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It’s Saturday night, and you’re trying a new restaurant. The server launches into a dramatic monologue about how they cure, pickle, brine, smoke, and bake everything in house.
You tune out a bit. Yeah, yeah, the chef made the gravlax and ground the wheat for the bread by hand; you’ve heard it before. But at a growing number of D.C. restaurants, those artisanal boasts are expanding to include a whole new part of the menu: the alcohol.
What was once mostly the domain of big-name, high-volume restaurants is now attainable for smaller operations, too. The added expense for bars or restaurants is next to nothing, just whatever it costs to design and print labels. Which means even more local establishments may soon be hawking their own brands on the bar menu soon.
How involved D.C. restaurants are with their private label beer, wine, or liquor varies—as does why they got into it. Some places are looking for a new way to connect with guests or boost their cool quotient by standing out from the pack. Others prefer to have a say in everything that hits the table, or just wanted to get into something different.
The beer taps at Daikaya, the Japanese izakaya and ramen restaurant in Chinatown, are the only ones on the planet serving a summer beer called 3 Stars Sansho Panza. That’s because the restaurant teamed up with the Takoma-based brewery to make it, adding in yuzu and sansho peppers for flavor. The pairing came about because of chef/owner Katsuya Fukushima’s friendship with 3 Stars founders Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey.
There was no formal contract, nor was Daikaya charged a premium. “It was just a verbal agreement with Mike and Dave, and they worked with us on pricing since we sourced the yuzu and sansho peppers,” says Daikaya chef de cuisine Michael Turner, who was closely involved in making the beer. “They charged us right about the same price as their other beer.” And thus, the beer price for consumers ($9) is on par with other pints at Daikaya.
Together, they made five months’ worth of Sansho Panza in one batch, which was stored at 3 Stars. “We came in and brewed the whole day with them,” Turner says. But the supply only lasted three months: Demand was higher than they expected. Now they’re planning a new house beer for the fall, also with 3 Stars. The added effort is well worth it, according to Turner, who says the force behind the project is to add to the feeling that dinner at Daikaya is a unique experience that can’t happen anywhere else.
At Founding Farmers, they’ve been making liquor with Rick Wasmund, the master distiller at Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va., for five years. “There are two ways of partnering with distilleries, and we’ve done both,” says the restaurant group’s beverage director, Jon Arroyo. “The first is when a large company, such as Knob Creek, reaches out to say they have a few barrels left for private labels. The second is an intimate partnership involving frequent visits and constant communication.” Since the Founding Farmers Rye was Wasmund’s first rye whiskey, it took more than a year to get it right, and Arroyo was there along the way, even mashing grain.
The arrangement was just as informal as the one at Daikaya. “The verbal agreement with Rick was that we would commit to selling a barrel worth of rye initially. However, due to the demand, we continue to make it and now move through 12 cases a month,” Arroyo says. Copper Fox Distillery stands to gain too. “We have the credibility of our name working for us when forming partnerships making it beneficial for both parties,” Arroyo added.
Arroyo loves collaborations. Next up is white wine called “Barn White” produced by Brooklyn blender Alie Shaper, followed by a pisco and a Virginia red thus broadening Founding Farmers’ private label partners to four.
Likewise, the Red Hen, in Bloomingdale, will feature its own rosé on the wine list come spring. “We’re extremely hands-on,” says sommelier and co-owner Sebastian Zutant.
He’s been visiting regularly and getting his hands dirty with Virginia Wineworks/Michael Shaps Winery, based in Charlottesville. It’s a natural fit, given Zutant hopes to someday transition to winemaking full time. The harvest for the first batch is in the works, and the rosé should be ready in about six months.
Not every restaurant has the privilege of cutting their sommelier loose for the afternoon to trudge around in the vines. Which means their private label booze comes about from picking what they like best of their partners’ products.
Chef and restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier, whose places include Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, and others, has a predilection for private labels. His Belgian beer, Antigoon, is well known. But, Wiedmaier also has a private wine—RW Cuvee, produced by Oregon’s Patricia Green Cellars. “It’s fresh and mouthwatering, with Patty’s trademark full-bodied style,” Wiedmaier says. “I just tasted it, and said I like it, let’s do it.” The restaurateur says it’s a way to connect with his guests. “By ordering the Cuvee RW, they’re drinking something I like enough to attach my name to.”
What’s in it for the producer? Patricia Green Cellars co-owner Jim Anderson says a winery makes out better when the private wine is available by the glass and a different wine from the same vineyard is available by the bottle; a taste of the private wine helps sell the rest of their products. “We’ve seen higher sales because it gives people a sense of the quality of our wine,” Anderson says. They’re a small winery producing about 10,000 cases a year, so they have only a handful of private label partners (including D.C.’s Graffiato).
The Passenger used a similar “sample and select” process for its private label rye. Head bartender Alexandra Bookless says the whole staff visited Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Va., to pick the perfect barrel of whiskey, bottle it, and bring it back. “We were looking for something different from their usual Roundstone Rye,” Bookless says.
Catoctin Creek sets aside a dozen unique barrels for the use of its private label partners. “The barrel we selected had more caramel tones, more crème brulee flavor, and more oak,” Bookless says. They also requested that their rye be bottled at 100 proof, a little higher than Catoctin Creek’s other ryes, since they use it in cocktails. (These days, people want to taste, not hide, the liquor in their drinks.)
Bookless says it’s a big commitment, because the bar has to buy the whole barrel and it does cost more—but not because it says “The Passenger” on the bottle. Rather, you pay for the higher proof.
Why Catoctin Creek? Once again, the partnership stems from friendship. “We have a nice relationship with the Passenger,” says Scott Harris, who owns the distillery with his wife Becky. “They were the first to carry our products in D.C.” Like Patricia Green Cellars, 3 Stars Brewing Company, and others, the program at Catoctin Creek isn’t open to anyone. “It’s a reward for our best customers, who consistently order the most product,” Harris says. “We only select 12 barrels a year, so it’s a limited opportunity.”
Some restaurants collaborate with producers much farther away, making it difficult to be very involved in the process. Two of the District’s modern Greek restaurants, Kapnos and Iron Gate, have private label wines made in Greece.
Kapnos has both a red and white. The white, Monemvasia Kapnos Reserve from Paros, is particularly meaningful, because Kapnos partners George and Nick Pagonis have family there. “Every time they go to Paros, they visit the winery,” says Wine & Service Director James Horn.
It’s popular, too. “People want to drink wine at Kapnos, and when they see our name on the wine list they ask questions,” Horn says. “Fortunately, we had a big hand in dictating its flavor profile, so there’s a lot to tell.”
Neighborhood Restaurant Group Wine Director Brent Kroll also went to Greece to solidify a private label partnership for Iron Gate. They have a red and a white produced by Tselepos Estate in Peloponnese, both named “Rizes,” the Greek word for roots. It turns out Iron Gate chef Anthony Chittum’s wife is from the same town, a fun coincidence that was discovered after the partnership was in place. He knew it was the right fit. “If you do a label that reflects the family and the DNA of the restaurant concept, it adds heart, “ Kroll says. “To the diner, it makes it feel more like you’re in our home, and less of the restaurant-in-a-box feel.”
Kroll thinks it’s wise to spend time with the winemaker. “I looked at the vines while I was there, and we talked about style, but Giannis Tselepos is an expert, so I wasn’t playing puppeteer,” he says. They got to know each other well, except for first names. “He nicknamed me Bob, because he has a hard time remembering names, but we clicked because I was eager to learn.”
Both of the private label wines at Iron Gate cost $8 a glass and $32 a bottle, the lowest prices you’ll find on the wine list. The same holds true for the white ($11 per glass, $44 per bottle) and red ($12 per glass, $48 per bottle) at Kapnos. Across the board, it seems bars and restaurants with private labels price them to be accessible to guests in order to both move bottles off the shelf and share the story behind the beverages.
But discerning D.C. drinkers shouldn’t automatically get excited when they see a bottle with a literal stamp of approval from the restaurant offered at an enticing price point. Though there’s sentimentality behind it, there’s also branding. “Everything’s been done; you have to do new things to stand out,” Kroll says. “We want people to see our name on the bottle.”
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Photo by Laura Hayes