Canned and bottled cocktails are having a moment.
Instead of reaching for a beer, spirit lovers can now grab a pack of their favorite mixed drinks to go. One of our favorite brands of the moment is Plain Spoke Cocktails, which was launched by pro bartender Tom Dufek. Dufek has worked in the industry for more than a decade and helped lead the cocktail programs at Lucille and Merchant in Madison, Wisconsin, before he left to start his own cocktail company. In our latest piece in Chilled’s Ask a Bartender series, we chatted with Dufek to learn more about why he started Plain Spoke and some of the struggles and wins he experienced along the way.
How long were you bartending and developing cocktail programs before launching Plain Spoke?
I’d been behind the bar in one form or another for approximately 11 years. But I’ve worked on and off in restaurants for most of my life—it’s in my family. My brother works for Miller in the quality department, my other brother is the cocktail specialist for a liquor distributor, and my sister is the GM of Merchant. Sweet vermouth basically runs through our veins.
What made you want to start your own cocktail company?
A decided lack of accessibility. If I wanted great cocktails, I either had to go to a fancy cocktail bar or make them myself. Both of which are fine. But there are times when you just want to pop open a can of something high-quality without the effort of juicing limes or getting fancy to sit at a bar, then flag down the bartender and wait 10 minutes for a drink. Our goal is to make great cocktails accessible wherever life takes you—the lakes of the Midwest, your cabin up north, or on your couch binging the latest and greatest on Netflix.
What was the most difficult part of research and development that you came across?
Licensing! We are a distillery that uses brewing equipment and techniques from wine and soda industries, so the blending of all the different techniques and processes was a little arduous. Also, sourcing cans as a small producer and not being one of the massive beverage producers has proven to be tricky. We love our little 200ml cans, but the whole market was built for 12- and 16-ounce cans, so getting someone to ship us a couple pallets of 200ml cans to get started was not an option. We likely would have launched a month or two sooner, but got hit with some lead time issues.
How is creating mass-produced cocktails different from mixing a one-off behind the bar?
We make what our distributors need for a month at a time, and not a drop more. This keeps our stock fresh instead of letting it sit for months. So while I wouldn’t call us mass-produced, the equipment and process we use for scale is definitely different than your standard cocktail shaker. We’ve had to dial in everything at the most minute level, so it takes a lot more precision. If you mess something up with a one-off cocktail, you can correct it on the spot, but fixing a 400-gallon batch of Moscow Mules is next to impossible. We live and die by dialing in those issues before everything goes in the mixing tank. So the difference really comes down to keeping our process very tight and exact every single time for consistency.
Can you talk about some of the cocktails in Plain Spoke’s line and the inspiration behind them?
We wanted to start with classic cocktails that people are familiar with, so we have the Moscow Mule, Bourbon Smash, and Mojito. We let our cocktails do the talking with simple, high-quality ingredients that people can pronounce without any preservatives or artificial flavors. We use real lemon and lime juice, not from concentrate, and no citric acids or lime extract. We do this because we wanted to mimic the same high-quality experience you would get at the fancy cocktail bar. If you go to a nice place, I can assure you they aren’t using sodium benzoate. They are using real ingredients, so that is what we do. Our newest cocktail, the Mojito, is a personal favorite of mine. I’m a rum guy, so there’s a bit of self-interest there, but it’s also a super-refreshing cocktail to enjoy in the late summer days. For now, we’re aiming for each cocktail to feature a different spirit to give people options based on their favorites.
What’s next for the brand?
So much! We are looking at opening a tasting room in Madison so people can come and interact with our brand. We are eyeing distribution in five to seven new markets in the very near future, so we can put our cocktails in more hands of the people asking for them. Also, now that we’ve started to establish our core cocktails, we want to start doing more outlandish and fun seasonal cocktails, as well as work with other beverage producers like kombuchas, breweries, and distilleries to do one-off collaborations.