The Rise of Subscription-Based Booze — And What It Means for Bartenders

A small jug contains red liquid and says "Instapour" on the bottle, next to a wine glass with a red cocktail and ice, next to a bottle of rum.

DVDs and razor blades aren't the only things you can get delivered to your doorstep with hands-off, hassle-free monthly subscription plans. Blue Apron and their competitors have taken the world by storm with the meals-in-a-box concept, delivering recipes and instructions with fresh ingredients. The booze world took notice, of course, and now there's a growing number of subscription and delivery services for spirits and cocktails alike.

The proliferation has been swift, with spirits and samplers being represented by the likes of Flaviar, Taster's Club, and Mouth, and cocktail kit delivery being offered by companies including SaloonBox, Instapour, Bartisanal, Cocktail Courier, Shaken and Crafted Taste, just to name a few. (Not to mention the growing realm of delivery booze apps partnered with local retailers.)

Booze of the month

The idea of the monthly food and drink club itself isn't a new one, and whether it's wine or craft beer, jerky or hot sauce, most people have probably gifted or received one of these in the past. In the same vein, services like Flaviar offer small tasters of several spirits with each monthly delivery. This allows customers to try something new without investing in a whole bottle of something they've never tasted before.

"People want to know more about what they drink, develop their personal taste and explore spirits beyond what's widely available," says Grisa Soba, co-founder of Flaviar. "And that's what they get from Flaviar. Also, the number of craft producers is growing, and we can provide access to them."

Beyond providing access, Flaviar also showcases personalized recommendations based on taste profiles, visualized tasting notes and descriptions, and other educational tools. "We're not just an online retailer, but a liquor advocate to our members," says Soba. If customers enjoyed a sample they received, they can also snag a full bottle from Flaviar, or look for deals on a curated selection of other spirits, similar to a service such as Caskers.

But does a business like Flaviar inspire consumers to venture out to bars, or does it leave them satisfied with what they have at home? It's certainly cheaper than buying full bottles or ordering the same quantity and quality of booze from a bar. So is that good or bad?

"I think it definitely helps more than it hurts a place like Jack Rose," says Trevor Frye, Beverage Director at Jack Rose Dining Saloon and co-founder of Dram & Grain. "Our guests being excited about whiskey is what we want. I think that it helps develop their palate so that we can better provide suggestions when they come in. Being able to cite a really specific whiskey as something they like... really allows our staff to dial into what about the whiskey they like."

"We encourage our members to taste new things and develop their taste," says Soba. "Once they experience this, our members are more likely to try new things in all situations, be it at a bar, liquor store or when traveling."

Cocktail delivery

Cocktail delivery services are, of course, inherently different than a sampler or tasting club. Á la the Blue Apron model, everything needed to make a cocktail is included — the booze, the extra ingredients, and the recipe and instructions to follow.

For would-be home bartenders, making new cocktails tends to have a huge price point unless the bar is already well stocked, requiring the purchase of multiple bottles, occasionally obscure liqueurs or bitters and various extras. Cocktail delivery kits eliminate that financial crush while offering fun recipes to try on an ongoing basis. As with any subscription and delivery service, the laissez-faire approach requires no trips to the store and no research, making it easier for consumers to get involved.

"For those that already love craft cocktails, SaloonBox serves as an opportunity to try multiple types of spirits and brands without spending lots of money on full size bottles," says Samantha Spector, founder of SaloonBox. "It’s also an opportunity to have a curated series of recipes ... And for those who are unfamiliar with craft cocktails, we take some of the intimidation factor out of mixology."

For SaloonBox, it's a priority to ensure that ingredients arrive fresh. "Our fruit ingredients are wrapped and placed in a box filled with paper shred for padding," says Spector. They also ship quickly and with tracking codes to help prevent missed deliveries. "We've tested and considered other alternatives such as sending citrus juice, but it ends up being not fresh tasting after being stored in a plastic bottle and our customers prefer to feel like a real mixologist and do the cutting and juicing themselves."

Instapour takes a different approach, though. "Instapour was born from the idea of blending mixology and technology to make it easier than ever to enjoy the craft cocktail experience at home," says CEO Paul Steketee. "Instead of delivering all of the individual grocery components necessary to make one of our flavorful craft cocktails, which often contain eight to 10 ingredients, we do all of the blending, infusing, straining, steaming, and mixing, and we put all that mixology magic into each and every bottle we pour."

Their customers receive "ready to pour,” freshly prepared cocktails. "This allows us to deliver the exact craft cocktail taste we want, made directly by world-renowned mixology experts, and pair them perfectly with the select spirits we choose," says Steketee. "For instance, one of our most popular drinks, the Caliche Rum Pomagansett Punch, is 1 part Instapour [mix] and 1 part Caliche Rum, shaken with ice and garnished. We get our customers 'sipping in seconds' just like at their favorite bar."

While Instapour offers monthly cocktail kits, they also offer a "cocktails on demand" local delivery service in New York City and Los Angeles, with expansion to Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and Austin coming soon.

Whether SaloonBox, Instapour or one of their other competitors, recipes are generally being crafted by respected industry veterans. "Our goal is work with the best bartenders in the US and internationally," says SaloonBox's Spector. Each monthly kit from SaloonBox includes two new recipes, and each is from a new bartender. Meanwhile, Instapour has an in-house Chief Mixologist, Warren Hode, who has worked at or with establishments including Minetta Tavern, Bond Street and La Bernardin.

What does it mean for actual bartenders?

If somebody believes they're easily mastering recipes at home, do these services devalue the craft of bartending, or does it make consumers appreciate it more?

"Our customers definitely come away with greater appreciation for the craft of bartending," says Spector. "If our service was about adding a juice and a spirit and calling it mixology, then our customers would think bartending is super easy. However, because our subscribers have to put in some work into their cocktails and because we highlight the real deal in our newsletter from the actual bartender who created the cocktail, our customers see that craft bartending is an art form that requires time and effort to achieve perfection."

SaloonBox also offers opportunities to those in the industry to grow their personal brand or their bar's. "Overall, bartenders have been an extremely welcoming community," says Spector. "They are excited about a new venture that can get their name out on a much larger scale and they are excited to share their recipes."

The reaction from others who have not been involved with SaloonBox or similar services seems to realize the positive potential as well. "I believe that it will bring people closer to [the craft of mixology]," says Torrence Swain, head bartender at Bourbon Steak DC.

"Services like Blue Apron don't keep people from going out to eat, it just allows them to enjoy it at home. I want to think it will only deepen the appreciation for the craft, as well as educate. A large part of what we do as craft bartenders is educate ourselves, each other and our guests about cocktails. I feel that the more informed a person is, the more prepared they are to enjoy it."

Of course, the experience of enjoying a well-made drink has more to do with simply following a recipe. "I've handed out recipes left and right through the years for people, and inevitably, there are people coming back saying it didn't taste the same," says Jeff Faile, Bar & Sprits Director for The Neighborhood Restaurant Group. "I'm a firm believer in the drinks tasting a lot better in a good bar due to the atmosphere of said bar. Hospitality is the key!"

Instapour recognizes that too, and their pre-batched drinks aren't attempting to encroach upon the bar scene, either. "Mixology and assembling a cocktail from absolute scratch requires more than a gourmet Instapour 'ready to pour' blend and spirit of choice," says Steketee. "Instapour just gives them the ability to enjoy the same tastes at home without having to be that expert bartender."

Cocktail delivery and subscription booze services aren't going anywhere, that seems certain. And it's still too soon to come away with any clear idea of how consumers are changing their behavior as a result. But, early returns seem to indicate that the more adventurous and educated drinkers become, the more likely they will be to continue seeking out new things, expanding their palates and gaining interest in all things booze and cocktail related, both at home and at the bar.