15 Spirits and Cocktail Ingredients Made by Bartenders, for Bartenders
Mixing cocktail after cocktail, bartenders get a pretty good sense of what makes a quality spirit or cocktail ingredient. From flavor mixing potential to the little things like ergonomic design that a layperson might not notice, some products just work better behind the bar than others. Rather than wait around for companies to happen upon the perfect design or flavor, some bartenders have taken the matter into their own hands, crafting custom spirits and ingredients for their professional peers and home bartenders alike. Here are 15 of our favorites.
Ryan Magarian was one of the first bartenders to throw his hat into the liquor production ring. Part of the cocktail revival of the early aughts from his position at Kathy Casey Food Studios in Seattle, Magarian was excited to discover a new gin from Portland, OR in 2005 that dialed back the juniper—which made it easier to mix in a cocktail. He travelled to meet Christian Krogstad of House Spirits Distillery and helped him craft what would be the first of many new American gins. Aviation features a “democratic” blend of botanicals where all flavors have equal billing.
The 86 Co.’s founding members read like a bartending all-star team: Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric of the eternal Employees Only in New York, former bartender and brand rep Simon Ford (who arguably invented the position of spirits brand ambassador), and Malte Barnekow of Pernod Ricard and The Absolut Spirits Company. Ford and Barnekow hatched the concept for a bartender-focused spirits company in the back of Employees Only, and went on to craft a gin, vodka, rum and tequila, all meant for mixing. The spirits are tested in classic cocktails with a mind towards balance and texture, and the crew constantly gathers feedback from bartenders to perfect their recipes.
Campo de Encanto
San Francisco has a special relationship with pisco—it was the first U.S. city to import the Peruvian unaged brandy in the mid-19th century. So it makes sense that Bay Area bartender Duggan McDonnell of Cantina, along with sommelier Walter Moore and distiller Carlos Romero, should develop a pisco of his own. McDonnell’s pisco, which launched in 2010, hasn’t just won fans stateside, though; it also won top honors at the Comisión Nacional del Pisco of Peru’s grand championship in Lima. The spirit works great in a Pisco Sour or Pisco Punch, the very cocktails that took hold of Californians 150 years ago.
Before SoCo won accolades among frat bros for its smooth chugability, the spirit was a local favorite around 19th century New Orleans. Bartender Martin Wilkes Heron of McCauley's Tavern developed the recipe in 1874 to help make harsh whiskey more drinkable, and sold his “Cuffs and Buttons” spiced whiskey to his local customers. Eventually, demand grew until Heron bottled his creation into a fledgling brand, which he renamed Southern Comfort—and which the frat bros renamed SoCo about a century after its invention.
Another early bartender-cum-product designer, Gary “Gaz” Regan developed Regans’ Orange Bitters out of necessity because no orange bitters were available in the early 1990s. One of the early adopters of the cocktail movement, Regan wanted orange bitters to make the classic recipes he found in old cocktail tomes back when the majority of the drinking public had never heard of bitters at all. Together with his wife Mardee (note the plural possessive in the brand name), Regan developed his orange bitters from a recipe he recovered from Charles H. Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion. With a little R&D help from The Sazerac Company team, Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 became a necessity on every bar during the craft cocktail movement.
Early in the cocktail revival, Giuseppe Gallo understood the appeal of classic Italian drinks, mixing Negronis at a time when the cocktail was still fresh and impressive in the cocktail world. After bartending and managing at the Sanderson Hotel in London, Gallo gained fame as a brand ambassador for the Bacardi-Martini group and won Best International Brand Ambassador at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014. At Tales three years later, his new spirit Italicus won the award for Best New Spirit/Cocktail Ingredient and may be his greatest contribution to the bar world. Like his work popularizing the Negroni, Gallo resurrected in Italicus a forgotten style of Italian aperitif called Rosolio. Though Gallo worked off of 18th century recipes for this drink of Italian royalty, he updated the Italicus taste for modern bartenders to use in place of vermouth and more widely in cocktails.
After working together at a series of popular London watering holes, Ged Feltham, Jake Burger and Paul Lane launched the Ginstitute in 2010 to further educate the drinking public about the country’s native spirit. But the team also decided to put their money where their mouth is by creating a custom gin on-site. While bar professionals still ought to travel to London to experience the monolithic all-in-one bar/store/museum/distillery, the gin came to the United States in 2015 for Americans to enjoy.
Seattle bartender Miles Thomas of Tavern Law literally bleeds for the bar—he once took a bullet in the arm while fending off a would-be robber at Serafina—so it makes sense he would go hard on a line of bitters for his bartending brethren. Marketed as the “bartender’s choice” of bitters, the Scrappy’s Line includes 10 different kinds: lavender, chocolate, grapefruit, orange, cardamom, celery, lime, aromatic, black lemon and “Orleans Bitters,” as well as a spicy habanero-infused Firewater Tincture. The brand even makes sets of mini-bottles for amateur bartenders just starting on their road toward drink mastery.
Bartending husband and wife team Jon and Lindsay Yeager kept their bitters in the family by naming them for their daughter. Endorsed by Regan (“there’s nothing else like them on the market as far as I’m aware”), they revive magnolia as an ingredient in bitters after it was used as a flavoring agent way back in the 1860s. The bitters also speak to the continuing opportunities for bartenders to market their own products in the modern cocktail industry.
While Japanese gin may have broken onto the cocktail scene in 2017, Dee Davies was already interested in a Japanese twist on the juniper spirit way back in 2013. When Diageo invited hundreds of bartenders across Western Europe to develop a new spirit for their Reserve Brand portfolio in the Show Your Spirit competition, Davies concocted a hybrid of gin and sake (all the botanical flavor of gin with a creaminess from the sake), which is infused with both typical British botanicals as well as flavors from Japan like cherry blossom and yuzu. Officially launched by Diageo in 2014, Jinzu created a whole new category that helps bartenders bridge the gap between traditional sake and craft cocktails.
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry is a tiki god—he helped to relaunch and bring credence to the tropical drinks genre from his famed New Orleans bar Latitude 29. His branded orgeat, which he had developed by another tiki scion Adam Kolesar (aka Tiki Adam), is the perfect almond syrup for Latitude 29’s own Mai Tai. After Berry was satisfied with Tiki Adam’s work on the orgeat, he commissioned a branded falernum as well so that tiki bartenders around the country can make the classics just like Beachbum himself.
Another husband and wife team—Max Messier of Kingfish and Lauren Myerscough of Maurepas Foods—launched four signature syrups and concentrates to make craft cocktailing a tad easier for bars and home bartenders. Their four signature syrups, including Spiced Demerara, Oleo Saccharum, Honeysuckle & Peppercorn, and Mint & Lemon Verbena, have since been joined by seasonal offerings like King Cake syrup for Mardi Gras and Fassionola syrup, which is necessary for some lost tiki gems.