When it comes to creating new products for use in cocktails, you’d think bartenders would dominate: After all, it’s their job to know exactly how to mix up delicious ingredients into delightful libations.
Among all the spirits, syrups, bitters and mixers out there on the market, surprisingly few were created by actual working bartenders. But that doesn’t mean bartenders make bad cocktail ingredients! Here are a few great mixologist-created products you should seek out—they prove that when it’s bottled by a bartender, it’s probably worth drinking.
Los Angeles bartender Eric Tecosky, who runs the Hollywood joint Jones and serves as a Jack Daniel’s brand ambassador, loves Dirty Martinis. But after seeing one too many bartenders fish around in olive jars with their bare hands or pour brine from a filthy garnish tray back into the jar at the end of the night, he decided he needed to do something about the cocktail’s most important ingredient. The result was Dirty Sue, a bottled olive juice with a nice balance of salt and spice for consistently tasty Dirty Martinis and Bloody Marys. If you order a Dirty Martini in a nice cocktail bar today, you’ll more than likely get Dirty Sue, and Tecosky has also expanded the line to include a variety of savory garnishes—olives, peppers and cocktail onions stuffed with everything from blue cheese to sun-dried tomato and garlic. The products are now in stores in 15 states (and will be nationwide by next spring), and you can order them all on Amazon.
COCKTAIL & SONS
For years working as a bartender in New York and later New Orleans, Max Messier built a side hustle creating custom syrups and cordials for his fellow mixologists. But a couple years ago, he decided to turn his attentions to the home bar and teamed up with his wife (and a fellow bar veteran), Lauren Myerscough, to create Cocktail & Sons, a line of creative syrups that can go into simple highballs or complex craft cocktails. The core flavors include Honeysuckle & Peppercorn Syrup, which is wonderful with whiskey, tequila and mezcal, and Mint & Lemon Verbena Syrup, a great lighter partner for vodka, gin or rum. But you should also keep an eye out for seasonal special editions. This summer saw the release of Haymaker’s Punch, a bottled, carbonated mixer made from a maple, ginger, citrus and vinegar switchel mixed with rooibos tea that you can still find both in stores and on the Cocktail & Sons website. And keep an eye out in the spring for the rerelease of King Cake Syrup, a cinnamony seasonal confection that’ll be available before Mardi Gras.
BROVO PROJECT AMARO
Seattle’s Brovo Spirits wasn’t started by a bartender, but its slogan is “by bartenders, for bartenders.” There’s a mixologist behind the formula of each one of its cocktail-friendly vermouths and liqueurs. That’s nowhere more obvious than in Project Amaro, a series of 25 (and counting) different amari created by bartenders in five cities. Each bottling starts with the same base—a barrel-aged rhubarb infusion—and then the bartenders are given free reign to craft their own unique bitter liqueurs. Though each amaro starts as a local limited edition, three have become so popular that they’re now available in all 25 states where Brovo is distributed: Amaro #1, a citrusy aperitivo by Seattle’s John Ueding; Amaro #4, a citrus-hibiscus combo with a big Cayenne pepper finish by Seattle’s Patrick Haight; and Amaro #14, a rich chocolate-and-thyme digestivo by Chicago’s Mike Ryan.
Born and raised in Europe as an Army brat, Billy Ray got his start in bartending in London and then worked in a variety of cocktail spots around the US. After settling in Los Angeles, he earned fame creating drinks for high-end Hollywood parties and the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, Ray has created cocktail programs for a long list of bars as a consultant and spread the whiskey love as a Woodford Reserve and Old Forester brand ambassador, and earlier this year he got into the artisanal-mixer business with Mixwell. The line of canned, cocktail-friendly craft sodas—a dandelion-spiked tonic water, a spicy ginger ale with a basil-lemongrass kick and and a rich and floral grapefruit soda—makes for a very tasty just-add-alcohol drink. And the innovative (and patented) lid, which will hold carbonation on an open can for at least 48 hours, makes these ideal for both busy bartenders and regular folks who might only want one drink at a time. Mixwell is currently in stores and bars throughout California and Nevada, with availability in Texas and online in the works for early next year. Oh, and 1 percent of sales go to help bartenders in need.
Charles Joly might be the most illustrious bartender in Chicago’s history. He built the legendary futuristic cocktail program at The Aviary with chef Grant Achatz, which led to a James Beard Award, a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award and high-profile gigs making drinks at the Grammys, the Oscars and the Kentucky Derby. (He was also the global champion of Diageo’s prestigious World Class competition in 2014.) With Crafthouse, Joly’s bringing the experience of having one of his drinks to the world outside his bars. Most pre-bottled cocktails are artificially flavored garbage, but these are made with only real, all-natural ingredients and really do taste freshly made. Crafthouse focuses on classics, with a Moscow Mule, a Paloma and a Southside available now and a Gold Rush on the way soon, all of which you can find in stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in a growing number of states, as well as on select United flights. Joly also just launched Crafthouse by Fortessa, a line of bar tools that’s available at Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide.
Today, there’s a staggering selection of artisanal bitters on the shelf at any fancy liquor store, but back in 2005, at the beginning of the rebirth of cocktail culture, there wasn’t much beyond Angostura and Peychaud’s. Nonetheless, that’s when Seattle bartender Miles Thomas started a series of experiments in making a better bitters. His creations thrilled his customers, and in 2008, the commercial version of Scrappy’s was born. You can now find Scrappy’s all over the world, in a dozen flavors ranging from the scorching Firewater Habanero Tincture to the bright-and-fresh Lavender Bitters. Oh, and how’s this for badass? Thomas earned the nickname Scrappy after he stood up to an armed robber late one night in his bar and literally took a bullet for his profession.
CAMPO DE ENCANTO PISCO
The South American brandy pisco has been unexpectedly popular in San Francisco ever since the Gold Rush. In the first decade of the 2000s, at his now-closed bar Cantina, Duggan McDonnell assembled what was at the time the largest selection of pisco in the US, meeting master pisco distiller Carlos Romero in the process. The duo teamed up with Walter Moore, a wine expert McDonnell had worked with at a previous bar, to create their own pisco brand and launched Campo de Encanto to wide acclaim in 2010. It currently offers four different spirits, including the new Bakeep’s Whimsy, a cocktail-friendly blend of brandies created by groups of bartenders Campo de Encanto took to Peru to learn about pisco production. There’s also Bank Exchange Pineapple Cordial, a non-alcoholic mixer ideal for making Pisco Punch. You can now find Campo de Encanto piscos in 20 US states and 11 countries around the world.
THE 86 CO.
With a portfolio of vodka, gin, tequila and rum, The 86 Co. can practically stock an entire bar by itself. And that’s kind of the idea: The company was started by a trio of notable bartenders—Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, who co-own New York’s famed Employees Only, and Simon Ford, who traveled the world as a brand ambassador for spirits giant Pernod-Ricard for nearly two decades—as a low-cost, high-quality set of well spirits, made by notable distillers in Panama, Mexico, the UK and the US. Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Ford’s Gin, Caña Brava Rum and Tequila Cabeza all come in the same special bottle, designed to be bartender-friendly in all sorts of ways, including grip-friendly features on the top, middle and bottom of the bottle, printed measurement scales in both milliliters and ounces, and easy-to-remove labels that allow them to be reused for syrups and such. Keep an eye out for the newest addition to the portfolio, a 7-year-old Caña Brava Reserva Añeja Rum that’s great for tiki drinks.
WATCH JASON BLIND TASTE TEST BOTTOM-SHELF VODKA