Unless you're actually a professional bartender, you probably haven't given much thought to how a given bottle of spirits will affect your job. I certainly never thought about it until I was chatting with a friend behind the stick about Plymouth Gin's gorgeous new bottle not too long ago. "Sure, it looks great behind the bar," he said. "But it's a bitch to pick up, it's heavy, it doesn't fit the contours of your hand right... it's definitely not user friendly." And he wasn't alone in expressing his frustrations about the bottle.
For someone like me, whose amateur status as a bartender is unquestioned by those who have seen me make cocktails, the shape of a bottle of booze isn't of much concern. But imagine having to make several Plymouth martinis or gimlets or what have you every night, on demand, with some degree of rapidity. Plymouth is a great gin, but I'll bet that if I were in a bartender's shoes, I'd be pretty annoyed before too long.
Enter Simon Ford -- ironically, a former brand ambassador for Plymouth -- and Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmos, bartenders extraordinaire and co-owners of Employees Only in New York. Together, they're known as The 86 Co., and they've come up with spirits -- and ergonomic bottles -- that keep the needs of the bartender in mind but are great for rank-and-file mixologists as well.
Grab a hold of a bottle of any one of the four spirits they're rolling out (Fords Gin, Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Tequila Cabeza and Caña Brava Rum). There's a little groove right in the middle, perfect for your fingers to wrap around. The long neck isn't just there for aesthetics' sake, it's to help you make a measured pour more easily. And on the side are measurements both in ounces and fractions of a liter, all the better for re-using it once you've gone through all the hooch. Even the labels include lots of fun, uber-geeky background info (the copper stills in which Caña Brava is distilled, for instance, were made in 1922 by the American Copper & Brass Works of Cincinnati) that may be irrelevant to many laymen but is important for bartenders who want to know the provenance of the spirits they're selling.
And what of the spirits themselves? Since they were created with bartenders in mind, the 86 Co. brands are bold, flavor-forward, intended for mixing rather than sipping. My favorite of the bunch is Fords Gin. It's one of those rare new gins that actually tastes like a gin is supposed to taste, meaning its dominant flavor is juniper. But there's a lot more going on as well, with citrus notes provided by lemon peel from Spain, bitter orange peel from Haiti and grapefruit peel from Turkey. Despite the heavy use of citrus, the flavor doesn't remind you of an orange grove in Florida the way certain "New Western Dry" gins do; in a martini it's actually quite dry and bracing, with botanicals like orris seed and cassia coming to the fore. How do they do this? I have no idea. All I know is that the Fords martinis I've tried (with Dolin dry vermouth and Regan's Orange Bitters, if you're curious) are lip-smackingly good.
The other three spirits really shine in their signature cocktails as well. Caña Brava Rum has big tropical fruit notes that stand up to the lime juice in a daiquiri, and yet it's refined enough to avoid taking a Mai Tai into sickly-sweet territory. Aylesbury Duck is a wheat vodka, and while it's got that soft, velvety feel wheat vodkas are known for, it's also got a lot of flavor -- you can really taste the wheat. It makes for a bold vodka martini, a very nice gimlet and a fantastic Moscow Mule. And Tequila Cabeza is a beautifully executed Highland tequila, with an earthy, vegetal quality to go with the agave's vanilla/honey sweetness. It makes a bold and robust margarita. I'm sure all four spirits can be used, and used effectively, in cocktails far more complex than what I made. But I am a man of limited abilities behind the bar, and I felt obligated to stick with what I do well.
And that's another nice thing about the 86 Co's brands. You don't have to care about the design of the bottle, or from where the coriander was sourced, or who made the rum stills in 1922. If all you give a damn about is whether they taste good and make a cocktail you'll enjoy drinking, all four brands are still highly recommended. And the price is right, too -- less than $45 (the vodka is a mere $31) for generous 1 liter bottles rather than the usual 750ml. Will they replace the classic brands in your liquor cabinet or at your regular bar? Probably not. But they're worthy of sitting next to your favorites. And they'll make your bartender's life a lot easier as well.