We’re used to craft distillers turning their hands to primary spirits, such as gin, whiskey tequila and even vodka, but one category that seems to have been mainly left alone is that of liqueurs.
Apologue Liqueurs is not only taking a craft approach in terms of production but also trying to shake the drinks category up with the use of unusual flavours that possibly fill a gap we didn’t even know was there.
To find out more, we talked to Chicago bartender, Robert Haynes from Apologue about uncommon ingredients, educating consumers, and, of course, the drinks that can be made with their liquids.
Tiff: We're used to craft distillers, turning their hands to primary spirits, gin, whiskey tequila and even vodka. But one category that seems to have been mainly left alone is that of liqueurs.
Apologue Liqueurs is not only taking a craft approach in terms of production, but also trying to shake the drinks category up with the use of unusual flavours that possibly fill a gap we didn't even know was there.
To find out more, we talked to Chicago bartender, Robert Haynes from Apologue about uncommon ingredients, educating consumers, and of course the drinks that can be made with their liquids.
Thank you for joining us, Robert.
Robert: Thank you. It's nice to talk with you. Excited to talk about liqueurs.
Tiff: What made you think that it was important to start Apologue?
Robert: So in my time behind the bar and I spent a lot of time behind the bar, one thing I noticed that historically there has not been a lot of transparency in the liqueur space. At the time, 10 years ago, I was starting to see really great gins, interesting thoughtfully made spirits, both local and international. Really awesome tequila and mezcals coming out. And I felt like people were pushing these categories into the modern times but liqueurs I think was little slower to catch that momentum.
So the premise was pretty simple. I had spent time working with raw ingredients, when I was at the Violet Hour, a great cocktail bar here in Chicago and had some ideas about using alcohol to extract the things that are beautiful and natural about real fruit, roots, herbs and barks.. And, I got together with a buddy and we said let's see what we can do. Let's see if we can use a really traditional natural process to create cocktail modifiers that bartenders could then get inspired with and create new and interesting riffs on classic cocktails with. So that was the genesis or the impetus for Apologue, really just trying to do better by the liqueur category and seeing an opportunity there to do so
Tiff: Now in the traditional meaning of the word, an apologue is a moralistic fable. Why did you choose that name?
Robert: So with our brand Apologue I think we wanted to do good. Early on, I think we just wanted to make liqueurs in a way that we were proud of and could speak confidently about and had hoped that would translate to the cocktails themselves. And then as a company, we have challenged ourselves to just be good to our communities, our suppliers, the people we work with retailers, bartenders, et cetera.
And an apologue is a moralistic fable, and those typically have these little nuggets of wisdom or, truths tucked away in them. And, we wanted our story to have a little bit of that, too, both as a brand and with the products themselves. We try to be mindful of every little thing along the way, from the ingredients to, how they're put together and to how we get those out into the community and get them in people's hands behind bars and at home.
Tiff: Now, as you mentioned, you're a bartender by trade, working at Violet Hour and your own bar Analogue, how has that experience coloured your approach to the brand?
Robert: I think it definitely informed our strategy and the products themselves, like being a bartender, there were certain things that I would look for and the ingredients that I brought on behind the bar, working to my cocktail program. I was always looking for things that were high integrity, that I could feel good about drinking or making a cocktail with and whenever there's some story or positivity behind those brands, it makes it that much easier to talk about.
So we wanted to create a product that not only would I you know, somewhat, discerning palate appreciate and enjoy and get inspired by, but that, my friends, colleagues and peers would also like genuinely enjoy working with. A lot of those decisions, early on were informed by the time that I spent behind the bar. These liqueurs are made to make bartenders creative process, a little more interesting or add a little inspiration to that for them.
Tiff: Now it would have been much safer and easier for you to recreate existing flavours. What made you want to seek out the new and unusual?
Robert: I had spent time at a craft cocktail temple, basically the Violet Hour where you have access to infinite ingredients and fresh produce and herbs and roots and barks. In the time that I started working on Apologue, I'd picked up some shifts at a more modest neighbourhood corner bar with a small but thoughtful cocktail program. And, it was there that I kinda noticed that people would come in and they would want dealer's choice cocktails and when you don't have access to a kitchen or maybe as many fresh ingredients, I would often turn to the liqueur shelf for inspiration, or to find an opportunity to make a drink that's familiar but interesting and new for that person.
So working with things like persimmon, aronia berries, celery root, and saffron, each of those is typically a little harder to source, certainly harder to come by then like orange peel and make like an orange liqueur. Finding these ingredients that I thought people would be interested in playing with that would have that applicability to classic cocktails and the recipes that we're familiar with, that you could just sub them in and then create an entirely new cocktail that felt familiar but also like new and exciting because you're using these ingredients that you don't normally have access to. Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. It is, I'm guessing, only going to get more prohibitive. It's also an awesome flavour and ingredient to work with whenever you have the opportunity.
And, I remember going into the kitchen at a bar and, looking at the chefs, saffron and getting, a dirty look immediately. Being able to put an ingredient and a flavour profile like that in bartender's hands, creative bartenders that may have not had an opportunity to work with that before is awesome and then you get to see what kind of great drinks they come up with.
Tiff: Has your choice about the flavours that you're working with been purely inspired by the kitchen, or how do you decide what flavours are needed?
Robert: So from from like a zoomed out big picture, point of view, I think I like to start with the broad liqueur category first. Our persimmon liqueur is an aperitivo and so first get in the headspace of an aperitivo and spending time with that category and thinking about what we could do that was interesting, that would make sense with some of these bittersweet flavours. And then just keeping my eyes open.
Someone had mentioned that there was a farm in Indiana that grows American persimmons, which are a little different than the more commonly found Asian persimmon Has a short, really short growing season in the fall, there's not a massive harvest, but they're awesome, and so someone brought me one, I tasted it and that's when that one kind of clicked for me. Our aronia berry liqueur is really a yin to the yang of the persimmon. The persimmon liqueur to me feels Italian and very much like an aperitivo and the aronia berry liqueur, we knew we wanted to do something that was a little more luxurious, a little jammy kind of fruity, a little more French, if you will.
And then we just started looking in the midwest in our own backyard, there's a lot of lesser known ingredients that are common once you get outside the city and get into the country. Aronia berry comes from a farm in Illinois, but it's also very popular in Europe, where they make jams and sodas.
And, tasted it, it had a really distinct profile on its own, I would describe as somewhere between pomegranate and cranberry, as soon as that kind of registered, I started thinking about how we can round that berry profile out with tart cherry and raspberry, and create this more beautiful, complex, very picture, and then make a berry liqueur with that.
So people are familiar with berry liqueurs they've had Creme de Cassis or black currant liqueur, and so I don't think it's a big stretch for them to get into aronia berry, but I do think it is a different shade if you will, or it's like a different paint brush to have in their palette or in their toolbox or backbar or what have you..
Tiff: Now you talked about working with local producers, I wonder does that in some ways limit what you can create or is it as broad as you were saying in terms of what is actually out there?
Robert: Yeah, good question. So when we started, we were focused primarily on ingredients in our own backyard. Again, things that people had heard of, but might not be as familiar with, or have easy access to, so persimmon aronia berry, celery root, which is like the ugly duckling of the supermarket. And for the first couple of years, we thought of ourselves as a brand that kind of features these more unique regional ingredients from the United States. So just highlight in these overlooked, but really interesting ingredients. And that had been the plan for awhile. I feel very fortunate cause people bring me stuff to taste a lot and I very much appreciate that. And someone said, you have to try to saffron from this company called Rumi Spice, they're based out of Chicago.
We got connected through the B Corp network. We're a B corporate benefit corporation. And so are they. And we had tasted their saffron, made some tea with it and was blown away. Did a little, talk to them, did some research and found that they had a really interesting structure and that they were vertically integrated, where they're managing every step of the saffron production process. They're one of the highest employers of women in the Herat region of Afghanistan. The company was founded by veterans that had been to Afghanistan and fell in love with the people.
And I don't know we connected with them as a supplier and thought that we were similarly aligned in doing good. So we made the tough call of branching out and saying that we are no longer a company that focuses on unique regional ingredients from the United States, but we shifted that lens to being a company that's focused on working closely with high integrity suppliers to bring interesting, compelling ingredients to back bars. So we've stepped outside of the local thing, but we still work closely with all of our liqueurs to source the primary ingredients.
Tiff: Speaking of the saffron, how easy is it going to be to maintain that?
Robert: Don't know. If you had asked me two months ago, I would have said no problem. We have been in contact with our supplier, obviously the state of things in Afghanistan is tenuous. I know that there's a lot of uncertainty there. We just check with them to make sure that everyone is safe. And for the time being, they're still producing. We have enough saffron to make it a ways, but yeah, it was not on when we launched the saffron, it was already hard to get, but right now, it seems like everything is hard to get.
Tiff: That's very true. Yeah. Supply channels are all over the place at the moment, all over the world, much less political disputes and everything else that comes into play.
Tiff: Looking at your range, as it stands at the moment, it seems to fit into the basic cocktail categories of fruity, bittersweet, spiced and herbal. I assume that was intentional?
Robert: Yeah, I think natural would be a good word. I think we were just responding to the products as they evolved and thinking what we could do that would create a rounded portfolio without significant overlap. And also touch on these key components that are used in the classic cocktails.
Again, our products tend to shine when people are using them and these elevated riffs on classic cocktails and to help guide people to those, we worked within those styles that are familiar, because the base ingredient might not be familiar. Someone might not know what aronia is, but they will know what a berry liqueur is and how to use it.
And it happened pretty naturally, like the persimmon was the first one to really come to life. The creation of the aronia to me feels now like a very obvious. I was reacting to the persimmonand trying to go to the other end of that spectrum, but still keep it accessible.
The celery root was herbal. . I had gotten a request for a dealer's choice cocktail, somebody wanted something refreshing, but herbaceous and savory. And I turned around to look at the bar behind me and see what I would use, and I had a little bit of a light bulb moment where I was like, oh there aren't a lot of options on this back bar or really many or any back bars for making refreshing, but savory cocktails, you get a little bit of that with Chartreuse or Benedictine, they're getting into that space, but we wanted to do something that was truly herbal and savory and that's where the celery root came from. And then, the saffron, just the, universe conspired to make that one happen, and I didn't try to stop it
Tiff: Let's talk about the flavors of these for a little bit more. Let's start with celery for example, celery is something that we're all used to in bitters, but savoury liqueurs are a little bit unusual. What sort of flavour does the liquid bring?
Robert: So with the celery root in particular, clarifying for anyone that's listening, celery root is a kind of a bulbous root. It looks like a giant ugly potato. It's flavor is mild, with a pleasant earthiness, and what I like about it is that it's a great foundation to then layer on more assertive or more high frequency flavours, things that might be a little brighter. The celery root in this particular liqueur provides an earthy base that is then complimented with a little bit of dill or a little bit of Cinchona bark, a little bit of lemon peel, some Terragon. Without the celery root, the liqueur would float away on the palette, but the salary route provides this kind of earthy anchor, and when you pair that with a botanical spirit like gin, all sorts of things happen across all the botanicals. The results can be quite surprising, where you get maybe anise or the Juniper and the gin starts to bring out an element and the celery liqueur that you didn't notice. Oftentimes the lemon peel come a little more apparent. It'll also bring out the dill. Similarly if you pair it with something like mezcal or an agave spirit, then it brings out the darker, earthier undertones of the celery root. So I think the celery root's fun. I find that bartenders tend to enjoy playing with that because it is maybe a more unfamiliar profile to work into a cocktail, but the results are often quite pleasant.
Tiff: Moving on to the aronia berry, what berry flavour would you say it's closest to?
Robert: So aronia berry, it looks like a blueberry and it tastes, tannic like a cross between a pomegranate and cranberry to me. Yeah. So on its own kind of drying, earthy and bright, and it will perk you up or wake you up. Definitely alerts the senses..
Tiff: And what spirits does that work well with?
Robert: The aronia shines with sparkling, really nice with a prosecco or Cava and a twist
Tiff: Is that more a highball style drink?.
Robert: Yeah. On the flip side, all the liqueurs, depending on what you pair it with, start to shine. So when you use the aronia with an aged spirit, something that's spent time in a barrel, you'll start to get a little more like stone, fruit, dark cherry from it. So I have had great light, refreshing aronia cocktails with vodka and gin, but I've also had a really great aronia old fashioned.
Tiff: Now moving on to the persimmon, that's an unusual choice. What sort of flavour does that impart?
Robert: The American persimmon, when they are ripe, have this honeyed, baking spice flavour to them and, similar to the celery root, we use that as the foundation to layer in these, other flavours and notes to create this kind of deep, complex bittersweet liqueur. If you can just imagine, honey and soft baking spice, and then you add a little bit of bitter orange peel, a little bit of fresh ground cardamom, some rhubarb root to give it some bitterness and depth and you start to try to, tell a story with flavour.
Tiff: Okay. And the last one, the saffron
Robert: Saffron was fun to work on. One of our partners in Apologue, Ziyad Asrar, his family comes from Pakistan. His dad is a, an amazing chef and I leaned on him pretty hard for this. He had grown up around a lot of these flavors and helped educate me on what is interesting about the cuisine from the regions, where you would find Safran.
The big takeaway that it was all about these big clashing, bright flavours, like cardamom, coriander in your face, like big pops of aromatic flavour, and really try to echo that with the liqueur.. You get saffron, which on its own is like pleasantly floral, a little, I will say exotic. I know that's a general term, I don't think there's anything more outright, exotic than saffron. And so pairing that with, bright orange peel, a little bit of cardamom and coriander and then added some Curry leaf to it, just a touch to give it again, some deeper earthiness and complexity. And the saffron on its own, just even over ices is fantastic.
Tiff: Which of the liqueurs is your favourite?
Robert: My favourite would be the saffron for sure. My favourite to make, it's the newest, so I'm still enjoying making cocktails with it. I haven't made every drink there is to make with it, like I have with some of the other liqueurs and I'm often surprised by some of its flavour affinities.
I knew early on that it would be good with gin, good with tequila things like that, but then pleasantly surprised. Cognac and saffron is an amazing pairing. Saffron Side cars have been really awesome to make.
Tiff: If someone's looking at your range, how should they first approached the liqueurs? How will they know what to do with them?
Robert: Yeah. It's a great question. I would want someone that's looking at our liqueurs and if they are unsure what to do with them, I would encourage them to think of their absolute favourite cocktail and practice substitution, right? If your favourite drink is a margarita and you have a margarita that you'd like, or a recipe that you like, simply substitute Apologue saffron, or even Apologue aronia for the orange liqueur and start there.
Yeah it's really about just encouraging people to play around. We do list all of the ingredients in the bottle, on the back of the bottle, to help guide people. I find myself, looking for flavour affinities or tried and true combos in cocktails amongst the ingredients, or between the ingredients, and being able to look on the back of a bottle of persimmon and see that it has orange peel in it, or it has ginseng in it, those cues should help a bartender think about what they're pairing it with. And when in doubt, pour it over ice and top it with soda or sparkling wine, garnish it with the first piece of citrus zest that you can find and call it a day.
Tiff: Now liqueurs have always been an area where secret blends and secret ingredients have been dominant. As you mentioned, you do list the ingredients on your bottle. How important is that transparency been?
Robert: It's super important. In this day and age, you got to put what's in it. If I don't know what's in it, I'm not eating it and I'm not drinking it, typically. Honestly, it never crossed our mind not to list it. And, we're proud of all the ingredients we use. We put great effort into sourcing the best ingredients that we can find and, ultimately I think, the more informed and educated the person is it has the bottle in their hand, the more enjoyment they will get out of using Apologue to make to make a cocktail list. Or they might learn something, maybe they'll see an ingredient and not know what it is, so they'll get on their phone and they'll say, what is Kalonji or what is aronia berry. And I think that just goes back to, trying to be a good steward and educate and be there for the people that we work with and the people that support us.
Tiff: Now I imagine the public would be greatly intrigued by a lot of your flavours, but incredibly unsure what to do with them. How much education have you had to do to try and ensure that people understand.
Robert: We do educate. So when the brand launched, I think 85% of our business was in the on-premise bars and restaurants. And that has really been the focus for us. Obviously the pandemic had slowed that down and, we started thinking about what can we do to help folks at home that have a bottle of Apologue, or it might be interested in it. So we've put, all sorts of recipes on our website, no matter what spirit you're into, what style of cocktail you like, there's probably something in there for you.
We do put a couple of recipes on the back of the bottle for people that are just getting started making drinks, so there's a really simple sparkling wine and high ball recipe on the back of each bottle. And I think if someone is unsure about making cocktails and wants to dip their toe in the water with Apologue, I think spritzes, or high balls are the way to go.
Certainly see things trend in that way where people are looking for lower proof, more refreshing beverage experiences, Apologue is a really good way to heightened that experience. But with only a couple of touches instead of having to incorporate all these other ingredients, fresh fruit, et cetera, we'd done a lot of that hard work and put it in the bottle for you.
Tiff: What is the reaction of bartenders been to the liqueurs?
Robert: Bartenders have been extremely positive. Cocktail menus are a seasonal endeavour for a lot of these people and we feel incredibly grateful to see people using it, getting creative with it and then coming back to it, and coming back to the brand with subsequent menus to try out new ideas and new drinks.
Tiff: Now I imagine there'd be quite a few cocktails that bartenders have created that even you didn't expect.
Robert: Yeah, I've had a few sophisticated, rips on classics. I think someone made a celery root Last Word which was really very cool. I guess another one that I've seen a couple of times that took me by surprise for the Celery Root Poloma, like pairing grapefruit with celery root, that was not an obvious choice for me, but it's one that works really well, that I've started to tinker with myself.
Tiff: What is the brand working on next?
Robert: Right now? Like everyone dealing with coming out of 2020 / 2021 just. Kicking things back into gear. It's tasting and education, and even reaching out to bars and restaurants and suppliers is still challenging right now. So we're trying to sharpen our approach and find ways to get out there that are responsible and effective.
There are a couple of ingredients that I'd like to do something with it at some point that I think could be pretty interesting.
Tiff: Obviously you'd be available throughout Chicago. Where else in the us can people find the brand?
Robert: Yup. So we're all throughout Chicago, east coast, we're in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Washington, DC, Tennessee and a very strong cocktail following in Minnesota and Minneapolis, Wisconsin, California.
I think we've been around long enough now where people that are in these kind of bar scenes are familiar with, or at least heard of Apologue. And yeah. Now we're just working on getting it into everybody's hands.
Tiff: Are you guys thinking at all about exporting outside of the U S at any point?
Robert: We would love to as soon as it makes sense to do and we're able to, I think we would.
Tiff: Now, of course, if people want more information, they can go to your website, apologueliqueurs.com or connect with the brand via your socials.
Robert: Yeah. Instagra ... love it and hate it, but that's probably the easiest way to keep up with us and follow us and see what we're doing and stay connected. And that's just at @apologueliqueurs.
For the website, there's a lot of great recipes on there and it deep dives on some of the ingredients and highlights all the ingredients that are actually in each bottle. So the website's a good resource.
Tiff: Excellent. All right, look, thank you Robin for taking the time.
Robert: Thank you. This is a pleasure.