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Spirits Take Flight: Thematic Groupings of Small Pours Are Not Just For Wine Anymore

Posted on  | May 28, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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The “flight” concept began with wine, where restaurants or bars offered small pours of wines under a unifying theme—variety, producer, specific region, etc. Given wine’s myriad offerings, the concept was a natural, delivering organized education and a touch of intrigue for wine enthusiasts of varied levels of experience. As the popularity of specialty spirits has risen, a growing number of venues have adapted this idea of focused, thematic flights for spirits.

Tequila, Scotch, saké (though technically brewed, not distilled) and whiskey are just some of the spirits being micro-poured to educate guests and boost the bottom line. Vertical or horizontal tastings can be created, depending on the spirit. In fact, a tequila flight showing a silver, reposado and añejo from three different producers would actually be both.

The main difference between flights of wine and spirits are the amounts poured: the standard pour for a wine flight is 3 ounces while for spirits a tasting portion is 0.5 ounce. Like wine flights, spirits flights strike adventurous drinkers as cost-effective and interesting, allowing them to sample a range of spirits that are unfamiliar, often leading to ordering a cocktail or a glass or even a bottle of the spirit, clearly a boon to the restaurant or bar.

Saké: The Natural

Because it is often compared to wine, saké was one of the non-wine variants first served as a flight in restaurants, most often Japanese or Asian restaurants. Ozumo, a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco with locations in Santa Monica and Oakland, has always offered saké flights. Director of Saké Jessica Furui has created an extensive program, with eight different flights priced from $16 to $25 for  a 1.5 oz. pour of each of three different sakés. Each flight comes with a “flight card” with detailed descriptions about the specific saké on the front and the type of saké on the back. Although Ozumo also serves 35 sakés by the glass, says Furui, “with saké, flights are a better idea because the diner can experience the subtle differences and it gives them a little more education.” But she notes that it’s not a money maker for the restaurant: “[Flights] are definitely more for educational purposes than revenue.” Saké flights also make sense for a restaurant with a sushi bar that serves a considerable number of single patrons. “Flights are typically for just one person, and there are a lot of solo diners at the sushi bar,”  says Furui.

The Cellar, a restaurant, wine bar and cheese shop in San Clemente, CA, has served saké in addition to their wine flight options since they opened in 2008. Owner Dawn Rednick serves a horizontal flight, with one ounce of each of three sakés poured for $15. The saké menu changes about every three months and Rednick says it’s a way of offering customers something different. “Most people are used to warm saké in sushi bars but this is cold, premium saké,” she says. “It’s a small percentage of revenue but it gets people’s attention.”

Of Mark-Ups & Mysteries

For restaurants and bars that specialize in one cuisine or one spirit, flights can become a marketing tool to promote the beverage list and familiarize guests with certain spirits. Spiced rum and tequila/agave tastings are one way Latin Lounge at Zengo in Washington, DC, promotes its beverage list. Both vertical and horizontal flights are offered for tequilas, spiced rum and aged rum, with a total of 1.5 ounces served in each flight. The Lounge opened in February 2012 and General Manager Carlos Rodriguez says the spirits flights are part of the new beverage program. “We use them to promote our Latin spirits list and get customers educated about the product,” he says. “It’s not the best mark-up. We do it more to get exposure for the guests.”

The prospect that a taste of a spirit will lead to additional sales is also an incentive. “The idea is to get the customer to order a tasting and then order a cocktail or a full serving of each spirit,” says Rodriguez. “We also do a lot of bottle service, so it’s our way for guests to try a spirit before ordering a bottle.”

Double Helix is a wine and whiskey bar with three locations in Las Vegas. They’ve served whiskey flights for over a year after having success with their wine flights, according to General Manager Stephan Mergenhagen. Each location offers different flights, with the Town Square location offering four to five different whiskey flights, including an Irish flight, an “All-American” flight and a Canadian flight. Their most popular is the “Walker Johnnie”—one-ounce pours of Johnnie Green, Black, Red and Blue for $55. For Mergenhagen the goal is educating the guests and inspiring additional beverage sales rather than profiting directly from the flights. “For the Johnnie flight, it’s not a big markup,” he notes. But it does inspire guests to order additional drinks. “I’ll see guests have a glass neat after they’ve had a flight,”  says Mergenhagen.

At Pitchfork Food & Saloon in Chicago, which carries more than 100 whiskies, a rotating whiskey flight has been on the menu since they opened in 2009. “We choose ten products that we think people would enjoy trying,” says co-owner Mike Latino. Each pour is one ounce, and Latino charges $10 for three pours. Latino chooses a seasonal theme, such as an Irish flight leading into St. Patrick’s Day, and he plans an American whiskey flight around July 4th. He also offers a Scotch flight. “People love the flights,” he says. “Whether they’re an entry-level drinker or trying it for curiosity, we have a lot of people trying them.”

A flight of Speyside single malts at Brandy Library

Some bars specialize in spirits flights. At Brandy Library in New York City, available flights include tequila, mezcal, rum, Cognac, Armagnac, American whiskey, craft-distilled spirits and three different Scotch flights ranging from $28 to $88. Brandy Library has a unique approach: They serve six samples of each spirit, for a total of three ounces, but the sixth tasting is a “mystery pour.” Each flight comes with tasting notes for the first five; the sixth pour comes without any notes “so the guest can develop their own sense of judgment,” says Beverage Director Joel Cueller, and one of the bar’s “spirits sommeliers” is always on-hand to discuss the flight. Brandy Library’s most popular flight is “Smoked Out,” a selection of single malt Scotch. And Cueller points out that a flight often leads to additional drink orders. “Mostly they commit to a full pour of a spirit. If they order a single malt Scotch flight they might have a Scotch-based cocktail,” he says.

In-Flight Entertainment

Private events are another venue for spirits flights. Shane McKnight, director of mixology for Best Beverage Catering & Elite Cocktail Design in San Francisco, has extensive experience with both horizontal and vertical spirits flights with corporate clients. “Flights are a layer of entertainment,” says McKnight. “It’s not one of the cheaper layers of entertainment, but a high-end element to private event design.” McKnight arranges the spirits around a focal cocktail served at the event. “Say the cocktail is a margarita,” he says. “Then I have 18 tequilas for guests to choose from.” For more personal corporate events, McKnight seats clients at tables of six and addresses the group like a standard wine tasting. “A flight is a planned progression. I take you from low-end to high-end, or smooth to bold and peaty if it’s a Scotch flight,” says McKnight.

It’s clear that today’s consumers want to try new things, and flights of spirits provide the customer with a way to explore and feel smart about doing it. Moreover, using them effectively has proven that the flight is a great way to get customers to follow through with full servings or new cocktails.


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