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Specialty Spirits Run Dry in Atlanta

Miles MacQuarrie at Leon's Full Service (AJC Staff)

Miles MacQuarrie at Leon's Full Service (AJC Staff)

I know it’s a little early, but is anyone up for a cocktail?

Well, if you want a handcrafted cocktail-culture cocktail — the kind made with gin from a micro-distiller, Italian marasca cherry liqueur and artisan vermouth — you may be in trouble. Creative mixologists, such as Miles MacQuarrie at Leon’s Full Service (left), are bemoaning the dearth of specialty spirits in the Atlanta market. Demand has far outstripped supply.

This was the subject of yesterday’s Sunday column.

Trendy spirits run dry

The “Easy Street” cocktail at Leon’s Full Service is anything but. Mixologist Miles Macquarrie concocted this retro-modern libation with Lairds Bonded apple brandy, almond-infused Prunier V.S. Cognac, Carpano Antica formula vermouth, green Chartreuse, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Macquarrie is among a new vanguard of barkeeps who have turned their backs on the house gin and soda-gun tonic in favor of small-batch spirits, old-fashioned European liqueurs, rare bitters and their own house-made tinctures. Macquarrie and his cohorts — Eric Simpkins at Drinkshop and Andy Minchow at Holeman & Finch Public House among them — put as much care into sourcing their ingredients as the chefs they work with.

Yet all these rare spirits that used to collect dust in distributors’ warehouses are increasingly hard to come by.

One recent week, “we were out of eight different items on our cocktail menu, ” moans Minchow. “We couldn’t get Maraschino Luxardo [a marasca cherry liqueur], Fernet Branca [a fiercely bitter Italian aperitif] or Becherovka [a Czech digestif made with a long roster of medicinal herbs].”

“Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get the items I need, ” agrees Simpkins. “Even the stuff that’s common in other markets.”

The reasons for this shortage are complex. Atlanta is far from the only city experiencing a cocktail renaissance. Many of the small-batch spirits are highly allocated and distributors send the lion’s share to more developed markets, like New York and Chicago.

This creates a friendly scramble when trendy spirits do make it to our market. Simpkins says he got a call recently from a distributor that two cases of Buffalo Trace bourbon had arrived and put his dibs in. Yet there’s no problem finding this bourbon in New York, and just across the border in Tennessee “it’s almost a house bourbon, ” he avers.

Craft distilleries are popping up all over the country, yet in order to enter the Georgia market they must sign an exclusive licensing agreement with a local importer who will hold the sole distribution rights in perpetuity. Some distributors, loath to bloat their inventories with expensive bottles, adopt a “once-bitten, twice-shy” approach.

Simpkins believes this is why it can be so hard to secure mezcal (a Mexican spirit distilled from agave) in Atlanta.

“One distributor tried to shop it around before its time, and there wasn’t a whole lot of interest, ” he says. “But now we’re just getting around to tequilas and mezcals.”

In other cases, distributors are slow to replenish a rare liquor that has become suddenly popular. John Schorn, the general sales manager at Savannah Distributing, admits the Carpano Antica vermouth that MacQuarrie favors had long languished in the storeroom until it was suddenly in demand.

“We’d sit on this stuff for 10 years and sell maybe a case, ” Schorn says. “But cocktails are changing all up and down the East Coast.”

Savannah keeps a number of the mixologists’ new favorites in its portfolio, including a number of Italian amaros that lend custom cocktails a bitter gravitas. Keeping them in the warehouse is another matter. “Our suppliers get caught off guard, and then they tell me it’ll be six weeks before I can get a shipment.”

Brittany Chardin, a beverage consultant with the Woodstock-based iMi Agency, has helped introduce mixologists to spirits such as St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Domaine de Canton, a French ginger liqueur, that have become breakout hits in bars across the country. She says these shortages “are the nature of the beast. I always let people know that if you bring the product in there will be depletions in the market.”

Indeed, the run on Fernet Branca was troublesome to Holeman & Finch, where it has become something of a signature flavor among the cocktails and even on the dessert menu, where it is turned into an ice cream and added to a Coke float.

But for now that crisis has been averted. After a recent Fernet Branca drought, it’s back in town.

“I brought in a couple of hundred cases, ” Schorn says. For this spirit at least, supply is keeping up with demand.

12 comments Add your comment

hudson

February 15th, 2010
9:21 am

Not all specialty spirits have run dry in Atlanta! Check out Corsair Artisan products also represented by Savannah Distributing.

Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits

February 15th, 2010
9:31 am

If you are craving a certain product to enjoy at home, stop in and see us Tower Buckhead & Tower Doraville.

Darin

February 15th, 2010
10:54 am

Cool article, John. I’ve really gotten into these cocktails that favor the bitter end the of the spectrum. Thanks to both Drinkshop and a recent trip to Paris, I’ve developed a taste for bitter apertifs like amaro and Cyan. I hope this trend continues of some bars using these specialty spirits. I’d hate to get attached to them and suddenly lose them in ATL.

Just give me a G&T

February 15th, 2010
11:26 am

Good night. Some people take this stuff waaaay too serously. Just give me a Tanqueray & Tonic, and everything will be all right.

Cocktail-snobbery. What’s next?

Just give me a G&T

February 15th, 2010
11:29 am

Ernest Hemingway would have punched some of these whiny bartenders in the nose.

Lauren V.

February 15th, 2010
12:39 pm

Probably Ernest Hemingway would have had better things to do with his time.

I’m kinda glad that good cocktails are popular enough that this is an issue! Hooray for delicious things. Hopefully the bright side of shortages will be the creation of new & different delicious things.

Ganners

February 15th, 2010
1:41 pm

I love the rebirth of intoxicating elixirs. I infuse my own liqueurs and I enjoy the results. My last three include limoncello, framboise and some low brow bacon vodka. Next up will be a lemon grass and ginger infusion with grain alcohol. Who doesn’t enjoy art in the form of alcohol?

Yay for the art of a finely crafted drink. I’ll drink to that!

Steve

February 15th, 2010
2:25 pm

Glad to see the specialty cocktail makes its presence felt in Atlanta. I wonder if some of these issues will get resolved with the rumored liquor store that the folks at H&F are planning to open.

I love tequila

February 16th, 2010
9:46 am

I’m all about exquisite libations that Miles, Eric, Andy and a few more fine barkeeps around town are gracefull creating. These men are artists as well. I don’t belive its “cocktail-snoberry” as my good lad “Just give me a G&T” calls it. It’s wanting more than just rum & coke, gin & tonic, or aweful coors light. Some people have a more sophisticated palate and want/expect more, others like this guy…well you can’t teach them the difference between a Belgian ale and PBR.

What does piss me off is people like him who are perfectly fine drinking budweiser, go to establishments like Drinkshop, Holeman & Finch, or Leon’s and not step outside of the comfort zone. You’re taking up valuable fresh air (and a seat while i’m at it). Next time just go to Moondogs. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with drinking Coors lights. What i am saying is don’t go to these places and order that crap – and then get mad because they don’t have it.

C'mon

February 16th, 2010
9:51 am

I’m all about exquisite libations that Miles, Eric, Andy and a few more fine barkeeps around town are gracefully creating. These men are artists as well. I don’t believe its “cocktail-snobbery” as my good lad “Just give me a G&T” calls it. It’s about wanting more than just rum & coke, gin & tonic, or awful Coors light. Some people have a more sophisticated palate and want/expect more, others like this guy…well you can’t teach them the difference between a Belgian ale and PBR.

What does piss me off is people like him who are perfectly fine drinking Budweiser, go to establishments like Drinkshop, Holeman & Finch, or Leon’s and not step outside of the comfort zone. You’re taking up valuable fresh air (and a seat while I’m at it). Next time just go to Moondogs. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with drinking Coors lights. What I am saying is don’t go to these places and order that crap – and then get mad because they don’t have it.

Just give me a G&T

February 17th, 2010
9:50 am

Sorry for breathing “your air,” Tequila. You’re not a cocktail-snob… no, not at all…

Sheesh… some people just don’t get it.

ted

February 18th, 2010
11:14 am

That Buffalo Trace isn’t for sale here is just wrong. My understanding is that it has something to do with 2 distributors having the rights to part of their portfolio and neither wanting the other to get to bring it in. So you have to go to TN or FL to purchase. Dumb 3-tier system; dumb distributors. It’s not like it’s a limited-release product.

And you may have noticed that Rittenhouse rye is gone from the shelves for the time being. Assume that’s due to low stocks as it’s happened before.