Bartenders Share What It Takes to Launch a Spirit
For most bartenders, the need to create — the need to produce something that has the potential to delight, invigorate conversation, or even mystify — is a major contributing factor to why they first stepped behind the stick in the first place.
Over time, though, and as bartenders’ careers advance, that creative drive can be taken in new ways. It might be more creative menus, or, like some bartenders who also possess an entrepreneurial spirit that is urging their creative drive along like a Kentucky Derby jockey, it might take the form of products to be sold to bartenders, bars and the general public.
For some, like Max Messier, Founder and Owner of Cocktail & Sons, the wish to make a product was born of his time bartending. When Messier started bartending in 2008, he says, he was drawn to fine dining and the ethnic culinary fusion that was going on around him.
“I was exposed to Sichuan peppercorns, dried honeysuckle, meadowsweet, dragon fruit, togarashi, et cetera,” Messier says. “Those elements served as components for the majority of cocktail programs I would build in the years to follow. I wrote everything down in my trusty recipe book and then, fast-forward to 2015, my partner and I dusted off that recipe book and worked up those recipes in component syrups for classic cocktails.”
Cocktail & Sons produces four core cocktail syrups (spiced demerara, oleo saccharum, honeysuckle and peppercorn, and mint and lemon verbena) as well as a number of season syrups which include King Cake syrup, a nod to the company’s New Orleans roots, and Switchel, a summer syrup whose recipe dates to the 1800s.
For others, like Eric “ET” Tecosky, Founder and Owner of Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice, the push to make a quality product predated his time behind the stick.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. I actually created my first product before I was a bartender,” Tecosky says. As a young kid, his family watched Eagles games and his father would always add flavor to his pizza with a specific blend of spices. At one point, he asked his father flat out why he didn’t just prepare the spice mixture in advance.
“Thus was born Pizza Put On. By the time I got to high school, we were selling Pizza Put On to small local grocery stores, handing it out to people in the neighborhood, et cetera.”
Now, Tecosky runs Dirty Sue, which bottles premium, twice-filtered olive juice for cocktails like Dirty Martinis, Bloody Marys and Micheladas. They also have a line of cocktail garnishes including bleu cheese-stuffed olives and jalapeño-stuffed cocktail onions.
When it came time to create Dirty Sue, Tecosky took the route that Jamie Boudreau and James O. Fraioli of Seattle’s Canon take. As they say in “The Canon Cocktail Book,” they create items out of necessity: “Every once in awhile we come across a recipe that calls for a liqueur we can’t get locally; or the quality of what is available isn’t up to our standards. Then we feel the need to recreate it ourselves.
“One constant in bartending is that you run out of olive juice well before you run out of olives. On one particularly busy night, after running out of olive juice again, I’d just had it. I looked over to my buddy I was working with and said ‘How come nobody bottles this stuff?’ Just like that the light bulb come on and a brand was born,” Tecosky says.
Regardless of how these bartenders got their start, one of the main things that they keep in mind when produce their wares is quality.
“A steak at a dorm cafeteria is probably not as tasty as a steak at a five-star restaurant. I was going for the five-star olive juice. Many trips were made to the olive farm and many rides home were very long due to not getting the recipe just right, until we did,” Tecosky says.
To get to that five-star point, the products have had to go through multiple testing rounds, from friends and family to bartender panels who helped, for Messier, helped tweak his syrups until they were perfect.
“Before we launched the company, I sent out samples to a core group of bartenders for their feedback. Based on their input we tweaked and tweaked and tweaked several recipes to get the right balance and consistency for each syrup,” he says.
Beyond testing, there are other possible issues to consider. First and one that cannot be ignored is funding.
“No one had bottled olive juice before so I was cautious about raising a ton of money for something that may not work. But I knew it would work and should’ve trusted that,” Tecosky says. “Having more money in the beginning would have given me the opportunity to get out there more to shows. We eventually got there; it just took a bit longer.”
Second, knowing finding the right talent will help a business grow at the right rate.
“For a start-up niche business like ours it was crucial to bring in people with some expertise in gastronomy and cocktails. For production, culinary-trained professionals are highly desirable because of their tireless work ethics and skillsets,” Messier says.
If you’re thinking of taking your own products to the next level, Messier and Tecosky have a few pieces of advice. First, do your homework.
“Appreciate the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. Use your network to find contacts, et cetera,” Messier says.
In addition, Tecosky says, it’s important to know that it isn’t going to be easy.
“Having started companies since I was young, I certainly never had illusions that it would be easy, but there’s a difference between a little neighborhood company with your dad and building a brand that puts you in a position to partner with huge companies like P.F. Chang’s.”
At the end of the day, though, it’s important to remember the sky’s the limit, even when it may not feel like it.
“Even in those moments where you’re sure you’re going to lose your mind, the great thing about being in drinks business is that there really is no recession. When the world is happy, the world drinks. And when the world is in the dumps, the world drinks,” Tecosky says.