Breakthru Beverage Illinois Launches Craft Spirits Team

Jan. 13, 2016

The craft spirits movement is growing at unprecedented levels in Illinois. Consumers are stepping into bars and restaurants looking for a genuinely unique beverage experience. Whether it is a classic cocktail artfully crafted with locally-produced ingredients, or a new riff involving a niche import brand, consumers are expecting far more than “just a drink” and are willing to invest in a thoughtful craft experience.

In order to support our customers in their adoption of the craft movement, we recruited a team of Craft Spirits Specialists from a diverse range of backgrounds within the industry. Meet the team who will be instrumental in telling the story of our portfolio of craft brands and are available to educate both on and off premise accounts on how best to use them.

Meet the Breakthru Beverage Illinois Craft Spirits Team

Eric MerschEric Mersch – Channel Manager, Craft Spirits

Eric Mersch joined the Wirtz Beverage team in October 2011 as a Sales Consultant and since then, has worked with  over 100 accounts in  Chicagoland. A former Diageo brand ambassador and marketing director for a suburban restaurant, Mersch has a vast range of experience working within all three tiers of the beverage industry. Mersh has extensive education and is certified by the Academy of Spirits and Fine Services as well as Bar Smart Advanced.

“The Craft Spirit Team that we have put together here is exceptional,” said Eric Mersch “Everyone comes from a very diverse background, and because of that unique background and extensive training this team of specialists is truly like a Swiss army knife that can be utilized in many situations and applications.” 

“This team is not looking to just service a craft spirit portfolio. It’s our goal to build brands for the long term, accelerating the craft spirit movement as we go,” added Mersch.    

Nate HowellNate Howell – Craft Spirit Specialist

Howell’s bartending career includes noteworthy establishments in both Chicago and San Diego. In 2009, he was a member of Sable Bar and Kitchen’s opening beverage team. In 2012 he moved to San Diego with Kimpton Hotel Group where he helped open two additional restaurants. There Howell joined Young’s Market, a Southern California-based, family-owned wine and spirits wholesaler. 

Howell got his start in the industry tending bar at mom-and-pop establishments in Indiana, his home state, where he learned the importance of great service.   

“During those early years, I learned more about people than I learned about the drinks, the details and the tangible stuff,” said Howell. “It was really the intangible stuff, the conversations and customer relationships that resonated with me.”

In 2015, Howell returned to the Midwest, bringing his experience and brand knowledge to Breakthru Beverage Illinois.

“I have a great relationship with many of the craft suppliers we already work with in house,” said Howell. “Our book is well thought out and well curated so it is  a joy to work with these brands in the Chicago market.”

Srikant RaoSri Rao - Craft Spirit Specialist

A finance industry veteran, Rao’s life changed in 2001 when we lost his job following September 11. Instead of seeing that as a setback, he looked at it as an opportunity to pursue his passion for food and beverage. Already cooking and teaching culinary arts on the side, Rao decided to make his favorite past-time his new full-time job and went to work achieving that dream.

Rao found his home both in the kitchen and behind the bar, balancing role as a sous chef and beverage director early on. In 2004, he accepted a job at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. as a bar manager and then transitioned to a similar role with The Houlihans Group after that.

In 2011, Rao joined Wirtz Beverage Illinois as a Sales Consultant for the Avant Division, where he looked after innovative Chicago On-Premise accounts. 

“Working in Avant and with the guys on the route like Charles Joly, Stephen Cole and Mike Ryan, is what pushed me over the edge into craft,” said Rao. “That is when I learned as much as I could and my education went through the roof. I take pride in the fact that I am willing to learn from my customers.”

In Rao’s new role with the Craft Spirits team, he’ll be taking his experience to the suburbs, where he’ll ensure the craft movement continues to grow.

“Working out here, in the suburbs, really excites me,” said Rao. “It is about reaching customers who see the opportunity available with [craft], who really want to do it, but don’t know how to yet. I can show them how to make it work.”

 “I think the suburbs are ready,” added Rao. “I think it is possible for craft to flourish here.”

Brian RomanBrian Roman - Craft Spirit Specialist

After graduating from Kendall College, Roman traveled to Hawaii where he worked at a French fine dining restaurant. Despite his love of the industry, he quickly discovered that the kitchen was not where he was meant to be, as he missed the one-on-one interaction and conversations that happened in the front of the house. Roman began a new trajectory in the service industry as a bartender, manager and eventually a beverage manager.

After returning to the Midwest,  Roman accepted a role at Autre Monde Café & Spirits in Berwyn, IL where he lead the development of the bar’s beverage program, bringing in quality spirits, fresh garnishes and innovative preparation techniques. Roman also relied on his culinary background to create cocktail menu that was beautifully balanced.

“My understanding acidity, sugars and how to balance flavors definitely originated from my culinary background,” said Roman. “I understood how flavors work together. How they can complement and contrast with each other. This allowed me to create some very complicated and in-depth syrups for the menu.”

Following Autre Monde, Roman joined LUXBAR and helped turn the Gibson Group’s restaurant into one of Chicago’s first craft whiskey bars.

After joining Wirtz Beverage as the very first Beverage Development Specialist, Roman was charged with creating and leading a Beverage Development program for Wirtz Beverage Wisconsin in 2014. Now back in Illinois, he will be taking on an even bigger challenge: educating some of Chicago’s best bars, restaurants, hotels and liquor stores on some of the world’s most obscure and least known spirits.

“We’re going to be very focused on craft brands as we hope to bring something new to these accounts - something that they might not have ever seen or worked with before,” said Roman. “It will be our job to tell the stories and educate the staffs on these brands.”

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