ships off Long Beach, California, and 45 percent of products imported to the United States come through that port.”

Burg says the actual liquid supply will come back in the first or second quarter of 2022, though logistics hurdles aren’t likely to ease until the third quarter—all with a big caveat on how governments respond to emerging Covid-19 variants.

How Bartenders Are Making Do

In the meantime, bartenders continue to adapt. Williams & Graham switched its well vodka from Wodka to locally made Woody Creek’s Roaring Fork vodka. For well bourbon, the bar has seen its Buffalo Trace supply dwindle from one case a week to six bottles. When that allotment runs dry, the bar switches to Jim Beam. 

Julia Petiprin’s HomeMakers Bar in Cincinnati focuses on aperitifs, digestifs, bitters, and vermouths—all tricky categories. Rather than waiting for certain amari to roll in, her team has started to make their own. “It’s been a fun challenge but also very sad to not receive our favorites,” says Petiprin.

Other folks are reluctantly subbing products: Salers aperitif for Suze, Bordiga Centum Herbis for green Chartreuse, Amaro Dell’Etna for Averna. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

“When a cocktail has a particular amaro that’s out, we’ll try and match it with something similar based on sweetness, bitterness, and flavor components. If we can’t, the bartenders may make a completely different cocktail with the infused or fat-washed base spirit if there is one, or we 86 the drink until we can make it again,” says Nicholson, who’s also buying spirits from local liquor stores (at a higher cost) to keep certain drinks on the menu.

At London Underground in Ames, Iowa, Darian Everding has struck all brand names from her menu to avoid cutting drinks. “I never know what’s not showing up,” she says of her product orders. Elizabeth Sara Peik also keeps her menu wording ambiguous for the times she has to make a “substitute for the substitute of the substitute,” says the bartender at Rusty’s Bar & Grill in Livermore, California. 

For now, and counter to his training, Amirault is designing cocktails to accommodate different brands. “A lot of us learned to build cocktails a certain way, with the understanding that a blanco tequila from one place is completely different from another blanco tequila,” he says. “It’s been an interesting position to balance and make drinks that work with a couple of different brands so we’re not running out.”

Compared to bartenders’ trials over the last two years, not being able to source El Tesoro or Suze is a small-fry annoyance, to be resolved through problem-solving and imagination.

“It’s been interesting watching bars and restaurants experiment with different things that they can get,” says Burg. “New drinks are getting developed; brands that weren’t top-of-mind are seeing a resurgence. There’s always a silver lining. Through adversity, lots of creativity is built.”