Call them gastro-distilleries, still-bars or distillery pubs, there’s a new concept emerging in the on-premise cocktail arena. These are hybrid operations combining a fully functional distillery with a bar and restaurant service.
There are just a handful of these crossbreeds scattered around the country. But as more states loosen laws and regulations about tasting rooms, we’ll be seeing more still-bars debuting and competing for consumers’ cocktail dollars.
Law and orders
“Just a couple of years ago, regulations in many states allowed distillers to pour 1⁄4-oz. samples and that was it. Consumers couldn’t even buy a bottle to go,” explains Margie Lehrman, executive director of the American Craft Spirits Association. “But now tasting rooms are growing into full-service restaurants.”
Lehrman cites a number of examples: Driftless Glen in Baraboo, WI; District Distilling in Washington, D.C.; CH Distilling in Chicago; and Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington, IN.
The pioneer was Bardenay Restaurant Distillery, which opened in 2000, shortly after Idaho changed its laws to allow distilleries to serve food. Now Bardenay is a three-unit chain with a fourth distillery/restaurant slated to open in Colorado, where regulations have also loosened.
Is this a trend? “People are waiting to see how the first couple of distillery/restaurants work out, but it could turn into a trend like brewpubs,” says Todd Thrasher. The noted mixologist will open The Potomac Distilling Co. this August with a three-level restaurant, bar and distillery at The Wharf on Washington, D.C.’s waterfront.
For distillers, creating a hybrid operation holds a number of advantages. “While we focus on the on-premise experience, selling cocktails and pints across the bar, there is a finite amount of business you can do in a restaurant—there’s only so many seats,” notes Eric Michaud, owner of Liquid Riot Bottling Co., Brewery, Distillery and Resto-Bar in Portland, ME.
Liquid Riot also sells its products to local bars and restaurants and in retail shops. Thanks to an on-premise retail shop, Liquid Riot’s dinner guests can also take home a few bottles of spirits or a case of beer. Those are all add-on sales.
The impressive-looking stills also provide entertainment value and the opportunity for consumers to watch them in operation.
“We have a custom German-made Carl still, and our intimate tasting room provides beautiful views of the production area showcasing that equipment,” says Zack Ohebshalom, cofounder of Asbury Park Distilling Co. Opened in May 2017, Asbury Park is the first and only craft distillery in New Jersey located in a commercial area, says Ohebshalom. All other distilleries in the state are currently confined to industrially zoned properties, making them less accessible to the public.
“We feel that people love—and pay for—experiences more and more,” says Rob Masters, head distiller at The Family Jones Spirit House in Denver. The distillery and tasting room, with a bar and kitchen hybrid coined the Bitchen, opened in November. “An opportunity to drink a cocktail made with spirits made on a still located directly in front of them is one hell of an experience,” Masters says.
“When guests walk in they can see the beer and spirits production happening behind glass,” says Liquid Riot’s Michaud. Guests enjoy the entertainment, he adds, comparing it to the open-kitchen trend in restaurants.
Operating a distillery, of course, has an impact upon cocktail programs.
“The major difference is that at Potomac Distilling, most of the rum cocktails will feature Thrasher’s Rum,” says the owner. That includes the Mister Fancy Pants, made with Thrasher’s white rum, Cocchi American, Lusteau Pedro Ximenez sherry and clarified pineapple juice; Feel Better and Get Well, which combines Powers Irish whiskey, Thrasher’s gold rum, Thrasher’s Falernum and lime bitters.
Thrasher’s Green Garden rum is created with herbs from the complex’s rooftop garden and will be featured in a Rum & Tonic. Potomac Distilling cocktails are priced from $11 to $15.
“By state law, we are prohibited from utilizing any alcohol outside of what we produce on the premises, so we must make everything in-house, thus offering a true ‘craft experience,’” says Ohebshalom. Asbury Park not only produces spirits, but also tonics, syrups, tinctures and bitters—it even grows some of its garnishes.
The cocktails, priced from $10 to $12, include the Bartender’s Breakfast, with Asbury Park vodka, cold brew coffee and orange poblano syrup, and Danger Zone, with Asbury Park gin, pear, candied ginger, pomegranate tonic syrup and rosemary.
“We can adjust the flavor profiles, proof, etc., of our spirits to fit the preferences of our bartenders,” says Michaud. Liquid Riot produces more than a dozen spirits, from rum and whiskeys to bierschnaps and agave and fernet, as well as shrubs, syrups and bitters. “We can make a cocktail entirely in-house.”
Popular drinks include the Shrub Down, with Old Port straight bourbon and house-made autumn berry shrub, and the Endless Summer cocktail, with Fernet Michaud with lime juice and pineapple syrup.
“The Family Jones Spirit House operates a truly scratch bar,” says Masters, including a handful of ever-changing modifiers for the cocktails including triple sec, coffee liqueur and lavender liqueur. An Amaretto sour variation is spiced up with the addition of a house-made Colorado pine amaretto, while “the house-made crème de violet and crème de cacao add a unique twist to a classic Martini,” he notes.
The best-selling drink at Family Jones is the Rock & Rye, which consists of StopGap rye whiskey infused with warming spices, dried fruit and citrus peels ($13).
Next up is the Avocado Daiquiri, a riff on the classic using avocado, passionfruit, lime juice and simple syrup ($9), and The Thief in the Garden, made with rye whiskey, carrot, ginger and turmeric shrub for $13.
What can regular, non-distilling restaurant and bar operators learn from these hybrids? Short of firing up their own stills, they can collaborate with local distillers and feature them at the bar.
Lehrman suggests that restaurants operating food trucks could park near distilleries that lack other food options. If you can’t beat them, join them.
“Always push to find new experiences for the guest, find a way to stand out from the rest of the world,” advises Masters. “Support your local producers,” says Michaud. “We are all in this together.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.