Yours Sincerely, a bar in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, made its name by being the first bar to focus exclusively on cocktails pulled from a tap. The entire business model was built around prebatched cocktails that could be assembled in a flash for thirsty, impatient guests. Now the team behind the bar has taken this flowing form of instant gratification a step further. In December 2017 they rolled out prebatched, bottled cocktails under a new label: Wandering Barman.
Julian Mohamed co-owns Yours Sincerely with Darren Grenia, and the two, with Roxane Mollicchi, the bar’s former manager, cofounded Wandering Barman. Mohamed says that they were able to test the proof of concept at the bar. “We were able to see, would customers care? Do they need to see a bartender shaking the drink?” The conclusion? Not always. “They care about the taste of a product,” he says, “and getting [a drink] in a timely fashion.”
Now the group wants to extend the prebatched cocktail concept to other bars—including spots not ordinarily known for craft cocktails. Their current client list—12 venues in all—includes Bushwick dive bars, such as Archie’s and Three Diamond Door; restaurants better known for beer or wine offerings, like Roberta’s and Le Garage; and concessions at New York City music venues and outdoor spaces, like Elsewhere, Maria Hernandez Park, and Heckscher Playground.
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The process of building the business began about three years ago. “At Yours Sincerely,” says Mohamed, “we had perfected batching of cocktails and putting them on tap. We figured out preservation and how to have drinks be shelf stable.” The group’s original game plan—selling kegged cocktails to bars—was shot down by regulators (something Mohamed and his team hope to “change down the line”), but bottled cocktails were a go, and a commercial production facility separate from the bar was set up.
Currently, Wandering Barman makes three bottled cocktails. The first two conceived were The Socialite, a gin-based sipper with cucumber, elderflower, and celery bitters, and Swipe Right, an old-fashioned-style drink made with date-infused bourbon and aromatic bitters. In mid-February, Miss Casanova, a spicy hibiscus daiquiri, was added to the lineup.
Mohamed expects the bulk of sales to come from venues that don’t traditionally offer craft cocktails. “They don’t want to train up their bartenders with cocktail expertise—that can be time consuming,” he says. “We provide their cocktail program.”
Down the line, Wandering Barman hopes to expand to outlets such as music festivals, sports arenas, airlines (the 3.4-ounce bottle is permitted on flights), and boutique hotels.
Speed of service and convenience are notable advantages of the bottled cocktails and are particularly important at the live performance space Elsewhere. “At music venues,” explains Elsewhere cofounder Jake Rosenthal, “patrons tend to approach the bar all at once when an artist finishes their live set and before the next artist is about to perform, so our bar has to move quickly to keep up with the rush.” Bottled cocktails “make cocktail prep as quick as pouring a beer.” Rosenthal says he doesn’t know the exact sales figures for the Wandering Barman offerings at his venue. But, he says, “we’ve definitely been reordering cases on a regular basis. So far we’ve gotten good feedback from customers on the quality.”
Nicol Reddington of Roberta’s has seen similar success. “The Wandering Barman premixed cocktails are perfect for our outside Tiki bar,” he says. “We do so much volume focused on beer and simple cocktails, like margaritas or basic mixed drinks. But when it comes to something more complicated, it can really hold up the line. Even the fastest bartenders get completely crushed on a Saturday night outside.” As for how well they’re selling, Reddington says, “They’re straight up flying off the shelf.”
Yet Wandering Barman’s client list also includes some venues that offer made-to-order cocktails, so what’s the draw there?
For starters, an attractive profit margin. Most bar owners mark up the bottled cocktails three to five times the wholesale cost, selling them at prices in line with made-to-order cocktails.
Grenia also insists that bottled cocktails don’t detract from existing cocktail programs. “It’s an addition, an enhancement,” he says. “We’re not looking to take over the place. We’re adding to an experience that already exists.”
For example, Rachel Allswang, the owner of Le Garage, a French restaurant that has a traditional cocktail program, reports that customers are intrigued by the colorful presentation of the bottled cocktails and usually order more than one. “They’re always complimenting the packaging,” she says. “On slow nights it’s a good conversation piece to start—a way to create a bond with the customer.”
Two months in, Wandering Barman has sold nearly 1,800 bottles (150 cases, at 12 bottles a case) and claims a reorder rate of 100 percent. The first run of Miss Casanova was completely spoken for before the drink was even batched and bottled.
Word of mouth among local business owners has helped with sales within Bushwick. And it doesn’t hurt to be seen as supporting a local business, Mollicchi points out, “which is cool for Brooklyn.”
Looking forward, however, Wandering Barman aims to expand its bottled-cocktail biz farther afield in Brooklyn and across the East River to venues in Manhattan and beyond. Expansion, of course, presents a new set of challenges. The team is already hunting for a bigger space where they can R&D and roll out new flavors in the months ahead (next up will be a vodka-based cocktail). They’re currently seeking investment to support these efforts.
Will a single-serve bottle and a colorful label (and no intimidating “mixologist”) help make craft cocktails more accessible to a wider audience? Wandering Barman hopes so. “In the end, it will always be about the drink and how people experience it,” Grenia says. “Whether they’re drinking it at a bar or somewhere else, that’s all we care about.”