Still life: Customers and restaurants both miss out when the range of spirits available fail to match that on wine lists

Other: Business

No matter how eclectic the wine list, most UK restaurants offer a very mediocre range of spirits. And it’s not just the customers who are missing out, says Dave Broom

Far be it from me to appear confrontational, but the direction the conversation was taking had caused a little red light bulb to go off in my head. To put it in context, we were talking about a new spiritous Secret Project and the question of how the brand owner would market it to the trade. The answer was ‘slowly’, which makes perfect sense to me, and also ‘top-end on-trade’.

‘You know,’ he mused, ‘it always amazes me with some top-end restaurants that although they have a great wine list in place and an experienced sommelier to guide you, when you ask for a gin and tonic
you end up with Gordon’s.’

He’s got a point. How is it that Britain can boast some of the best bartenders in the world and that some of its hotels have great bars, but when you look at spirits lists in restaurants they are woefully lacking.

In many quality restaurants across the country, from three Michelin star to premium chains, you’ll encounter wine lists lovingly assembled, but a spirits range that simply ticks the boxes and is filled with the brand leaders. This, when you think of it, is the equivalent of their wine lists containing naught but Oyster Bay and Jacob’s Creek.

I have nothing against the brand-leading spirits per se, but by stocking them exclusively aren’t restaurants missing a trick? If a customer is willing to pay for food, for wine, for the whole experience, then why stint on the quality of the spirits on offer – or, for that matter, the mixers?

It isn’t as simple as the restaurant business looking down on spirits – that infers a conscious decision. I seriously think that many give spirits no thought at all, which is strange, since there are great margins to be made.

‘Ah, but,’ counter restaurateurs, ‘the digestif has gone, as has the aperitif. These days people prefer
to move straight on to the wine.’

Well I move straight to wine if I can see there’s bugger-all choice in terms of spirits. I’d rather start with a really good G&T, or better still a Negroni, but if I end up with a 37.5% abv gin, poor ice and tonic out of a gun, or get a blank expression when I ask for a Negroni, then, yes, it’s a glass of Riesling for me thank you very much… and there goes a missed money-making opportunity for you.

So, rather than just ranting about the situation, what can be done?

Deal with firms who either offer a balanced portfolio or are spirits specialists, or consult with professionals who would be willing to help create a spirits list and train the staff. Remember, it’s not just increasing choice or having a pretty-looking back bar… it’s about profits.

What I’ve been drinking…

The spirit world never fails to amaze me. Take Glenglassaugh’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Whisky (actually, it’s called The Spirit Drink that dare not speak its name, which is a bit more, er, Wildean). It’s as clear as water; it’s yeasty, sweet, it tastes of fennel and grass; in fact, it tastes of new-make single malt, which isn’t that surprising as that’s what it is. They used to give this free to the men working at distilleries as part of their daily wage. Glenglassaugh is asking £30 per 50cl bottle.

Rum, too, continues to amaze. Now, I love Cottons in London’s Chalk Farm Road, not just for the jerk, the cocktails and the laid-back cheekiness of it all, but because it seems to be plugged in to a supernatural rum matrix that makes new releases appear out of thin air in front of you. It happened again last week.

First of all Ms Stefanie Holt produces the brand spanking new El Dorado 8yo, which will be hitting the back bars of the nation soon. The nose is all sandalwood, dried banana skin, new suede shoes, plantain and macadamia. The mouth is soft and sweet, with good grip and a finish of fresh blackberries. It could be sipped and it would also make a superior mixed drink. Rum Old-Fashioned anyone?

It’s yeasty, sweet,

it tastes of fennel…

Owner Ian Burrell then tries to trump this with a taste of Appleton’s 30yo, which is another ‘soon come’ rum, but since it’s been promised for so long you might as well know what it’s like. Think grilled fruits, Danish oil, liquorice, crème brûlée, frying butter, mint sauce… and more… much more. Hugely complex and destined to become a cult rum.

We’ve just finished that when in saunter two Panamanians from Ron Abuelo, the family-owned distiller that has been at it since 1908, but is only now beginning to look outside its home country. The Añejo is bright and citric (think pink grapefruit) with a spicy palate – a good mixer. The 12yo has more heft, a lovely touch of adobe/wet plaster, hedge clippings then lime and coffee, but good concentration on the palate. Both are well worth a look.

Cocktail-wise, I recently bumped into Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey and nicest man in bourbon, and decided the best way to celebrate his distillery’s acquisition by Campari was with a Boulevardier. For newcomers it’s 4.5cl bourbon (Wild Turkey 8yo 101° in this case), 3cl Campari, 3cl Carpano Antica Formula, stirred and either strained or served on the rocks. Yes, it’s a bourbon Negroni, but actually predates that gin classic (in print) by two decades.

For more information like this I’d also recommend grabbing a copy of the new edition of Ted Haigh’s marvellous Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Quarry Books, £13.

Drams in the Dutch Bible Belt

The Veldenbos hotel is a neat and tidy 3-star establishment in Nunspeet, central Holland. Nearby are villages in which people used to get stoned. Nothing unusual in that you may think – it’s Holland after all. But they were stoned for commiting adultery. This is Holland’s own Bible Belt, which makes the Veldenbos’s Heerenkamer Bar all the more remarkable – this is a hard-core whisky bar with 400 single malts on offer.

When owner Wim Wanelink bought the hotel, he knew he had to create a point of difference to make the Veldenbos stand out among the 12 hotels that compete for trade here. ‘I knew a whisky bar might work,’ he recalls, ‘but the bank said no to lending, so I asked the town’s clubs to invest €1,000 each for three years in return f
or four free parties a year – 41 signed up, which paid for the bar.’

The day I visited, the bar was full and it is regularly filled with groups drawn there by service and whisky. The Heerenkamer is that unlikely thing, a destination bar that is now largely driving the hotel’s business.

I stood in the wood-panelled, leather-upholstered interior and was reminded of any one of the myriad Scottish hotels, but with one difference – that bar. Despite whisky tourism being on the rise, there’s still an astounding indifference on the part of Scottish hoteliers to their national spirit. Whereas Wanelink saw a gap, saw potential and raised the game. We need more like him.; +31 341 252334

Planet Broom… Dave is currently recovering from the Clan Gathering. 47,000 kilts, 7,500 drams and a woman who made sporrans from ducks.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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