Starbucks VIA Cocktail Mix-Off
Although Starbucks‘ new instant (or as they call it "ready-brew") coffee, VIA, has been in the Seattle market for several months it seems Starbucks is working on raising interest as they prepare for the national roll-out. Understandably, a ready-brew/instant coffee could be considered a gamble for the company and so last week they took an interesting tack in promoting the product.
They assembled four bartenders from the Seattle area known for creating technically perfect, interesting cocktails. By technically perfect I mean that they are part of inner circle of mixologists who adhere to the standards set by the fathers of the cocktail combining elixirs in a way that results in a perfect balance of flavors, acidity and interest. Anything that tastes or looks like a Jolly Rancher candy would never be mixed or even considered by these folks. (I love Jolly Rancher hard candy – just not in my glass…)
These bartenders were challenged with creating a cocktail that used VIA as an ingredient. Last Thursday they met in a "mix-off" competition judged by four food and beverage professionals: Jennifer Shea (Trophy Cupcake), Eric Tanaka (Tom Douglas Restaurants), Jessica Voelker (Seattle Metropolitan), Ann-Marie Kurtz (Starbucks).
The gathering took place on the Garden Terrace of Hotel 1000. This was a fun venue as it sits on the southwest corner of the 4th floor of the hotel, giving you city views, the impression of being outside (even though it’s completely glass enclosed) and an intimate space for a group. Fewer than 100 people were on hand to view the proceedings and I was happy to be included.
Prior to the actual competition Howard Schultz explained the history of VIA, how Starbucks came to even consider making an instant coffee, and how this all led to their current R&D department and strategy. I found the information really interesting and it also put a human face on the product. I wish they had the story somewhere on their site – if they do I couldn’t find it – as I don’t think I can represent it properly from memory. I will say it started with one man who approached Starbucks years ago with a sample of an instant coffee. His idea eventually landed him the first R&D position at Starbucks and was the beginning of the department. While unable to bring the product to market during his lifetime, the seed he planted has been realized in the VIA product.
After Schultz’ opening remarks the competition began. Kelly Moore filled the MC role and Andrew Bohrer provided the color commentary. The four competing mixologists were: Erik Hakkinen (Zig Zag Café), Keenan Ahlo (BOKA Kitchen + Bar), Andrew Friedman (Liberty), Anu Apte (Rob Roy). Cocktails were prepared in two rounds. In the first round Friedman and Ahlo mixed up two very different cocktails. Friedman was first with his Kentucky Coffee, a straight-forward drink with whiskey as the base and lemon adding a nice citrus zing. And, of course, all of the cocktails included VIA as an ingredient. This was my second favorite cocktail of the evening.
Ahlo’s entry named, Starbucks VIA India, was a much more complex concoction featuring gin, benedictine, coconut milk and curry. It was almost a dessert. I enjoyed the hint of the exotic the curry and coconut milk brought to the drink.
There was a short break before round two featuring Hakkinen and Apte. Hakkinen’s entry, the Beccacino, included bourbon, benedictine, Irish mist, amaretto and orgeat. He layered it for a nice presentation. It was by far the strongest drink in the competition – and my favorite of the bunch.
The final entry from Apte was the Columbia Coffee Fizz and was another fairly complex drink. Her drink really highlighted the VIA using more than any of the other drinks. It also included aged rum, green chartreuse, whipping cream and Dry Soda vanilla.
The cocktails were judged on creativity, taste and their "VIAriffic" quotient. The judges all received full cocktails and while they were judging smaller sampling portions were distributed to the crowd. The contestants were competing for a $5000 prize that would be donated to a charity of their choice.
After the final round the judges’ scores were tallied and it turned out there was a tie between Apte and Hakkinen. The tie-breaker was based on crowd applause and Apte won quite resoundingly. Based solely on the fact that her cocktail really was VIArrific I think this was the right result but I still preferred both Hakkinen’s and Friedman’s cocktails.
The evening was enjoyable and it was a fun and creative event. I had just one small disappointment with the evening. While the guests were assembling prior to the activities I spotted Howard Schultz standing at a table and being ignored by most of the group. I approached him and asked if he thought featuring VIA as a cocktail mixer was in any way confusing or would detract from the company’s line of liqueurs. His response and attitude were dismissive which I found unsettling. He basically said, "totally different" and slightly turned away. While the products are totally different, featuring VIA as a cocktail ingredient brings them into the same arena. Even if he thought it a "stupid" question, which apparently he did, you’d think he could come up with a more eloquent answer than that. As I customer I was interested. As a stockholder I was even more interested. As a blogger I would have liked to understand his thoughts. I did not represent myself to Schultz as any of these things but I would think that in Seattle he would assume that there was a good chance I was a customer and, since this was a PR event, he might have guessed I had some "news" perspective. I guess I was surprised at the response and so it is sticking with me.
I’m not sure that I will ever use VIA in a cocktail – perhaps to make a coffee drink while camping – but I would use coffee liqueur and since I have a bottle of Starbucks Coffee Liqueur on hand, I think Starbucks wins either way.
VIA is currently available in Seattle, Chicago and London.