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05.2011

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Liza Weisstuch

They say the devil is in the details, but it’s commonly accepted that the details are what can transform the mundane into something heavenly. That said, Adam Lantheaume has become something of an Archangel Gabriel figure to the local cocktail scene, bringing good news – and good products – from far beyond Boston to his store, The Boston Shaker, and revealing the long inaccessible secrets of obscure or forgotten cocktails. And he sells glassware, barware, books, and sundry other drink making supplies and paraphernalia, too.

Lantheaume’s store in Somerville’s Davis Square recently celebrated its one year anniversary in the space. It’s become the go-to depot for any and all things cocktail-related – including hands-on instruction. But far from being a cultish destination that smacks of a geekiness so fierce that novices recoil, it’s a warm, inviting store that attracts curious types and effortlessly converts them.

The Boston Shaker’s story stretches further back than the year. It starts in Boston’s Dark Ages, when it was hard to come by celery bitters, lime shrub, cucumber soda, and dropper bottles – let alone find them all for sale under one roof. Lantheaume was working as an engineer and product manager at Akamai, an internet distribution company, when he became an early evangelist of the classic cocktail renaissance. It was a time when access to a proper Old Fashioned – not to mention to bartenders who cared – was virtually limited to the B-Side Lounge in Cambridge. Patrick Sullivan, owner of the now-shuttered cocktail den, was also one of the few mixing drinks with fresh juices. Whenever Lantheaume took a stab at making cocktails at home, there was typically an instrument or ingredient that foiled his endeavor. It would take time and effort to hunt down, for instance, orange bitters or a swizzle stick. Thirsty friends, he noticed, were in the same predicament. Following his entrepreneurial instinct, he started ordering items online, learning that there were tremendous differences in quality of everything from bar spoons to shakers to syrups. Then in 2OO8, with an informal network of bartenders, he’d assess what people were seeking, order items in bulk and everyone would split the cost. Enthusiasm around vintage cocktails and exhuming lost drinks was ballooning. Suddenly Lantheaume was no longer ahead of the zeitgeist, he was the zeitgeist.

It was becoming feasible to build a business around this emerging movement. But first, he had to decide whether to run the business as an e-commerce site, or a full-blown, good old fashioned storefront. Once he launched the site, friends told him there was no reason to have a retail store, but he shrugged off the unenthusiastic comments. “It’s good to hold, touch and taste items,” he said recently over a beer at Redbones Barbeque in Davis. “I wanted it to be a place to visit and browse, not a place to run in, grab something and leave. I thought there should be explanation, a boutique experience.” Given his knack for conversation and willingness to give advice and field suggestions, a bricks and mortar outpost took shape. Working with the owners of Grand, a housewares boutique in Somerville’s Union Square, he rented out 36 square feet in their store for 11 months beginning December 1, 2OO8. He stocked more products than offered online, but as time went on, even more inventory was added and he needed more space. He incorporated in 2OO9 then opened in Davis Square on February 5, 2O1O. He still believes that it was a good omen that the last day of residence at Grand was the day he hosted a Dale DeGroff book signing.

WHAT’S IN STORE
Lantheaume breaks his inventory down into four parts: tools and ingredients, which are the products that got the store started, serving-ware, from glassware to punch bowls, and publications. Bookstores always carry what’s current, but he was interested in volumes from a decade or more ago, items that are generally only available online. As far as the glassware goes, punch bowls are a necessity. A few people even consign them to him. Designer contemporary cocktail glasses, both in stainless steel and glass, are also sold on consignment, as are vintage shakers and the ice crushing bag similar to the Lewis Bag created and made by Josey Packard, a bartender at Drink.

And as for ingredients? He has enough bitters, shrubs, syrups and sodas to flood the dugout at Fenway Park. Because of his access to many craft products, he’s become something of an informal distributor by default, selling items wholesale directly to stores and bars. This year he’s making a bigger push to solidify the offerings for his wholesale business. He’s the wholesaler for Trader Tiki Syrups, made in Portland, Oregon, and Bittermens Bitters, which were – until founders Janet and Avery Glasser relocated to Brooklyn in the winter – produced at the Taza Chocolate facility in Somerville. Lantheaume sells them all over the country. It’s little surprise then that his directory of bar and restaurant customers is increasing.

That’s been a boon to people like Kevin Christman, President of the small Foxboro-based distributor, Lemate of New England, Inc., which specializes in cocktail mixes. Lemate distributes Fee Brothers Bitters, produced by a generations old family company in upstate New York. “Because of him, other stores are more aware of products like bitters and willing to put in a selection,” said Christman, who was reached at a trade show in Las Vegas, which he attended “to see if there’s any new products I can sell to Adam.”

“There are a lot of bitters available, and other liquor stores might have always put in the top sellers, but Adam has the biggest selection in area,” he said. “He’s by far our biggest customer. All of a sudden people are asking about it, and I’m getting more calls from stores asking about the bitters we have.”

Needless to say, Lantheaume is selective about his inventory. You won’t find, for instance, Bloody Mary mix. That’s not about being exclusionary; it’s about optimizing his light, airy but modest space and stocking it with a well-edited inventory of items that can’t be found in the corner convenience store or cookie cutter houseware store. “I try to carry things that are important to get out into people’s hands, especially unique items that people can’t readily access.” That said, the amount of unique items on the market is expanding, which can be a sticky wicket when working with limited floor space. “The list of things I want to bring in is overwhelming. I’m always adding new inventory while finding a place for the standards,” he said, noting that Angostura bitters and many seasonal items are among said standards.

“Dependability and reliability are important. But the scene is always changing so I need to bring in new items as people learn about them, like Yuzu juice, made from a fruit that’s native to China.”

A SHOP WITH CLASS, TASTE and CLASSES ON TASTE
Of course, none of the items are of much use if people don’t know what to do with them. At Grand, customers were asking a series of the same questions, like how to use a Boston shaker or a jigger, so he’d give impromptu demos. He finally decided to use those inquiries to develop a cohesive syllabus. There is, of course, plenty of instruction online on Youtube, etc., but doing it in a classroom environment fuels muscle memory, he maintains. But he had identified an obvious need. “Nobody was teaching how to make a proper cocktail on a regular basis. Books are descriptive, but many things are relative, he said. “And a lot of recipes are written in shorthand that’s foreign to amateurs. ‘Shake until well chilled’ is not obvious to a novice drink maker. How long? Just chilled enough?” Among the classes offered regularly is “Introduction to Bitters” which Lantheaume leads. He explains what bitters are and how they differ from one to the next. “Craft Cocktail Technique” is a lesson in shaking, stirring and other drink-making techniques. Then there are events led by other industry professionals. Ben Sandroff, former bartender at Drink who’s now a sales rep for MS Walker, has led a class on how to taste spirits.

For each class and complimentary tasting, Lantheaume works with a brand sponsor(s), thus feeding his clientele’s thirst for new, different products so they can “get to the next level,” as he says. “People who frequent the store come for the sole purpose of spending money to make cocktails at home. They’re people who appreciate quality, they’re willing to invest in stocking their liquor cabinet and they’re people who inquire about the different aspects of a spirit: ‘What are the botanicals?’ ‘What’s the base grain?’ It’s an opportunity for reps to interact with a focused audience.”

And that’s hardly self-promotion. Brand reps attest. “I represent a small artisanal portfolio. Adam’s audience – a combination of industry people and people interested in the cocktail movement –  is what we’re looking for,” said Kevin Fethe, Key Account Manager for Great Estates, which represents Preiss Imports. (Products include the Luxardo line, A.H. Hirsch whiskeys and Junipero Gin.) “The tasting I did was an opportunity for people to ask guestions. As people dive into more esoteric spirits, it can be intimidating to make the leap to buying obscure liqueurs or bourbons, but this is a great venue for people to jump in before buying a bottle. For me, it’s a perfect venue. Often people go to tastings to down drinks, but here people are interested and intrigued.”

And given the exponentially growing interest in artisanal cocktails, chances are high that people will remain interested and intrigued for as long as distilleries continue to fire up their stills.

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