BARTENDERS ARE known for being good listeners, but Mhairi Voelsgen, CEO of broVo Spirits, listens to bartenders. The strategy is paying off for the 3-year-old Woodinville distillery.
The company specializes in spirits that make other ingredients in a cocktail show better. BroVo began with a line of four botanically inspired liqueurs then branched into the aromatic, bittersweet liqueur amaro. Now it makes eight botanical liqueurs and 23 amaros. This fall it introduced four vermouths made with wines from Washington’s Wahluke Slope: Jammy (merlot), Witty (sauvignon blanc), Pretty (pinot gris) and Pink (pinot noir). Falernum, a sweet lime-and-spice liqueur, is in their future, and possibly chartreuse, an herbal liqueur. Most of these product ideas were hatched in chats with bartenders.
Sales have doubled each year, and the medal count steadily grows: 24 in the past 12 months alone. BroVo’s amaros collected five medals this year from the American Distilling Institute, including double-gold, Best of Category and Best of Class for Amaro No. 1. Not bad for a product born from what Voelsgen calls “the big screw-up.”
They had set out to make a rhubarb liqueur, but the test batch failed to gain traction with bartenders. Attempting to salvage $25,000 worth of product sitting in a tank, they decided to use it as a base for amaro, which can be sipped alone as a digestivo or mixed into a cocktail.
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To determine a flavor profile, broVo asked seven Seattle-area bartenders if they’d like to create an amaro. To the company’s surprise, they all agreed. Thus was born “Project Amaro.” It soon expanded to other cities: San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta so far; New York and New Orleans next.
The amaros reflect each city’s palate or terroir, says Voelsgen. “Chicago’s are bitter, bold and bracing. Seattle likes variations on existing themes. San Francisco does highly experimental, very nontraditional stuff.”
The consecutively numbered amaros range in flavor from light to bold. Scaling up the recipes is the tricky part. Voelsgen and head distiller Mac Kenney start with a 5-gallon bucket test. “Usually the first one is really bad. Spices don’t scale evenly. We learn from that.”
They release a limited batch in each city to see how it does and test market a few bottles with bartenders in other cities. Three have gone into national distribution, including multiple medal-winner Amaro No. 1, created by John Euding. A former bar manager at Kirkland’s Trellis Restaurant and now craft spirits manager for Click, a Seattle wholesaler, Euding has experience selling on both sides of the bar. He credits broVo for doing market research, right down to packaging: Their labels command attention; each features the bartender who fashioned the recipe.
Making amaro was accidental, but the jump into vermouth was deliberate, prompted by so many bartenders asking for it. Vermouth is a spirit-fortified wine infused with botanicals. The production process is similar enough to what broVo already was doing that Voelsgen decided to give it a try. The first batch, about 700 cases, sold out in a few weeks.
So, to borrow from Bogie, with all the gin joints in all the world, how does Voelsgen identify the bartenders she wants to work with? She drinks their cocktails, notices the tinctures and infusions they use, and gauges the level of hospitality behind the bar. All that is important, she says, but “the biggest piece we look for is character and grace.” Just what everyone wants in a drinking buddy.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.