In the humble opinion of this New Yorker, the U.S. spirit market is reminiscent of a subway during rush hour – crowded like a cattle car. At least, this is what I’ve observed unscientifically in my neighborhood liquor stores, as well as booze industry magazines. This past weekend, I was proved correct at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, where over 100 brands came together for an industry sneak peek.
The event played host to all of the heavy hitters (brands like Bacardi), but also smaller companies making strides in the market (such as Jack from Brooklyn). And as I looked around at the sea of brands, I noticed something: some of them have been around for centuries. This got me thinking. How do classic spirit brands remain relevant with such a crowded liquor market? Good news for spirits lovers - here are three brands featured at the Classic with a rich history and quality in the bottle!
1) The Italian Pick-Me-Up
Molinari Sambuca, the first family of Sambuca, had partnered with LavAzza to offer the thankful Classic audience a fantastic espresso bar. A staple in many Italian homes, Sambuca is an anise and spice-flavored Italian liqueur traditionally served neat with three floating coffee beans. There was no disputing it: the quality was top notch, with a smooth and rich flavor that made it very easy to drink, even at 11:00 am. The sometimes overwhelming anise notes were not overpowering at all, but rather subtle. The Molinari lightly sweetened the espresso and gave it a hint of liquorice perfection. And at $26.99, it’s not a bad addition to my liquor cabinet.
Fourth-generation Giorgio Cristiani Molinari, currently the U.S. brand manager, was there to talk about his family’s history. Molinari Sambuca was created in 1945 by his great grandfather, Angelo. While Molinari is the number one-selling Sambuca in the world, they have some stiff competition. I asked Giorgio what he and his family are doing to stay relevant in the U.S. market, especially as Sambuca isn’t every bartender’s go-to spirit. “We have the quality in our product that stands the test of time,” said Giorgio. “We are working with bartenders and have great cocktails available.”
In addition to those great cocktails, Molinari is creating partnerships with brands like LavAzza to show the U.S. market that Sambuca is a necessity for the American bar. While the brand has created a large list of cocktails that are easy to make on- and off-premise, the Molinari Sambuca is still made from the highest quality ingredients, and that pretty much speaks for itself. Plus, it’s a delicious way to enjoy your meal.
2) The Scottish Sweet Spot
I made the rounds with other spirits and came across Drambuie. A honey, herb and spice-infused whiskey from Scotland, Drambuie story began when Prince Charles fled England to Scotland in 1746. As the story goes, the prince gifted the family who sheltered him the recipe for his prized drink. And that’s how Drambuie came to be.
In 2011, the company released Drambuie 15, which takes a selection of 15 Year Old Speyside Malts blended with honey, herbs and spicy aromas to create Drambuie’s famous secret recipe. The whiskey was perfectly neat, with citrus on the nose and a velvety flavor with a touch of butterscotch. Their brand ambassador told me Drambuie is focusing on on-premise accounts and making great cocktails, including margaritas (substitute the orange liqueur for Drambuie). But, at a price point of $59, Drambuie is more of an introduction to scotch to be sipped by the American consumer.
3) The Portuguese Mixer
I came across the Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto from Portugal, a brand that was founded over 200 years ago. While port is often used in classic cocktails, from mulled wine to sangria, the market has become increasingly competitive over the last few years. So, I asked the representative at the table, what is Sandeman doing to stand out?
Turns out, they’re having fun! Working with mixologists like Jonathan Pogash and Jason Littrell from Death & Co., Sandeman has developed fun and interesting cocktails to keep the brand relevant for on- and off-premise accounts. At $19, the Founders Reserve is a fun way to mix. Jonathan Pogash was behind the bar and showed off a new carbonated creation, the Sandeman Porto’s Founders Fizz, headlining the brand’s carbonated beverage program, with a recipe contest running through June.
It is clear these three brands lean on mixology as a way to stay in the spotlight, yet they also continue to use the best ingredients with legacy to back it up. Poor quality won’t last the test of time. As long as these products, and others like them, can maintain their quality ingredients, and stay current with the mixology du jour, they’ll stay on top of the market and, we hope, in our bars.