Over a Barrel

How home barreling of spirits changes everything

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It all started earlier this summer when I read a blog posting from my friend, Al Milukas. Al publishes a blog called Live the Live and I follow it avidly. It’s a great source of information on all matters of food and drink. This story, in particular, called Aging Spirits in Oak Barrels at Home, caught my eye and interest.

The next thing I know, I am the proud owner of a one-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and spent the next few months experimenting and aging liquor. But first, let’s talk a bit about barreling and aging spirits.

Wood, Time and Magic

Among the websites I visited about the effects of barrel aging included this with an article on the Science of Barrel Aging. As they simply put it, “Aging softens the ‘burn’ of the ethanol while smoothing out flavours and adding even more pleasant ones. The question is: what exactly is happening inside that barrel?”

They go on to talk about the effects of time, air, temperature, the role of different types of barrels (especially oak), barrel char, and humidity.

To be totally candid, I know very little about the science of barreling. Hey, I barely got through high school chemistry, so if you want to know more, I suggest you either look it up or talk to someone who knows. All I care about is the impact on my favorite libations.

Meet Red Head Oak Barrels

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Following the advice of my friend Al Milukas, I ordered a 1-litre barrel from Red Head Oak Barrels and went to work.

The company is owned by Steve Mayes who was born in Baton Rouge, LA and now lives and works in the Dallas area. After playing around with the barrel and doing some experimenting (more about that in a moment), I gave Steve a call to learn more about him and his company. He started the company in 2013, is a Navy veteran, has a background in Internet marketing, and knows a good idea when he sees one. He’s also a very nice guy and could teach most major companies about customer service.

Here’s an example. In addition to my nonscientific knowledge, I’m also world renowned in my lack of mechanical and manual dexterity skills. (Just ask my wife who often calls the building’s handymen to change a light bulb.) Anyhow, I had some difficulty  assembling the barrel (putting in the spigot) and contacted Read Head Oak Barrels for some help. The problem was solved immediately. I was struck by how they handled and resolved my minor issue.

When I talked to Steve we spoke about his customer service philosophy and he told me they believe in “lagniappe,” an expression in Louisiana that means “a little extra.” It’s his way of saying that they specialize in over delivering and delighting their customers. There are many companies out there selling barrels, and in fact, some are resellers using Red Head’s barrels. But, I doubt if any have Steve Mayes’ attitude and business practice.

I had the barrel I bought engraved with the Booze Business logo (of course). It arrived shortly after I ordered it with very detailed instructions and appropriate paraphernalia.

The idea behind home barrel aging is pretty clear. Distilleries usually use large 53-gallon oak barrels to age their products because they need the large volume to satisfy their customers. But for home use, you need much smaller sizes. In fact, home barrels come in 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 or 20 liters and age the product inside much faster. That’s because of the ratio of wood to liquid is greater in a smaller barrel so it takes less time. That also means the taste and flavor is enhanced more quickly.

2-liter KY Bourbon kit
2-liter KY Bourbon kit

And now, the results of my experiments

I started simply and poured some mid-price rye whiskey into the barrel, waited two weeks and it was the smoothest, most flavorable rye I’ve had in a long time. Hmm, what would happen if I used an inexpensive rye? So, Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey went in next for about ten days and I could have made a fortune betting my friends what they were tasting was 10-year-old rye.

Gin followed and I ended up with batch after batch of outstanding barrel aged gin whose taste, color and smoothness was unbelievable. In effect, I had a barrel with complex flavors of rye, gin, and even rum.

But the coup de grace was a gin cocktail – my new favorite – the Negroni.

Last year my wife and I spent a long weekend in Santa Barbara and had dinner at the Stonehouse restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch. We ordered Negronis before dinner and were asked if we would like a barrel-aged version. It was unbelievable.

That idea became my favorite experiment. I mixed a liter’s worth of Negroni (with Koval gin, a decent vermouth and Campari, of course), aged it for a little more than a week, removed it from the barrel into a bottle (to stop the aging) and it was great. I’ve since played with the recipe, brand of vermouth, and time in the barrel. It gets better and better.

My do-it-yourself barreled gin
My do-it-yourself barreled gin

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I could end this post with any number of clichés about barrels. But I won’t. After all, I covered the subject lock, stock and barrel.

Please stop groaning.

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Behind the Stick: The Changing Bartender

the finishing touch

From a job to a career

The last 30 years in the booze business has seen fundamental shifts in all aspects. The industry has consolidated at all levels: manufacturer (supplier), distributor, and retailer. Consumer preferences have gone from whiskies to vodkas and back to whiskies. Mass-produced brands are losing ground to craft and micro distillers. The cocktail has reemerged with a vengeance.

Consider the arguably most important person in the drinks business chain, the influencer, the gatekeeper of choice – the bartender. In my view, there are profound shifts in motivation and aspiration that has changed the nature of bartending and the people who work that craft.

My friend Gaz Regan, in a recent interview with Tales of the Cocktail, summed it up nicely when asked about the changes affecting bartending. He points out that, so far as he is concerned, the changes began about ten years ago. “Bartending prior to that was a part-time job. Something you did until you got a real job.”

He went on to add:

“What happened was, the spirits companies began to recognize the value of bartenders. They started having [drink] competitions with big prizes, and investing money in bartenders. Giving bartenders jobs as brand ambassadors followed that. And, in return, the bartenders gave the spirits companies the exposure that they were looking for. So that’s been a fabulous marriage. I get asked sometimes, is this all going to go away? My answer is, not as long as the spirits companies are making money.”

In the past…

Some of my theatre friends have an interesting expression. “A bartender is an actor that doesn’t want to become a writer.” That’s the way it was, once upon a time.

To oversimplify, there were some basic and simple motivations. Some entered bartending as a ‘day job’ in order to pay the bills while they pursued their ambitions and life’s dreams. Others were professional bartenders whose joy, in addition to a paycheck, was the challenge “behind the stick” and in meeting and interacting with (hopefully) interesting people.

The job choices ranged from the corner bar to the lavish watering holes of the rich and famous. The lines between ‘job’ and ‘career’ were blurred.

Today…

While bartending is still a job to many it’s no longer seen as a way station on the path away from the booze business. On the contrary, it is more often than not seen as the launch of a career in the hospitality industry in general, and alcohol in particular.

Goals and aspirations are changing and here’s how the bartending profession is evolving.

 

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  1. From bartending to bar chef

Think about the changes in the culinary and food arts world. Cooks have become chefs, who in turn, have become celebrity chefs. This journey in the bartending world, thanks to the cocktail culture, has elevated the art of bartending – from bartender to mixologist to bar chef.

Regardless of the level, it’s an exciting time to be behind the stick with the craft moving beyond, “what will you have?” to “try this.” Back to Gaz. When asked what excites him about the current generation of bartenders, he had this to say:

“The creativity. The fact that they have gone so far, with [things like] molecular mixology, that has created a space for artistic people to choose bartending as their way of expressing themselves. So we’ve got more and more artistic people behind the bar, and I think that just keeps progressing and progressing and progressing.”

  1. Brand Ambassador

Back in the day at Seagram, we recognized the importance of the brand ambassadors but we looked at it from the consumer’s perspective.

We hired a (former) whisky writer, dressed him in kilts, made sure he could play the bagpipe, and sent him on his way to travel the country. With considerable gusto, he entertained and lectured consumer audiences on the basics of Scotch whisky and conducted tastings of Chivas Regal and/or The Glenlivet.

Around the same time, Diageo introduced the Masters of Whisky education program. This was aimed at consumers (at whisky festivals around the country) and, importantly, provided training to bar and restaurant staffs. (Unfortunately, this highly successful and groundbreaking program has just been unceremoniously dropped with lots of Diageo double talk about how it will become a better program in the future. Trust me, it was a terrific program and will be missed.)

In effect, for the past few decades, suppliers have realized that to generate interest in their brands and products, they need to capture the hearts and minds of the key influencer and gatekeeper, the bartender. Who better than another bartender? And so, another career path became available to bartenders.

This from Tales of the Cocktail sums it up nicely:

For bartenders looking to move on from behind the bar, becoming a brand ambassador can be a shrewd, lucrative step forward in their career, a graceful way to avoid the late nights and constant physical labor of bartending while still remaining in the industry.

The drawback? Not a lot of jobs out there for this niche, and thanks to Diageo, lots of people will be looking for new jobs.

For those who enjoy and excel at a brand ambassadorship, the opportunity to expand into a spirits company can be a likely further step in career development. Particularly, since major companies are beginning to understand that brand success and even revitalization comes from the bar trade and the people who know it well.

  1. Becoming the boss

Upward mobility and career advancement is not solely in the domain of the desk bound.

I suppose this aspiration has always been there, but I notice more and more that bartenders I know and meet have become creative directors, bar supervisors and/or Food and Beverage Managers. As multi-unit establishments expand and grow, the need for qualified leadership will also grow.

The key ingredients are a passion for the food and beverage industry, managerial skills, and for some, an advanced degree. Above all it helps to have a mentor and a work environment that nurtures and rewards business talent.

Pam Wiznitzer, Creative Director of Seamstress, and president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild – New York Chapter, is a good example. Here is her story from a recent Forbes online article.

  1. The entrepreneurial spirit

Opening one’s own bar is a risky proposition, with compounded risks if food is part of the equation. Tough, but not impossible, assuming the financial and managerial resources are in play.

However, the entrepreneurial path is not limited to opening an establishment. Read the Simon Ford story. His journey went from brand ambassador (international no less) to Director Trade Marketing (at Pernod Ricard) to Cofounder at The 86 Co.

If opening a bar is risky then launching a distillery is, well, perilous. And yet, many try and some succeed. In addition to financial resources, it takes training, patience, long hours, and people skills.

Just like being a bartender.

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In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to highlight and focus on this new breed of people behind the stick. In the meantime, if you think of anyone I should think or write about, let me know.

Cocktail Making

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Hella Company

You Oughta Know Bitter…

That’s the tagline of a fascinating company that has entered the bitters business and is claiming a stake in the cocktail culture and beyond.

The Hella lineup.
The Hella lineup.

It is also the story of three friends with entrepreneurial skills and passion who, with the help of Kickstarter, started a business and making quite an impact. Just like the bitters they make, their diverse and eclectic backgrounds merge very nicely to create an outstanding product and a company with vision and values.

I met the team at the suggestion of my friend Sean O’Rourke from Fedway Distributors in NJ. Sean is the Craft Category Manager, a rising star at Fedway, and someone with first hand knowledge about craft and startup ventures. With his recommendation in mind I set off to Long Island City, Queens to meet the owners.

The Team

Jomaree Pinkard is the CEO, a Wharton MBA with over a decade of experience in the consulting and financial industries. Eddie Simeon is the CMO, a senior digital strategist and former Adweek executive with experience in commercial media development. Tobin Ludwig is the COO and an F&B industry veteran, a James Beard House featured craft bartender, educator and beverage consultant.

Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin
Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin

The partners came together at various times in their lives as friends and business associates. Among other things, they shared a passion for food and do-it-yourself culinary efforts, including making their own bitters as a hobby. So, they made a batch of bitters, and friends and family loved it. So much so, that to meet the demand they went on Kickstarter and raised two and a half times what they had wanted.

Bitters

Let’s spend a minute on the topic of bitters. Here is a succinct history.

To cut to the chase, as they say, bitters have been around for centuries and ultimately found their way to become various types of medicines derived from plants or other types of natural resources. By the 19th century, the British and Colonial Americans added bitters to Canary wine (wines from the Canary Islands). From there they went to cocktails and to oblivion, thanks to prohibition. By the beginning of this century, they were back with a vengeance, and have become the backbone of most, if not all, cocktails. (See an earlier post on Gary Regan and his Orange Bitters No. 6.)

Why do I admire these guys?

Simple. They’re smart business people who understand that, in the craft world, “build it and they will come” just doesn’t work. They understand growth constraints, have developed business plans and strategies, and are outstanding marketers.

Bitters are a slow usage category with only a few drops used in a cocktail. My bottles of Angostura and Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters have been in my pantry since Methuselah was a teenager. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an old expression.) So if you’re manufacturing bitters, there are limits to your growth and expansion.

What the Hella guys have done is produce a line of bitters—orange, aromatic, ginger, smoked chili, and ginger lemon. In addition, they recognize that bitters are of appeal to home chefs and do-it-yourselfers so they produced a Craft Your Own Bitters Kit. (I’m a proud owner of one of those kits and as you read this, my first batch of grapefruit bitters is aging.)

Other Products

Let’s start with cocktail syrups. These are also syrups used by many home bar chefs designed to help make cocktail mixing at home effortless and fun. These syrups make it easy to produce drinks at home that taste on par with what you will find in fancy cocktail bars. Hella makes three—hibiscus, cola, and tonic.

Here’s how they describe it:

Hella Cocktail Syrups are different than what you’re used to, and that’s just the way we like it. We wanted them to embody everything that Hella stands for so we made sure to use only the best all-natural ingredients, combined with just the right amount of cane sugar. Our 72-hour infusion of bark, fruit peel, and whole spices result in not too sweet and perfectly bitter syrups that make an excellent dry soda or a light and refreshing mixed drink or cocktail.

Another line of products includes Hella cocktail mixers—five in all, including Bloody Mary, Margarita, and Moscow Mule. I haven’t had a chance to try them as yet, but friends who have rave about them and think they’re among the best on the market.

Distribution and Sales

Here’s the part I really love.

While bitters generally contain high levels of alcohol, often 90°, in many states they are not considered an alcohol product, so you can buy them in grocery stores. They are also available in liquor stores. So distributors and retailers in both worlds are available to them.

In fact, check out the list ’A’ of retailers (in NYC): Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, Chelsea Market, Whisk, Astor Wine and Spirits, to name a few.

Where to next?

They are not saying, so I feel free to speculate and perhaps offer an idea or two.

Based on the quality of their products, the commitment to excellence, and their entrepreneurial savvy, I hope they move from the margins of the booze business into the mainstream. My instinct tells me that if they were to add spirits to their mixers, the result would be a top shelf pre-mixed cocktail. Or, if they applied their creativity, they might come up with a proprietary spirits product that would make for an excellent cocktail.

But then again, these folks are smart. They know that focus is the key ingredient for an entrepreneurial success.

Incidentally, the name Hella comes from a popular expression—hella—as in a slang term meaning “very” or “extreme.”  So Hella products can mean hella awesome or hella great. In old school slang, we used the term “helluva,” as in they make “helluva bitters.” Either way the term is appropriate for their products.

By the way, I’ll let you know how my do-it-yourself bitters product turns out. Check the Booze Business Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/boozebusiness/

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