Stocking a Bar – Spirits

Bar managers, owners, restauranteurs and event managers this guide is for you. There are three things to consider when stocking a bar; price bracket, point of difference and how to sell. Most venues make the mistake of only focusing on one or two of these points and not ticking the box on all three. In my own bar I regularly made the mistake of just finding products that were brand new to Australia or of a much higher quality without thinking about the price bracket or how I was going to sell them.

Likewise I’ve watched bars sit in a rut because they all order from the same big suppliers as everyone else and never get training for their staff on how to sell the products. Preferring instead to just assume that people only want to drink “alcohol” and don’t need any other reason to buy. So let’s look at these issues and how to get the most out of your supplier and back bar.

How to Sell

When opening a bar, re-branding or even just taking on new managers there’s always going to be a shake up of what’s stocked behind the bar. Whilst it’s a great way to refresh your menu and keep on trend with certain products, you also risk increasing your costs without increasing sales.

That’s why the first question you have to ask of any of the suppliers you talk to is; “What sort of training can you provide for my staff?” If they can’t guarantee an ambassador or rep will be by within a couple of weeks of your first order to teach the staff how to sell then add 10% to their unit price straight away.

Training matters and it’s a pain in every owner/manager’s arse because of the staff “churn rate”. Any good supplier should be providing regular tastings and trainings to ensure your staff know what’s up. Sit in on these tastings and make sure people are asking questions about the best ways to sell each product, this is the most important part of staff training and always gets lost in “product knowledge” a.k.a. useless facts.

That’s not to say that getting the staff excited or passionate about the product is a waste of time. It’s actually one of the best things a manager can do for their venue. It’s about making sure everyone knows what makes the product sellable first and exciting second because not every one of your customers will love a Sauternes finished highland malt but plenty will love a rich smooth whisky with honey and subtle spices.

Point of Difference

This is a tough call to make for any manager. With our industry so swamped with paid-for articles and advertising it’s easy to think that just because we recognise a “new” spirit then the customers will as well and we’ll instantly be cool.

The sad truth is that a lot of the “cool” products for bartenders are straight out foul to the average customer (I’m looking at you Fernet). It doesn’t matter that the parent company had enough money to put their product in a Batman movie if only your bartenders drink it and everyone else that buys it regrets doing so. What makes it an enjoyable experience for the customer is all about the previous point; how to sell to the customer, how to make them feel part of some insider trade secret.

The point here is that absolutely anything can be your point of difference product so long as it’s not that well known. The amount of mezcal poured in Aussie bars for people that would never order it themselves is a case in point. I’m not downing on mezcal, I love the stuff, just it’s only a bartender’s drink if the bar staff don’t know how to sell it. If they do know how to sell it, it’s what every customer will talk about and how you’ll be known.

That’s the most important thing to remember; your point of difference is how you’ll be known. If your place is about being fun, you need seriously cool tequila, if it’s about being so cool it hurts then you need mezcal and Fernet, if it’s about whisky then you better have a bullshit-level of whisky behind the bar and if it’s about quality then you better be ready to ignore what’s cool or well branded and hunt for the best damn products in every price bracket not just the most expensive. If your point of difference is simply that you don’t don’t have some wanky point of difference but you care about your customers then get a solid house stock and keep enough interest in your premium lines that you can talk your customers through and encourage them to experience something good every now and then.

Price Bracket

Finally we are onto the meat and potatoes of this guide; the all important price brackets. We can’t all be specialty bars collecting every example of a product, so knowing where your brackets are is super important. Also don’t listen to stuff form suppliers and the industry media about “premium” or “super premium”, it’s all bullshit and just and excuse to charge more for products that aren’t really worth it.

House pour is anything that you use for cocktails, mixers etc… depending on what your trade-off point for quality is I’d suggest you set the maximum at $45 per unit giving you a pour cost of roughly $2 maximum and a menu price of $9+. I still remember when nightclubs seemed stupid expensive at $8-$12 for a basic spirit but that was a decade ago and menu prices haven’t really changed so if $10 for your house spirits seems too steep right now then you’re pricing your menu like it’s 2006, wake up. Your point of difference dictates whether this should be 100% easily recognisable brands or 100% your selection based on quality and versatility. Your staff don’t need to know a whole lot about selling this stuff other than why it’s better than recognisable brands.

Your tier 1 products are anything below $70 per unit (max $3.20 pour and menu of $12+) and make up the bulk of most back bars in terms of variety. This is where you can introduce a split of 30% recognisable “premium” products and 70% interesting products or better versions of your house products (like dropping in an añejo from your house tequila line or adding an Australian craft spirit or Fernet or mezcal to the mix). If your point of difference dictates quality, local producers or something else that’s more exciting than just “being good to customers” then go 90% interesting but always leave some recognisable stuff in here if it makes the quality cut.

Tier 2 is anything under $110 per unit ($5.50 pour, menu $17+) and tend to fill out the rest of the basic shelves. None of this needs to be recognisable to the average customer but it all needs to be very well known by the staff, marketed on the menus and regularly promoted through tastings and events. It’s important to make sure customers and staff understand that this isn’t crazy expensive, this is just really good… they can do better. 90%-100% point of difference stock and often it’s this bracket that you get known for caring about the most.

Tier 3 is a bit of a cop-out category on my part but essentially there’s no ceiling here it’s all about what your point of difference is. You will not sell a whole lot of it but every one of these products should be very well described to every FOH staff member. They need to know how to respond when someone asks “What’s in that weird crystal bottle?” in a way that’s going to actually close the sale not just make people laugh. Finding suppliers that will train with Tier 3 products is something that’s golden and you should never burn that relationship.

Now of course I have products I recommend in each tier but let’s just do a quick rundown of house spirits or I’ll be writing this post for the rest of the weekend. If you want to know more about who supplies in your area just comment or hit the contact us tab at the bottom and get in touch.

Some of these are at the top of the House pour bracket but Crafy McCraft-Face has made the world realise spirit prices can go up and the government loves its taxes right?

Vodka

I dislike vodka inherently because I’m a snobbish bar geek so you could just go for whatever gives you the best margin. However McHenry and Sons Puer vodka is an unfiltered Australian spirit with fantastic texture and enough going on to hold its own in a basic vodka tonic/lime and soda scenario. Perfect for when you “need to have vodka on the menu”. Keep in mind it will be at the top end of the price bracket because tax and craft.

Gin

This is tough because there are so many good gins at this price point. West Winds Sabre is my personal pick because if you negotiate the price down to within the house pour bracket their other tier 1 and 2 offerings give you an easy up-sell, menu flight or tasting event. I know a lot of other gins are cheaper or better for “x” reason but the ability to sell a higher value item and the training the West Winds guys do for you is far more valuable.

Rum

Whilst Santiago de Cuba wins for white rum price to flavour ratio I’m afraid their dark and aged expressions kind of suck so I have to say El Dorado for white, gold and dark. Also El Dorado has the most extensive tier 1, 2 & 3 ranges in Australia giving you loads of room for up-selling, specialty rum events and negotiating better prices from the suppliers. The amount of rum bars not holding the entire El Dorado line in Australia is frankly inconceivable although seeing as the distributors are a family business they can’t be everywhere to sell and train staff however if you ask them they’ll bend over backwards to help you and your team get to grips with their products.

Tequila

Arette. There is no comparison in the house pour bracket anywhere. Calle 23 is not a particularly interesting or unique tequila but I see it everywhere as a house pour and that alone is a reason to give a nod to the vanguard boys for their rep and training skills. However Arette is a tequila that out performs its competitors on every aspect; flavour, versatility, enjoyment straight, family company, plus they have tiers 1, 2 & 3 absolutely dominated for the same reasons, especially in terms of being able to get “I don’t drink tequila” customers to become raving fans. Easy up-sell, best cocktail tequila I’ve ever worked with and frankly the guys supplying it are dedicated to their training and venue support.

Whisky

With bourbon being produced by essentially the same 3 distilleries you may as well just go Hogs 3 and negotiate that price as low as possible and be done with it. As for scotch cough up the extra and go for Chivas over Johnnie. As for rye it’s hard to squeeze into the house bracket in Australia but out of the Beam vs Turkey fight I call Turkey every time, especially now that it’s not just 1L overproof on the market.

One bonus point to consider – Who is supplying you? Most distribution companies build their portfolio around the price brackets mentioned above. A handful build it based around the price brackets and an understanding of what’s cool, different or sells. Very rarely do suppliers go out of their way to build around the price brackets, know what’s cool and gets to know the actual producers so well their training is as good as visiting the distilleries themselves. That sort of specialising and care is worth sticking with because they love what they sell and want your customers to love it too and that actually counts for something.

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Bar owner, coffee roaster, mixologist of the molecular and enthusiast of all things grape, grain, sugar, honey and yeast related.