How the bespoke bar became the most meticulous chef’s final frontier.

By Oset Babür
September 23, 2020
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Credit: David Benthal

Diners across major cities are no longer surprised to see hyper-seasonal menus that seamlessly shift to make use of the freshest, best ingredients available. Paul Monahan, chief operating officer at Matchbook Distilling Company on Long Island, believes beverage programs can be just as nimble. His solution? Custom house spirits. “When we meet with chefs or operators, we ask about the type of flavors they’re serving on their menus,” he says. “We’re into the idea of chefs curating [alcoholic flavors] to complement their menus.”

For Matt Danzer and Ann Redding of New York City’s Thai Diner and recently shuttered Uncle Boons, the prospect of building a bar designed specifically to amplify the flavors in their restaurants—from lemongrass to pandan—proved exciting. “It all started with Mekhong, which is a Thai whiskey. By American standards, it would be considered a rum,” Danzer says. “We started looking for alternatives because we couldn’t get it in the U.S.” By working with Matchbook to nail down a flavor profile, Danzer and Redding created a house spiced rum and, eventually, five other custom spirits, from a lemongrass vodka to a green-cardamom gin. Additionally, Matchbook helps chefs source produce for their custom spirits, like sweet potatoes, watermelon, or berries, which are specifically harvested from local farms, and also partners those chefs with a Rolodex of vendors who assist with choosing unique bottle shapes, stoppers, and branding for each bottle.

While custom spirits enable detail-oriented chefs to refine yet another aspect of the guest experience, they’re also paving the way for innovation and resourcefulness. In Portland, Oregon, Kachka co-owners Bonnie and Israel Morales are collaborating with Martin Ryan Distilling Company, maker of Aria Gin, to produce bottles of their personal recipe for Kachka Horseradish Vodka; Kachka Lavka, their pre-pandemic deli and grocery, was set up to be a vodka tasting room, where guests could also purchase bottles to take home. Recently, when Monahan and his team came across a nearby dairy farm that had large amounts of whey to dispose of, they used it to create two different spirits (one using grapefruit and the other rhubarb) for zero-waste cocktail bar Hunky Dory in Brooklyn.

Matchbook’s distillates also satisfy beverage director Piper Kristensen’s insatiable thirst for experimentation at tiny Brooklyn hot spot Oxalis. “Anytime we have a new seasonal distillate, we just send them six bottles,” Monahan says. “Like last year, we had a beautiful cherry blossom distillate.” Oxalis’ seasonal cocktails are nothing out of a standard bartender’s manual, instead utilizing ingredients like Bësk (a Swedish liqueur reminiscent of absinthe) and medicinal desert broom; for hospitality professionals like Kristensen, cracking the code on how to work esoteric, bespoke booze into his back bar is a thrilling challenge.

Even so, custom spirit creation, which can cost anywhere from $20 to $60 per bottle with Matchbook Distilling Company, is significantly more labor-intensive than placing an order for cases of gin or vodka from a regional distributor. “I will bug you with approval requests for labels, colors, everything,” Monahan says, laughing. “But if you want to extend your brand, what better way than creating a proprietary spirit that people have to come to you for? Guests today are so inclined to be adventurous with food. Let’s give them the opportunity to be adventurous with drinks, too.”

Want to create your own custom spirit? Matchbook Distilling Company hosts a gin experience on Saturday afternoons throughout the year. Learn more at mdcdropshop.com.