Contact Us Today

Bartenders Are Doing More Than Taking Orders

Around the neck of every bottle from the fledgling spirits outfit the 86 Co. — the gin, the vodka, the tequila, the rum — is a small glass ridge. To the untrained eye, it looks like a packaging flourish. It is not.

The ridge is there to make it easier for a bartender to grab the bottle, upend it and pour. It was the suggestion of the Los Angeles mixologist Eric Alperin, one of many bartenders sounded out by Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmos before they and two other partners started the liquor line last year.

The neck is not the only thing designed to please the men and women behind the bar. The mouth is slightly tapered so speed-pouring spouts don’t slip out when they begin to wear thin. The bottle has liter and ounce measurements on the side, so that once empty, it can be used for other juices and syrups. The spirits themselves were concocted to be affordable yet pass the quality test and be eminently mixable. (While developing the Caña Brava rum in Panama, Mr. Zaric got in the habit of making a daiquiri on the spot with each new sample that came off the still.)

“It’s about creating the tools that make our lives better,” he said. By “our” he meant bartenders’ — Mr. Zaric, Mr. Kosmos and Mr. Ford all have backgrounds in bartending.

The spirits industry has long marched to the voice of the consumer, but today, as the new cocktail culture turns mixologists into tastemakers, it is starting to heed the bartending elite. Mammoth liquor conglomerates like Bacardi and Pernod Ricard have even collaborated with barkeeps in creating new spirits.

“Bartenders are reaching a level of influence that they had pre-Prohibition in how they’re introducing consumers to new and exciting cocktails,” said Giles R. Woodyer, the brand managing director for Bacardi USA. “They’re looking for spirits that add a dimension to the cocktails they create.”

One of the top concerns of bartenders is that spirits mix well in cocktails; not all do. “Most people these days make a good spirit, but they make it for sipping,” Mr. Ford said. “They never consider how it’s being used. That was the key thing for us.”

The big liquor companies were not always so receptive. Long before he helped start the 86 Co., Mr. Zaric said, companies sometimes invited him to offer feedback on spirits. “They were looking for our expertise and how bartenders will perceive it,” he recalled. “But at the end of the day, our recommendations were not taken seriously. They paid us lip service. The marketing agency already had a direction, and they hired you to verify it.”

The last few years have brought a change. Mr. Ford, who used to work for Pernod Ricard, took particular inspiration from the company’s creation of Beefeater 24. Introduced in 2009, the gin is a rare line extension for the classic Beefeater brand. (Its botanicals include Chinese green tea and Japanese Sencha tea.) It was the brainchild of Beefeater’s master distiller, Desmond Payne, with some help from a small group of industry professionals, including Audrey Saunders, the mixologist and founder of Pegu Club in SoHo.

“As a very big fan of Beefeater for many years, it was quite an honor for me to be invited to the table,” Ms. Saunders said. “Desmond wasn’t so much seeking help on the structure of the actual distillate as he was looking for feedback with regards to the mixing potential of it.” In one instance, it was suggested that Mr. Payne slightly reduce the tea botanicals, so that the gin would shine better in cocktails. “We also had input on bottle design,” she said.

When Bombay Sapphire decided to make the new variety that became Bombay Sapphire East, flavored partly with Asian botanicals, it turned to a few stars in the food and drink worlds, including the well-known San Francisco-based mixologist Duggan McDonnell, who also helped develop the pisco brand Campo de Encanto. “My feedback on East,” he said, “was always one of making sure every step we took brought us closer to something my colleagues behind the stick would embrace.”

“Gin is primarily consumed via cocktails — not shots or on the rocks — and so every gin has to do well in the tin,” he added, referring to the cocktail shaker.

The interaction of large liquor concerns and idealistic mixologists is not without its bumps. The renowned London barman Nick Strangeway was asked by Pernod Ricard to create a series of bartender-friendly Absolut vodkas. He experimented for months with myriad infusions, often using expensive and hard-to-get ingredients, tasting and blending them until he came up with a number of potions that met his standards. But when Absolut tried to produce his creations on a large scale, the results sometimes fell short of the mark.

“I was fairly naïve about how the big company works,” Mr. Strangeway said, “and they were naïve about how exacting I would be.” In his contract, he had veto rights. “Making 5 liters is easy, and making 500 isn’t fairly hard,” he said. “But making 3,000 is different.”

The first in the Absolut Craft series, called Herbaceous Lemon, will be sold on allocation and made available only to bartenders. Mr. Strangeway thinks of the experiment as taking the familiar Absolut brand “and giving it back to the bartender.” (Pernod also worked with two London bartenders on its Olmeca Altos tequila brand, which was released in 2010.)

“All the big brands have to pay attention to the bartenders now,” Mr. Strangeway said. “It’s a massive industry. Bartenders make the sale for you.”