There are so many new alcohols out on the market now. The infusion craze has new and exciting flavors, of everything imaginable. But what is best? Which has the best flavor? Which one should be carried in inventory of my bar? These are questions, that every bartender and bar manager, has to ask, in the present day, bar world. Most bars don’t have the storage, or the buying capacity to carry multiple versions of blueberry infused vodka. Probably 75% of bar managers will make inventory decisions either based on cost, or customer request.
This is the thought process behind the introduction of Liquor Wars, if I was buying inventory, and had to choose between 2 similar products, which would I choose? While working, if a customer asks, "What alcohol between those 2 mixes better with cola?" I should be able to answer. The bar, that I’m presently working, has great relationships with it's alcohol vendors. This enables us to get new products first, in wide varieties. We’re taking similar products, and putting them, head to head against each other, and judging them on a number of factors.
1. Brand recognition
Some liquors just sell due to their brand name. Is it made by a heavyweight? A Jack Daniels, Bacardi, label to name a few.
2. Bar Sales
All the products used, are products, I’m selling on a daily basis, right now. How well do they sell? Are they popular? What am I selling the most of?
3. Mix ability
We take all liquors, and blend them with 3 different mixers. Which blends well, with each? Which blends the best? We are mixing each with cola, sour, (of course, we will be using my sour.) and a fruit juice of our choosing. (Either cran, pineapple, or orange juice) We also sample each, in shot form. Straight up!
4. Bottle Presentation
Liquor companies are always changing labels and designs, because they want to stand out from the pack. In the stores, they want their bottle, to be different and noticeable when on a shelf, next to the competitor.
Which costs less, to the customer. In today’s economy, money is everything.
6. The X factor
Is there something unknown, that makes this product better or worse? Something different, that would cause the bartender/manager/customer to choose a certain brand first?
So this is liquor wars, as seen through the eyes of a working bartender. May the best liquor win!
1. Brand recognition.
Smirnoff vodka is the world's best-selling spirit, and the biggest brand by volume in the cabinet of drinks giant Diageo. Arch-rival Absolut may have the edge as far as trend-setting is concerned, but Smirnoff has size on its side. It is sold in more than 130 countries worldwide, with an overall lead enhanced by the fact that, for almost 30 years after the Second World War, it was virtually the only vodka available for purchase outside communist Russia.
Brand recognition winner: Smirnoff Cherry
2. Bar Sales.
If you go to RECIPES, and look at the recipe for a TONY’S TWISTED TEA, you will see that it includes 5 infused vodka flavors. Upon conception, this drink used the 5 flavors of vodka, sold under the Smirnoff “Twisted” Label at that time. This drink rapidly became my best selling “original” drink. So I have a sentimental attachment for Smirnoff. However, in the guidelines for judging, I stated that sales would be judged on what I’m selling. Of the 2, I sell more UV cherry than Smirnoff. The only time, I pour Smirnoff Cherry, is when I’m mixing a Twisted Tea, and run out of raspberry Smirnoff.
Bar Sales winner: UV Cherry
3. Mix ability:
Cola: When I tasted the Smirnoff, I had a taste that I could only describe as, being similar to cherry nut ice cream. The UV had the same flavor only more mellow and mild. I can only guess. that the stronger alcohol content of the Smirnoff, made the initial taste hit stronger. This stronger taste, blends better with cola. Advantage Smirnoff.
Sour: Mixed with my sour, the stronger alcohol content of the Smirnoff, which gave it the advantage with cola, sank the ship here. The flavor was reminiscent of the cherry cough syrup, my mom gave me as a child. While the UV’s milder flavor blended better, with the cherry after-taste, poking through. Advantage UV
Cranberry: Once again the stronger alcohol content of the Smirnoff, backfired, as I mixed it with cranberry juice. That cherry cough syrup taste hit me again, while the mellower UV Cherry, blended and coupled with the cranberry juice, and made the whole drink, taste like a big mouthful of cherry. Advantage UV.
Shot: Finally, we had to taste both straight up. Smirnoff cherry was like drinking regular un-infused vodka. At first, no taste at all, then the aftertaste set in, a mild and pleasant cherry flavor, tickled my tongue. The UV didn’t go down like regular vodka, and that medicine like taste, that I mentioned with the Smirnoff, was all the way through the UV shot. Advantage Smirnoff.
Mix ability winner: Tied. Depends on what you're mixing with.
4. Bottle presentation:
UV Vodkas are owned by Phillips Distilling. UV was launched in 2002. Its colored vodkas, and unique bottle design, made its new infused vodkas seem hip and trendy. Just a clever marketing scheme? Its innovative advertisements and promotions, made it a trend setter. In comparison, the Smirnoff label and bottle designs, have remained consistent and virtually unchanged for years.
Bottle presentation winner: UV vodkas
One of the benefits, to being “hip and trendy” is you can charge more. Bar Cost: UV Vodkas $4.50 Smirnoff $4.00
Cost winner: Smirnoff Cherry
6. The X factor: The X factor, I describe as some unknown factor that would make a bartender/bar manager choose one brand over the other. The x factor in this case, is alcohol content. UV Cherry is 30% alcohol, while Smirnoff Cherry is 35%. This factored into the mix ability category a lot with taste, but the x factor thought is this….Busy night, packed house, I’d rather sell the UV cherry. Less alcohol content, means practicing responsible service is easier, less security issues.
X factor winner: UV cherry
And the winner is……UV Cherry!!!
Conclusion: As I noted in the Bar Sales segment, I have a sentimental attachment for Smirnoff vodkas. At the time, these 5 vodkas, then called “Twisted” vodkas, were the foundation for my best selling drink, Tony’s Twisted Tea. But truth be told, what made the drink sell, was making the garnish of choice, 5 cherries. (Note: to all bartenders, who are “too busy” to add garnish.) The “twisted” moniker was dropped, by Smirnoff, due to marketing confusion, between the vodkas and the RTD bottles, which also contained the “Twisted” name.
Honestly, this was a dead-heat, to the finish. A lot closer, than I expected. I gave the x factor category to UV cherry, due to responsible service & security issues. The lesser alcohol content, which made it blend easier with juices and sour, was the deciding X factor. I am certain, that there are bartenders and managers, who would have went the other way, because of the alcohol content. But this is a war….a liquor war!
Next: Battle of the Honey Liqueurs.
Liquor Wars #2 Battle of the Honeys
Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey
Note: As I was preparing this article to publish, I thought, "I should have titled this Battle of the 7s."
Introduction: We are living in a unique time, as bartenders. The “infusion age” as I choose to call it, has changed the bartending world, dramatically. The distillers of vodkas, and rums, have a open road, to explore new flavors. While the distillers of whiskeys, bourbons and tequilas, have a more difficult task. The unique taste of these alcohols leaves the possibilities, much more limited. Thus, we have a rush of various versions of honey liqueurs, and cherry bourbons, all trying to cash in on the “infusion age.” The old standard of Drambuie, dating to 1746, was initially challenged by Wild Turkey. Now, most all bourbons and whiskeys have a honey variation. In this version of Liquor Wars, we match 2 of the best sellers, Jack Daniels honey, and Seagram’s 7 Dark honey.
Brand recognition: Although both Seagram’s 7 and Jack Daniels are rich in alcohol history, the winner of the brand recognition category has to go to Jack. Jack Daniel's brand of sour mash Tennessee whiskey is the best selling whiskey in the world.
Brand recognition winner: Jack Daniels Honey.
Bar Sales: This category is real life sales, what I’m selling the most of. The honey bourbon craze was introduced in my bar, with the Wild Turkey American Honey. Initially sales were brisk, promoted heavily by the appearance of “Honey” girls, selling shots of the Wild Turkey, and giving away hats and t shirts. But when sales started to slip, Wild Turkey was replaced, with the Seagram’s 7 Dark Honey. The transition was seamless. Although, there are still a lot of customers , who habitually ask for the American Honey. The Jack version was introduced much later, and is having difficulty catching on. If the Jack had been introduced first, who knows??
Bar Sales Winner: Seagram’s 7 Dark Honey
Shot: The Seagram’s Dark Honey went down smooth and seamless, while the Jack went down harder, and seemed somewhat harder. The Jack tasted like regular Jack, that someone added a teaspoon of sugar to.
Advantage Seagram’s Dark Honey.
Cola: Both mixed really well with cola, tasting almost the same. But the “Jack Daniels” original flavor was the major difference, to this drink. Advantage Jack Daniel's Honey
Sour: For the record, my sour, (sold on the Mixers page) is a sweeter tasting sour. Not as tart, as traditional sours. The results of blending each with my sour, was somewhat surprising. The Seagram’s Honey, came out tasting like a summertime lemonade. There wasn’t much of a honey taste at all. Just a nice refreshing lemonade taste, that I envisioned selling heavily in the hotter months.
I’ve often told people, that the major difference, besides sweetness, with my sour and traditional sours, is that the true flavor of whatever alcohol, comes through. It doesn’t mask the flavor of the alcohol, with lime or change the taste of the alcohol. It enhances the flavor. With the Jack Honey, something unexpected happened. I expected a lemonade type flavor, similar to the Seagram”s Honey .
Or at the very least, a taste comparable to a whiskey sour, made with Jack. Instead I tasted something, that can only be described as a “honey sour.” The sour blended with the Jack, and the result, enhanced the honey flavor of the Jack, while the whiskey taste, was virtually non- existent.
Although, I truly liked the taste and flavor of both, mixed with sour, deciding the winner was based upon, what I believe would sell better. The “summertime lemonade” mixed with Seagram’s won out, in a really tough decision.
Advantage Seagrams Dark Honey.
Fruit juice: Remembering back to the flavor of Barenjager’s Honey Dew Me cocktail. ( barenjager, midori, and pineapple juice) I decided to use pineapple as my fruit juice of choice. The Seagrams 7 Honey, lost all flavor when mixed with pineapple, while the Jack, blended better, leaving a heavy bourbon taste, with no honey.
Advantage Jack Daniel's Honey.
Mixability winner: Tied
Cost: At my bar, Seagram’s is $4.50, and Jack is $5.50
Cost winner: Seagram’s Dark Honey
Bottle presentation: When looking at the Seagram’s Dark Honey bottle, you would really have to study the bottle, to know that this is a Seagram’s 7 based product. The two look nothing alike, leaving the unknowing Seagram’s 7 fan, in the Dark. While the Jack Honey bottle, looks strikingly similar to the No. 7 bottle. It appears to be a photo negative, of this classic icon. Which is so well known, it’s arguably an American icon, much as the Harley Davidson, and Coca-cola logos are.
Bottle presentation winner: Jack Daniel's Honey.
The X factor: When initially conceiving the idea of Liquor Wars, I described the x factor as “some unknown quality, that would make a bar owner/manager/customer choose one alcohol, over the other." The fact that Jack Daniels limits its name, to a select line of quality products, was the deciding factor. This is Jack's first experiment with infusion. Jack hasn’t watered down it’s name, similar to Seagram’s or even Jim Beam. A customer knows to expect quality, when it comes labeled with the Jack Daniels name.
X factor winner: Jack Daniel's Honey
Conclusion: When I started the liquor wars segment of this website, it was my concept to be different. Many websites review new alcohols, none put similar alcohols, head to head, to see which is better, with different mixers. If I owned a bar, chances are, I would only order 1 honey product. The sales aren’t frequent enough for two. My choice and the winner of the “Honey Wars” is the Jack Daniels honey. Much like the UV and Smirnoff Cherry war, this was a dead heat, until the deciding x factor. If Seagram’s would have modeled there bottle to look more like the traditional Seagram’s 7 bottle, it could have been different.