When you think of Massachusetts, alcohol production doesn't necessarily come to mind. However, the state is actually home to some fairly renowned brands such as Sam Adams, Harpoon and Ipswich for beer, Westport Rivers Winery and the Triple Eight Distillery in Nantucket with its craft vodka, gin and rum, not to mention wine and beer. The newest addition to the Massachusetts liquor scene is a line of uniquely inspired spirits called INFUSIONIQUE.
By Aimsel Ponti
Executive Chef Robert Fathman, of Azure in Boston's Lenox Hotel, started experimenting with infusions years ago when he happened to have an overstock of fresh figs at the restaurant where he worked. Rather than toss them out, he poured bourbon on them, added some cinnamon and vanilla, and an infusion was born. Fathman continued creating infusions of all sorts and, before long, customers at both the Azure restaurant and the hotel's City Bar were being treated to original infusion cocktails. Fast forward to 2OO2 when Brandon Bach and his sharp mind for business entered the picture. The two hatched a plan to market Fathman's infused spirits in 2OO3 and the dream was realized this past November when Infusion Diabolique Bourbon and Infusion Angelique Tequila were launched followed by the recent release of their third spirit, Infusion Diabolique Rum. At the moment, BRIX Wine Shop in the South End is the sole, not to mention proud, retailer carrying the line. You can, however, order it at several Boston area restaurants and bars. Plans are also in the works for the line to be made available this year via online mail order through Town Wine & Spirits in Rumford, Rhode Island. The response thus far to Infusionique has been extremely positive, and while the company is mainly focused on the current three spirits, who knows what the future may hold.
SO WHAT, EXACTLY, GOES INTO THESE INFUSIONS?
Fathman doesn't give away all his trade secrets, but he does offer a short description of the spirits. The Diabolique Bourbon features Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey infused with fresh and dried figs, cinnamon and vanilla bean. The Diabolique Rum uses premium Virgin Island rum infused with lemon, orange and ginger. Lastly, the Angelique Tequila is made with 1OO% blue agave tequila that is infused with fresh mango, lime and Hawaiian pineapple. As for the names Diabolique and Angelique, Fathman's contention is that all of us have both diabolical and angelic parts to us.
CREATIVE MEETS BUSINESS
Brandon Bach attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and during his senior year decided to go into business for himself. He established himself as a reputable labor broker and was cruising right along when he decided he needed a change. Bach had always been interested in food and the restaurant business. For a birthday present one year, his aunt arranged for Bach to go into the kitchen of Azure and observe Chef Fathman in his element. This segued into a job for Bach at Azure and was also the start of an important business relationship and friendship between him and Fathman. It wasn't long before Fathman told Bach he wanted to take his infused spirits to market and needed a business partner. Given Bach's business background, he was a natural choice. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Much time was spent sourcing alcohol, sourcing the other ingredients, getting proper licensing, doing research and perfecting the formulas. "It took 4 to 5 months of sourcing - tasting different products before we found the products that worked for us," explains Bach. A key relationship was established with distributor M.S. Walker in Somerville where the three Infusionique brands are produced. There, each spirit is hand-bottled, mouth-tested and hand-signed by either Bach or Fathman. This attention to detail has really added to the success of the line. "The demand right now is outstripping our supply, so we're always playing catch up," says Bach.
THE INNER WORKINGS
"We purchase all our alcohol at cask strength. It comes in after being distilled," says Bach of the Kentucky bourbon, Mexican tequila and rum from the Virgin Islands used in the infusions. Bach explains that the reason for producing at M.S. Walker is because they have a D.S.P. (Distilled Spirits Plant) license that allows them to handle product before it is taxed. M.S. Walker also handles things on the purchasing end. "We purchase through them because Robert and I personally can't afford these licenses on our own," says Bach. Though things with M.S. Walker have gone well, there were some frustrating hoops to jump through along the way. Bach explained that is was particularly tricky getting the necessary recipe approval from the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax & Trade Bureau.
ON THE RETAIL FRONT
It's unlikely that this will ever be a mass-marketed, turn-and-burn line of spirits. Both Fathman and Bach are extremely concerned with how they market Infusionique and where it is carried. Before the line was launched, Bach was adamant about it not being available at a retail level. "I didn't want to sell retail at all because we knew that Boston already liked the product," he says. Bach also had concerns about the product's limited production capacity. Despite this, Fathman convinced Bach to stick his head in at the BRIX Wine Shop. It turns out that Fathman knew what he was doing when he sent his partner in there. "So I went in and immediately I knew this was the place I would sell my product," says Bach. His reasons were that the staff is so knowledgeable about everything they sell. Another factor was that BRIX is very exclusive in what they carry. Bach was also won over by the location and design of the interior space of the shop. "Everything worked," he says adding that "We don't have a marketing budget; it's up to us to place the product in spots that give the product an air of respectability." As for BRIX, they couldn't be more pleased with the relationship. Co-owner Carri Wroblewski comments, "We were very excited about the products after tasting them. We could tell they were using top quality spirits and that they were infusing them with good quality ingredients. I think they were really looking for a store that took their spirits seriously. They didn't want to be lost in a lot of wine shops and liquor shops where they've got 25 different bourbons or 25 tequilas," says Wroblewski. As for the best selling of the three, which all come in 75Oml bottles and retail for $35, the Diabolique Bourbon is the front-runner. BRIX is certainly open to other offerings from Infusionique. "As long as they keep it real, as long as they use the best spirits that they can using the freshest ingredients and they don't sacrifice the quality which I can't imagine them doing, I would definitely be up for it," says Wroblewski.
NOTES FROM A RESTAURANT
There are about two dozen or so restaurants that carry the Infusionique spirits in and around Boston, all of them with reputations for high quality cocktails and creative drink menus. Executive Chef Jerome Watkins (and this month's cover boy) of South Kitchen & Wine Bar says the two that he carries, the bourbon and rum, do well. "You introduce it to different people and they like it," he explains. Watkins says that for the most part, customers prefer it served as is, though it's also been served chilled in a martini. "Generally, people like to sip on it while they relax at the bar and listen to the jazz," he says. Watkins also says that his bartender, Brooks Doten, has concocted some drinks using the Infusionique rum and bourbon when customers have expressed an interest in experimenting. Then of course, there's the question of using it in food recipes. "We talked about doing some dessert sauces with Robert Fathman," says Watkins. Although it never happened, it could very well be something Watkins decides to pursue. Brandon Bach comments that the word from many of the restaurants they are now in was that they couldn't wait for it to be released. "Before we even came out with it people were saying we want it behind our bar," says Bach. What does a restaurant need to do in order to carry the Infusionique spirits? Bach explains it this way: "Basically they have to take their food and beverage program seriously. They also have to have servers who consider their job a profession; we want servers and bartenders who can explain the product. We don't want out product being sold in plastic cups to a bunch of 22-year-old valley girls."
THE DISTRIBUTOR ANGLE
Tracy Burgis, Sales Representative from M.S. Walker, handles the Infusionique spirits line and is quite happy so far with its progress. "It's doing very well in restaurants that have knowledgeable bar staff," she says. "As soon as bartenders and buyers taste it, they want to instantly mix a cocktail and experiment with flavors," she adds. Burgis also explains that sometimes the initial sell can be a challenge with something as unique as Infusionique. "Some customers buy a bottle to see how it sells and usually within two weeks they are ordering a six pack." As for BRIX Wine Shop, Burgis is pleased on that front as well. "They have sold over 4O cases of the bourbon infusion so far," she says.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE
"We really want to get up to Portland, Maine, Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Providence, Rhode Island," says Bach. He hopes that once they are established in those three cities then they can set their sights set on an even bigger prize. "Once our production capacity is really up there, we hope to not only be in the small cities surrounding Boston, but also major markets such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, and what have you." Bach also says that new flavors may be developed. "There's always things we're thinking of. As of now, we have to dedicate ourselves to the three products we've launched and take them forward."