A nice niche

_MG_3816_PPSame, same but different? Ben Canaider reveals what customers want

In barista infested cafes to sourdough infected bakeries; from the indubitably organic fruit and vegetable stores to the bio-dynamic blessings of celebrity chefs and the supermarkets they serve, every food and beverage we first-worlders now ingest is attempting to speak to us personally. Authentically. Organically. Sustainably. The entire FMCG category (that’s fast-moving consumer goods for the few remaining innocents) has reinvented itself as ‘niche’. Niche is the new norm.

Which is why your wine list, spirit offerings, beer taps, cocktails and hitherto unknown and undiscovered beverages need to follow suit. Otherwise your patrons might think they’re not in a bar or a restaurant, but in a corporate catering tent—sorry, I mean marquee—at a C-list tennis tournament. If that’s free, it’s all right; but when the patrons are handing credit cards over your bar, your drinks list needs to be definitely ‘niche’.

For liquor licensees, this is a good and bad thing. It’s good because, at a base level, most of it is relatively easy. Liquor companies and producers have been leading the charge in putting pseudo locavore, niche sustainability into their beverage packaging for a while now, so most of your inventory already comes pre-loaded with a personalised enviro-friendly, niche sentiment (however faux it might be). But adding a bit of genuine, unalloyed ‘niche’ to your drinks list is the tricky bit. There are angles of attack, however.

Matching wines and other beverages to your unique and very geographically specific menu is one way that works well. Pilu at Freshwater, a beach suburb of northern Sydney, has done this beautifully, and very naturally, with its Sardinian food and Sardinian-weighted wine list. It’s deep speaking to deep. And it works so effortlessly that customers can feel free of the irksomeness and awkwardness that, for those few of us left who are not qualified winemakers, is so typically associated with choosing wine. This approach is even more effective when it hasn’t been too commercially exploited—such as we nowadays see with poor old tapas.

Pursuing niche further, an old trick but quite a good one is an exclusive house wine offering from a winery. With more than 2000 wineries now in operation in Australia, the chance at striking a reasonable commercial relationship with one—particularly one that’s close to home—is in no way farfetched. From the winery’s point of view you provide an outlet for wines that are either surplus to requirements or the victim of a cancelled order. The winemaker might even have wine in the tank that needs a home before the next vintage comes along. I hasten to add, this should really be seen as a long-term relationship. Over time you’ll be the winner with a true house style of red, white and pink—and wine that is not just some dodgy leftover that will disgruntle the customers.

Brewing or having your own beer brewed off-site is a similar approach. And you’d be surprised how many micro-breweries are prepared to do a ‘cleanskin’ brew for your bar’s exclusive use. With a bit of thought, you can even dial-up the sort of flavour you want, or get the brewer to copy an international style lager. Besides having a micro-brewery on-premise, this is about as niche as one can get, as far as beer goes.

Supporting local brewers is another way to add niche-ness. Such true craft brewers are still on a roll with the hipster demographic, as they suggest a sense of belonging and local community; and they’re increasingly organic and/or biodio. The apex craft beer predator here is probably Mountain Goat, at least in Melbourne, from where the beer hails. It’s increasing retail presence might be diluting a little of the niche factor, but there are plenty of other craft beer brands that want a local liquid base. And it’s not rocket surgery: if you have a craft brewery around the corner from your premises, you’d be mad not to be selling their beer, particularly on tap.

Specialist organic and biodynamic house-made infusions that you use as tea or mixed drinks additives is another obvious drawcard, as are the increasing number of Australian-made spirits creeping into the über-cool bars of the capital’s inner-city precincts. Gin is probably the best example of this, and if the increasingly professionalised set of bar tenders is any gauge, such gins are set to be the pour de jour in 2015. Look out for
such examples as McHenry Classic dry gin, West Winds’ The Sabre, Dobson’s and Kangaroo Island Spirits’ O gin.

And do not forget Australian-made vermouth. Maidenii and Regal Rogue are local producers doing remarkable things with this fortified wine, utilising some autochthonous flavouring agents in the process. These are unique examples of vermouth, and should be leveraged so.

Such locally produced beverages also tie in neatly with a mainstay of your niche offering: a library of curated classic cocktails. Particularly if they are built on the ‘genuine’ recipe created by, oh, let’s say, Harry Fabricato at the legendary Bar Americano in Amsterdam in 1927 at the height of the tulip-cha-cha craze. None of it needs to be true, of course, but I’ve never heard a single word of any sort of veracity when it comes to cocktails and their origins or recipes. Indeed, the only thing I’ve ever read about cocktails that serves any real purpose is a quote (what was I saying about veracity?) from The Savoy Hotel’s cocktail barman of the 1920s, the semi-famous Harry Craddock. When asked the best way to enjoy a dry martini, he quipped: “Drink it before it laughs at you.”

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