Making Sense of Modifiers with Michael Page


 The most important spirits in your account might not be those prized bottles of bourbon, gin, tequila and rum. Modifiers, the often overshadowed and overlooked spirit category that includes everything from vermouth to Sambuca is really worth far more to your beverage program. Modifiers encompass a wide range of flavors, sweetness levels and bitterness. These spirits are not the stars of your selection, but they are essential to making base spirits shine in cocktails, whether made at the bar or by consumers at home.

To help make sense of the modifier category, we talked to Breakthru Beverage Illinois Beverage Specialist, Michael Page, who offered his advice for both on- and off-premise customers.

Breakthru: How do you classify modifiers?

Michael Page: I always think of a modifier as something that is a complement to the primary base spirit, but it doesn’t take over the show. A modifier is not going to be a spirit that is the main focus of the cocktail. When I think of the focus, or the primary that is going to drive the flavor the most, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing that has the most quantity. For example let’s take a classically equal parts cocktail like the Negroni. The Campari and vermouth are modifiers in that drink and the gin is the primary. You can look at prosecco cocktails the same way. Prosecco is clearly the main show quantity wise, it but is rarely the main flavor in those drinks.

What are some of the key spirits in the modifier category?

I always think of vermouth and fortified wines as a category of modifiers all their own. Secondly, I would group in the amaro and aperitivo category. While the two aren’t exactly the same thing, they’re both bitter Italian liqueurs. I would also separate out the fruit liqueurs. Those types of spirits are great for adding sweetness and concentrated fruit flavor into a drink.

While those are the main players, there are also other things depending on the season. If we’re making a fall or winter drink, we might use a cream liqueur as a modifier. Or something a little bit nutty like an Amaretto or Frangelico.

In your opinion, what are the essential modifiers that every on- and off-premise account should be carrying?

There are definitely some key modifiers that are expected to be had at the bar. I would also look at the classics cocktails for guidance. Almost every drink we make is built off a previous one, and we can usually look back historically and find that any drink ties into a classic recipe. So those classic cocktails kind of drive the focus towards modifiers and other ingredients that are now considered “must haves.”

You need to have both sweet and dry vermouths because they are pivotal ingredients in so many cocktails.

In terms of fruit liqueurs, Triple Sec and grapefruit are two flavors that every bar should have. Crème de Cassis is a very popular modifying spirit that is found in many classic cocktail recipes. Other flavors that I would consider mainstays are crème de mûre (blackberry) and some sort of raspberry spirit because many old school drinks like the Scofflaw and Clover Club call for raspberry liqueurs or syrups. 

To balance out those sweeter drinks, I would say Italian bitters are definitely something you want to have as well. There are even some pretty essential herbal bitters and liquors out there that customers will expect you to have.

Are there any unusual flavors that bars and restaurants might want to have on hand this summer?

Banana sticks out in my mind. Tiki drinks are incredibly popular right now and you simply can’t make an old school Banshee without some banana liqueur.

When you look at some of these fruit – and even cream – liqueurs, you need to understand that while they’re not necessary, they are fun to have and they give your bartenders and beverage directors a chance to be creative and think outside the box a little bit when creating drinks. These are definitely spirits that expand your opportunity to create memorable cocktails.

What kind of opportunities are there for off-premise customers when they’re looking at their modifier selection?

Traditionally, off-premise customers have always had a good selection of modifiers. What those accounts need to do is start thinking more about the quality of the modifiers they’re offering.

In the past some of the cheaper and less natural flavors were popular buys. Today we have access to some really high quality, all natural, boutique cordials and spirits. The consumers are becoming more concerned about what they’re buying and consuming, and spirits that do not use GMOs, are all natural or organic, will resonate strongly with them. You can certainly upsell a lot more today than you could have only a few years ago.





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