Are cocktail rooms the next taprooms?

Let's paint a scene: You enter a bar and grab a seat. You're handed a copy of the latest menu, hot off the press. As you peruse the menu, you notice a variety of choice cocktails crafted from house-made liquors. You make your choice, order, sit back and revel in a refined experience designed with a focus on craft-made, small-batch booze. Welcome to a Twin Cities cocktail room.

See also: Local Spirits: A look at Twin Cities micro-distillers

While the above is a hipstery imagining of what could be, a new dawn is coming as Minnesota prepares for the arrival of its first ever cocktail rooms. Now that the state has started to relax their approach to the budding micro-industry (allowing for cheaper licensing and on-site sales) the owners are faced with the realities of execution. How will the addition of a cocktail room affect the original distilleries business plan? Will the cocktail rooms work to promote the individual spirits, or will they build cocktail menus around the possibilities for the liquor? How will food play into the equation if at all?

Currently, the closest frame of reference is the ubiquitous craft beer taproom. The majority of Twin Cities' taprooms feature large, open halls that are reminiscent of old-world style hunting lodges. While this type of environment is well suited to beer drinking, will the cocktail rooms take that same approach, or will they attempt to differentiate and try to create more refined spaces to showcase their spirits?

Shanelle Montana, of Du Nord Craft Spirits and member of the Minnesota Distillers' Guild says Du Nord will incorporate a lot of Minneapolis-centric decor into their cocktail room, while still trying to celebrate and accommodate the farmers that grow the grains for their spirits. "Our cocktail room used to be a motorcycle shop. We are maintaining a little of that aesthetic, while adding art from Minneapolis, and original pieces from our farm in SW Minnesota," says Montana.

While Du Nord plans to focus on a relaxed environment that plays up locality, Scott Ervin, owner and master distiller at Norseman Distillery in Minneapolis, acknowledges that the approach is tricky at best. On whether or not Ervin expects cocktail rooms to have a hipper vibe than taprooms or if they'll try to riff off of their simplicity, he suggests that it would be nice to find some kind of happy medium.

"Hopefully there is room for a little of both. The distilling process and techniques offer a sense of refinement and posh that is missing in the beer world, but if you go too fancy you're on a slippery slope to snobville," tells Ervin.

It seems as though the consensus amongst the distillers is that the rooms themselves will try to focus on the spirits as much as possible. Instead of trying to come up with a series of elaborate cocktails, they'll highlight the qualities of the spirit.

"Our biggest challenge is finding the right balance between experimentation with cocktails and just enjoying the base spirit. We don't believe that a spirit should be covered by what it is mixed with, but we are still focusing on unique and creative mixes. We believe all of our spirits stand on their own. However, we do know that a mix can enhance the experience for a customer," explains Montana.

So, how will food factor into the equation for the new cocktail rooms? While a selection of fine edibles would be one way to stand out from Twin Cities many taprooms, which tend to rely on food trucks for food service, it seems that for now, most distillers place the priority focus on providing premium quality liquor.

Du Nord isn't currently planning for the addition of food service; however, Ervin at Norseman is more optimistic and sees it as a value added benefit that could help ensure the longevity of their cocktail room. "I think there is an opportunity to build a real venue rather than just a one trick pony of a room. Give people a reason to come back a second, third and fourth time and you really have something worth the effort," says Ervin.

Rich with potential, cocktail rooms could add a welcome new element to the Twin Cities food and drink scene. While we're all really excited for the doors to start opening on the new cocktail rooms, Montana tells us that things might not happen the way that we think they will. She explains that instead of fragmenting their business, many of the micro-distilleries will focus less on the idea of hosting a cocktail room and instead commit their time to the distilling of their spirits, especially while the industry is still in its infancy. They'll continue working on perfecting their distilling techniques and their wholesale strategies before they start to inch their way into the world of retail.

"A cocktail room is a completely different business model and I think it's too easy to spend a small fortune only to find out we need to sell $20 cocktails to keep it open," says Ervin, "I built Norseman with a dream and 15 gallon summit beer keg as a bootstrap company and I'd like to try and continue in that spirit as much as possible."

Montana mirrors Ervin's statements acknowledging the differences between running a distillery and a cocktail room and how having an on premise bar creates a new set of concerns. "The biggest challenge for us was the uncertainty. When Du Nord Craft Spirits started, we didn't know for sure if we could have a cocktail area," tells Montana, "Operating a distillery and running a bar are two different beasts. We are owner operators, so the cocktail room is in addition to making and selling booze. We welcome the challenge, but understand it is in many ways two different endeavors."

Cocktail rooms in craft micro-distilleries aren't just new to Minnesota, the idea is a fairly new concept on the national stage as well. Montgomery Distillery is an established micro-distiller located in Missoula, Montana. In the state of Montana, micro-distilleries are forbidden from distributing more than two ounces of their spirits to guests while on the premises. Even this small amount of onsite distribution has drawn in some competitive backlash from the states Tavern Owners Association.

Distillery owner Jenny Montgomery explains that, "Despite the fact that we can only serve two ounces of spirit per customer daily, and we are required to close at 8 p.m., we do experience some push-back from the state Tavern Owner's Association, which sees us as competitors. They pay close to a million dollars for their liquor licenses, whereas we pay $700 for a tasting room license."

In Minnesota, we've already seen some political intervention for taprooms looking to sell growlers seven days a week. In a similar push-back, the Teamsters Union recently worked to block Sunday sales legislation for liquor stores, which included a provision for taprooms to sell growlers to the public on Sundays. The Teamsters argued that the provision could create potential conflicts with certain wholesale contracts. These same restrictions will also apply to the new micro-distilleries.

So what do you think? Are you excited for an array of craft spirits? Does our initial description of a cocktail room sound too posh? Should cocktail rooms operate like the taprooms do? Let us know what you think and what you'd like to see in the comments section below.

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