Luxury Rising: How to Profit with Japanese Whisky and Other High-end Spirits

Images courtesy of Zuma

Were you to walk into the home offices of a record label or the home studio of a world-renowned music producer, the walls would be adorned with gold and platinum records. Stroll through the headquarters of an automobile manufacturer like BMW or Ford and you’ll be staggered by the number of awards and trophies they’ve won.

And so it goes for the Las Vegas location of Zuma, the upscale izakaya-inspired restaurant and bar (an izakaya is a Japanese gastropub) with locations around the world. Only instead of platinum records and sets of Golden Calipers, Zuma Las Vegas has amassed a treasure trove of rare and unique high-end Japanese.

Read this: High-End Spirits more Important than ever On-Premise

As you take a seat in the chic, inviting lounge or at the bar, you can’t help but notice the feature wall of Japanese whiskies. The bottles appear to have been placed meticulously by a persnickety person wearing white gloves wielding a ruler.

Zuma’s collection is more than impressive. It’s certainly that, but the effect communicates an important message: We love and understand Japanese whisky. It’s a message in which novices and aficionados can find solace; you’re in good hands here.

Read this: Ham it Up with this Whiskey Promotion

There is perhaps nobody better suited to help you dip your toes into the world of Japanese whisky than Jimmy Barrat, global bar development manager for Zuma. Barrat has been with Zuma for roughly 13 years, serving in his current position for over a decade.

As you can imagine, Barratt’s role within Zuma provides him loads of valuable consumer information. A generous man, he agreed to share what he’s learned about introducing novices to Japanese whisky, acquiring rare and high-dollar bottles, and how high-end spirits—an increasingly important beverage segment for bars—are consumed in various markets.

To what do you attribute the rise in demand for Japanese whisky?

Simply offer and demand. It’s just like most things: the demand was bigger than the supply. Alongside that, Japanese [cocktail] trends have been catching a lot of people’s attention.

How has the decline in Japanese whiskies with age statements affected demand?

It’s just like being refused at a nightclub—a little upsetting at the beginning but you still try to come back. It’s like that with Japanese whisky. In the 21st century, everything is fast. But if you want a 12-year blend, it’s going to take 12 years, so they obviously have to wait for the cask to produce more. The age statement has affected the demand as people crave for it, especially collectors.

Making the decision to try a rare or otherwise high-end whisky can be daunting for novices and price-conscious guests. How do you help them to make their choice and experience worth the buy-in?

I believe they shouldn’t start with a rare. A whisky you can’t go wrong with is a 17-year-old Hibiki. If you ask me, this is an age statement which is 17 years, so [it’s] so close to something exceptional already. If they want to try something rare I wouldn’t present something with a crazy age statement.

What’s your technique for introducing whisky novices to Japanese whisky?

To be honest, the cocktail is an amazing tool for that. I’ve been working 13 years for Zuma and we’ve been twisting classic cocktails and turning them with a Japanese influence, such as the Japanese Old Fashioned. It’s a nice introduction and the only thing we change is adding sugar and bitters. Whisky on the rocks with an ice ball is also a great introduction because like everything, we eat with our eyes first. Of course, the ice ball makes it great because it touches less surface, making it less diluted. It’s very common to introduce with a Highball cocktail consisting simply of whisky and soda, which resonates with the female market, as well.

The Japanese Old Fashioned at Zuma.

 

What’s your go-to selection for those new to Japanese whisky?

We have to be a little bit affordable—no need to break the bank. Nikka Japanese Whisky is a favorite. The founder studied in Scotland for two years before going back to Japan to create this spirit. Also, the 12-year Hakushu. It’s a little sweeter with a fruitiness to it, but also a little grassy and smoky, more mature. It’s a great start to a 12 year.

What are the next few steps in developing a relationship with a guest who you’re educating in Japanese whisky? What are the next visits like for this guest?

We have an extended selection of Japanese whisky. We always start from affordable whisky and try to work our way up. As soon as we have something rare, we’re always hunting and trying to get something special. Once it arrives we’ll introduce it to them, to give them something new to taste.

When you encounter a self-described whisky aficionado or advanced whisky consumer, how do you introduce them to Japanese whiskies? What’s your go-to selection for such a guest?

To be honest, whisky aficionados or advanced whisky consumers already know about Japanese whisky, so there isn’t much to do. It’s very present and important, so with these people we bring out the little baby we have hidden, the one not on the menu that we keep and give to taste, like the 30-year Hibiki. In Dubai, we’ve bought 12 bottles of that rare kind, which are quite hard to be found at the moment.

Have you seen a rise in demand for high-end spirits in general? How do you explain the interest in spirits in the highest price tiers?

I think the demand for luxury, in general, is on the rise. The past 10 years, after the bartending job, I’ve been put back in the front of the scene. We’re not trying to make people drunk—we are trying to make people drink better. Big brands have been promoting the education, but we think people have a great understanding of what they want. They’d rather drink less but higher quality. The way we have designed cocktails in the last 15 is always high end; we never use bad spirits.

How do guests seeking high-end spirits generally consume them, in your experience?

It’s a little bit different within the markets. I would say in Asia they like a Cognac the way it should be: without ice, in a sifter. New York likes bourbon and [other] whisky. It can be on the rocks but they are also open to cocktails, depending how high end the spirit is. In Dubai, it is definitely cocktail form and we have to educate a lot. They enjoy gin and whisky is relatively present, but they enjoy in the form of a cocktail. We are in a happy business, so we let people do whatever they want.

What’s your advice for bar, nightclub and restaurant operations seeking to get their hands on high-end, rare and otherwise unique spirits?

It depends. I think visiting the country is always best. If you’re looking for a great mezcal or tequila, go to Mexico. Japanese whisky—go to Japan. Have a clear understanding of the culture itself for a clear understanding of what you want, and then start seeking. Also, consider what you like, something that can be sold while enjoying an affordable experience.

How can an operator or bar manager best ensure that their investment in high-end or rare Japanese whiskies and other high-dollar spirits pays off?

We cannot really ensure but in Japanese whisky, for example, if you’re trying your hand in the age statement, will the spirit move? It depends. If you’re buying a $7 bottle of wine and selling it at $10 a glass and there are 5 glasses per bottle, wow, good. But if you’re buying a $10,000 bottle of wine and selling it at $100 per glass with 5 glasses, your gross profit is a disaster.

Can you share the recipe and technique for the Burning History cocktail?

This cocktail is a twist of the Penicillin. We stay very close to the original recipe and change a couple of things, like adding yuzu. The ginger is homemade—we press the ginger to get the juice out of it. To flavor the glass, we burn a sherry cask stave and place the glass over the smoke to capture the flavor. There is currently a shortage of sherry wood, so being able to have a piece of that means a lot to us. We are literally burning a piece of history to share the experience with our guests, which is where the cocktail got its name.

Zuma Restaurants Burning History cocktail - How to Introduce Guests to Japanese Whisky
  • 50 ml Nikka Coffee Grain Whisky
  • 15 ml Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch Whisky
  • 15 ml Ginger syrup
  • 15 ml Honey water
  • 15 ml Yuzu juice
  • 15 ml Egg white
  • Dash plum bitters
  • Dried orange wheel to garnish

Combine Nikka Coffey Grain, ginger syrup, honey water, yuzu juice and egg white in a shaker, fill the shaker with ice, and shake to chill. Double strain into the prepared rocks glass with a large ice sphere (all the better if yours are stamped with your logo) or smaller cubed ice. Add dash of plum bitters and float Lagavulin on top. Garnish with dried orange wheel.

To prepare glass:

This is where things get tricky, obviously. To replicate this cocktail precisely you’ll need a sherry cask stave, which isn’t the simplest thing to come by. (Zuma’s staves come from Macallan sherry casks, meaning they’re over a decade old.) If you can find one, great! Otherwise, you’ll have to use another type of stave or piece of wood to create as close an approximation as possible. After building the cocktail in the shaker, place it on ice (ideally on the bar; Zuma uses a small wooden box). IF SAFE AND LEGAL TO DO SO WHERE YOU OPERATE, torching the stave/wood tableside or at the bar in front of the guest makes an impression that will inspire other guests to crowd around, take pictures for social media, and order one for themselves. Create the ideal amount of smoke by holding a torch in the same spot a few inches from the stave—making certain nobody is endangered—and trap the smoke in the rocks glass by inverting it. When ready, flip the glass over, add the ice, and double strain the cocktail into it.

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