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You know the Netflix personalization algorithm that recommends shows based on what you’ve watched and rated highly? A similar matchmaking formula could be applied to the bar scene, thanks to the growing trend of cocktail consulting in D.C.
If you like Carlie Steiner’s drinks at Himitsu, for example, you’ll probably also enjoy what’s being shaken and stirred at Indique, Timber Pizza Co., and Bullfrog Bagels because she developed the recipes for those restaurants on the side.
Steiner is one of several bartenders who owns his or her own “anchor” business but is being hired to write cocktail menus for other bars. It should come as no surprise that in a city full of people seeking side hustles to combat the rising cost of living, consulting has made its way to the hospitality industry too.
While there’s been an uptick in beverage consulting, it’s not an entirely new practice. Brothers Micah and Ari Wilder have been at it for years, starting with their first clients, Stir Food Group’s Zola and Potenza. “We did their cocktail menus, and they made us corporate mixologists,” Micah says. “We were encouraged to play and be as crazy as we could be.”
They’d throw bags of ice into a smoker with a pig to capture the campfire essence, then introduce that smokiness into drinks by refreezing the water into ice cubes. After Stir Food Group failed, Micah says, “People started catching wind of us. A number of big chefs were randomly calling—Jeff Black or Robert Wiedmaier—and we started lacing all of our products into these beverage programs.”
The Wilder brothers made their own tonics, bitters, and mixers, which is how they found potential gigs. But they quickly discovered the biggest risk factor consultants face. “We knew the minute we left, people would start cutting corners,” Micah says. “Our programs and names would be bastardized, so we kept our recipes a secret.”
To safeguard their reputation, the duo batched drinks in a commercial kitchen and delivered them in bulk to bars. “We were literally old-world cocktail milkmen,” Micah jokes. “Our name would be tarnished otherwise, so that was our only solution for longevity.”
Lukas B. Smith, whose home base is at Cotton & Reed, is relatively new to cocktail consulting. He recently handled the drinks at French brasserie Le DeSales and at Addendum inside 18th Street Lounge. But he’s already turning down business. “I’m at a point now where not everyone that comes knocking gets accepted,” Smith says. “If you don’t want to do what I think you need to do, you can’t have my name.” Cue the Goo Goo Dolls.
Prospective clients want him to supply a drink list, recipes, and rights to his name and be done with it, but that’s when it gets dicey. Rather, Smith also wants bars to invest in the training and ongoing quality control he offers. “It’s not about how cool I am,” he says. “If it has my name, I have to be able to control the drinks.”
Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler co-own Service Bar DC and are part of a cocktail consulting firm called The Menehune Group that’s been hired by MXDC, Lebanese Taverna, Provision No. 14, and others. Hartley says they also decline consulting inquiries, especially after a bad experience at a U Street sports bar.
“They didn’t know what they wanted,” Hartley says. “We had to rush the project, and we’re like, ‘Don’t tell anyone we did drinks for you.’ The whole situation was different than what we wanted.” If they can’t do it perfectly, he says, it compromises everything else.
Another veteran cocktail consultant—Gina Chersevani, who owns Buffalo & Bergen in Union Market—had a similarly frustrating experience. After devoting seven months to building a balanced sake list for an Asian restaurant, she visited and saw that her selections were no longer on the menu. “That’s when I put out that I was no longer with them,” she says. “They change it back because it’s easier. I’ll never get it.”
To avoid similar situations, The Menehune Group only signs clients that agree to at least a three-month, comprehensive program. They essentially step in as bar managers, redesigning the spaces to be efficient and remaking liquor inventories with an eye toward good deals. Chersevani does something similar. This mandates experience, which is why not just anyone can consult.
“People like myself, Lukas, and Carlie, we’ve done it for a very long time and know how the business works,” Hartley says. He cautions against hiring baby-faced consultants. “You’re better off as a bar owner going online and getting cocktails than getting consultants straight out of bartending school from wherever-the-hell.”
When a consulting relationship works out, there are perks for both sides, and for customers too. Hartley explains that since they have their hands in so many projects, they order booze in bulk. “Now we have a lot of buying power,” he says. “That’s why we can serve drinks for $7 at Service Bar.”
For Smith, cocktail consulting means he can support his distillery by placing Cotton & Reed products on the menus he writes for others, when appropriate. Sometimes he’ll even do in-kind swaps. One of Smith’s specialties is draft cocktails. “As a Cotton & Reed guy, I can go to someone and say, ‘What do you say I design a draft cocktail for you and you carry my product?’”
Finally, consulting helps keep bartenders’ creative juices flowing. Steiner relished the experience of creating drinks like a Matza-Michelada at Bullfrog Bagels’ upstairs bar on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t have any reason to put Jewish-inspired cocktails on my menu [at Himitsu], but I found that fun and rewarding,” she says. Chersevani agrees. After 20 years in the business, she likes to be constantly challenged. “I always feel like I have something better coming,” she says. “It makes you really stay on your game.”
It’s not just coming-soon restaurants that hire consultants. Bars with history sometimes feel new drinks could bring the boost they need to stay competitive. Chersevani and Steiner say these revamps are the most satisfying. Chersevani, for example, is now streamlining the drinks at Taqueria del Barrio.
She’s long focused on helping bars crunch numbers in addition to fashioning interesting drinks. That’s why she’ll remove cocktails that aren’t selling and look to address why the taco restaurant has 11 kinds of glasses that she estimates cost $10,000. “That’s the interesting part of consulting—rattling a place that’s open. Rattling the bartenders, staff, and managers. They don’t like it. But you brought me in because there’s a problem.”
Cocktail consulting seems to be gaining ground locally, but what does the future look like for the cottage industry developing alongside the craft cocktail boom? Like every other business: Success depends on a mutually good deal.
Most operators hope to hire a cocktail consultant instead of an in-house, full-time bar manager, beverage director, or similarly titled salaried employee. Chersevani puts the going rate for such an job at $80,000 a year and compares that to a consultant who can curate four menus (one for each season) for $5,000. If there are 10 drinks on each menu, that’s 40 drinks at $125 per drink. And that price folds in training, organization, and oversight.
Though his services aren’t cheap, Hartley too says they’re priced to be more affordable than paying a full-time bar manager, and he’s optimistic that restaurants will recognize this. “Beverage consultants are going to be a thing of the future,” he says. “I feel like the quality of bars and restaurants is going down at the same time as the quantity of restaurants is going up.” The shrinking talent pool will make consultants more attractive.
Smith is likewise optimistic, saying he expects big growth in the next year or two. “The future will depend on word of mouth,” he says, adding that he hopes operators will compare notes.
Others are less optimistic. Steiner argues that after a consultant’s work is done, it’s wise to tap someone to take the lead. “They still have to hire that $80,000 person when I leave,” she says. “Someone has to keep it up.” Consultants often bring the kind of creativity bar managers can’t or won’t muster, but Steiner still doesn’t know if the industry will grow.
Micah and Ari Wilder no longer consult, citing success at their restaurant Chaplin’s, but Micah predicts consulting will stall out for homegrown, small-to-medium restaurateurs. (Perhaps the Mike Friedmans or Jamie Leeds of the local scene.)
“The only direction consultant groups have to go within the industry is corporate,” Micah says, pointing to Marriott and other hotels. “Those would be the final frontier for consultants.” Chersevani, in fact, has signed on with major hotel chains.
“In the smaller groups, I just don’t think there’s demand,” Micah says. “I don’t think people are willing to pay that kind of money anymore because all you have to do is open your computer.” Recipes are at the ready, and YouTube is there to teach techniques. “Ari and I were lucky to surface with the boom,” he says. “Consulting days are over. I hate saying that, but you can only be a cocktail gypsy for so long.”
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