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What can brown spirits do for bartenders? A lot

If you’ve been paying attention at all to the cocktail circuit of late, you’ll be aware that brown spirits — whiskeys, rums, brandies and the like — are on a bit of a tear these days. Speak with almost any mixologist of repute, or cruise through the ever-swelling population of cocktail blogs, and it won’t be long before you come face-to-face with the literal dark side of spirits.

A typical proponent of rums, ryes and bourbons is Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. “Darker spirits are definitely becoming more popular options for cocktail drinkers,” Heugel said. “I think that a big contributing factor to this movement has been a resurgence of interest in classic tiki drinks, which often use dark rums with very bold flavors in cocktails that are friendly and allow the traditional ‘cosmo drinker’ to opt for a visually appealing cocktail with bold flavors and fresh ingredients.”

Also on board the dark spirits bandwagon is Steven Liles, the head bartender at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor Restaurant. Not only does Liles see more interest in brown spirits in general, he now finds vodka drinkers seeking guidance as they attempt to make the crossover to the brown spirits. 

“Often times, I find the best way to introduce a vodka drinker [to darker spirits] is to create a cocktail specifically for them, since if I take the time to find out what they usually drink, I can often make a cocktail that will suit them,” Liles said. “If the customer drinks vodka martinis, I may take a spirituous route. Whereas if they drink cosmopolitans, I may create a somewhat sweet cocktail, or find a good classic.”

Asked what sort of sweeter classic he might be inclined to mix for such a neophyte, Liles wastes no time in identifying the Ward Eight, a mix of rye whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine. “I have always found the Ward Eight cocktail to be a great go-to drink,” he said. “Not only is it very accessible, but I have found that seasoned whisky drinkers love it, too.”

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about the darker side, though. Sandy Block, vice president of beverage operations for Legal Sea Foods, notes that the category hasn’t exactly been surging for Legal. “Brown spirits and American whiskeys in particular are not showing any gains in my beverage program,” Block said.

Even at Legal’s “bar-centric” concept, Legal C Bar, Block said that brown spirits haven’t been anything close to on fire.

“At the Legal C Bar, where we have a more extensive menu and there are some retro drinks, [brown-spirits-based drinks] only represent three out of almost 40 cocktails we have listed,” Block said. “The whole category only represents about 5 percent of our liquor revenues even at this restaurant, and a much lower figure at our other restaurants.”

That admittedly dismal picture may be due for a change the next time the Kentucky Derby rolls around, Heugel suggested.

“The popularization of events centered on drinking brown spirits is also giving people an opportunity to try cocktails they might otherwise avoid,” he said. “It might sound like a silly horse race, but the growing popularity of Kentucky Derby parties, for example, creates an environment where drinking a mint julep is almost mandatory for any guest attending the event. Situations like these encourage individuals to explore brown spirits.”

Even beyond Derby Day, Heugel said, bourbons and aged rums provide particularly good entryways to dark spirits, citing each for their sweet and relatively mellow characters. And by way of an introductory cocktail, he offers the Anvil’s House Whiskey Sour, made in a manner, he said, “that encourages people to ask what on earth we are doing with eggs.”

“I guess if they can get
past the idea of drinking a cocktail with egg whites,” Heugel concluded, “the brown-spirits issue isn’t all that big of a challenge.”

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