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.