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These are boom times for craft distillers. As consumers become more conscious about the provenance and production methods of their favorite spirits, small, independent distillers are answering the call, cranking out everything from small-batch whiskey made with heritage grains to locavore vodka. But even as these products flood our liquor stores, there’s still one booze category that remains somewhat stuck in the past.
“The liqueur aisle is still a dark place with a lot of artificial colors and flavors,” says Robby Haynes, the co-founder of Apologue Liqueurs. “As I’m getting a little older after having been in the bar business for so long, this seemed like a right time to take a more thoughtful approach to liqueurs and that category.”
Haynes is no stranger to great spirits. He spent time at Chicago’s James Beard Award–winning bar The Violet Hour and had his own cocktail den called Analogue in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood. He worked with Letherbee Distillers to develop its Malört-like Bësk recipe. Last year, along with Jordan Tepper, Haynes launched Apologue Liqueurs as a way to showcase new flavors instead of trying to remake classic formulas.
“For so long, it has either been premium, foreign brands or old, historical things like Aperol, Campari and Cynar,” says Haynes. “It was time for a change.” Apologue launched with three core flavors—persimmon, aronia berry and celery root—all of which are made using 100 percent natural, non-GMO ingredients.
The company works with independent farms to source its components responsibly and sustainably. And unlike pretty much any other bottle you see in the liquor store, Apologue lists its ingredients on the label to uphold its commitment to transparency. This ethos is an outgrowth of the farm-to-table movement in food, says Haynes. “If you’re putting quality ingredients on a plate and working with sustainable sourcing, it’s a natural fit to have that reflected in your bar program.”
Apologue’s flavor lineup is unique compared to anything else on the market. And for Haynes, working with these lesser-used, Midwestern-sourced ingredients is what drives the brand’s innovation. “I feel like with any art or creative pursuit you have to trust your instincts,” he says. “I’m most proud of the persimmon. I fought really hard for that one, from a creative perspective. It took a little while to get it right because a couple of batches got thrown off. Even so, that one felt really good to me from the start because I knew it could be awesome.”
But the inspiration for Apologue isn’t simply driven by Haynes’ and the team’s professional backgrounds. The customer experience is just as important to brand development. “I was bartending at a neighborhood dive bar, and this woman walked in right when we opened, and she wanted a cocktail that was refreshing and savory,” says Haynes. “And I just stopped like, Oh, my God, there are no savory liqueurs at this bar—I don’t even know that there are that many savory liqueurs.’ When I left I was, like, OK, cool, I think I have an idea. That’s where the celery root came from.”
“A couple of days after I first tasted Apologue’s liqueurs, I was flying out of O’Hare, and the bar carried Apologue; it featured the celery root in its Bloody Mary,” says Rob Boyd, the beverage director at Chicago’s Tack Room, Punch House and Dusek’s. “I ended up talking about the brand with the other guests at the bar. They seemed to be really interested in their story and the connection to Chicago. The next week, I added my first cocktail to the menu featuring Apologue.”
“As a locally sourced and produced product, Apologue liqueurs play well into our guests’ desire for local ingredients,” says Pat Ray, a bartender at The Violet Hour. “The fact that they highlight Midwestern botanicals makes them feel like they were crafted specifically for Chicagoans.”
Serving Apologue in craft cocktails is helping to build awareness for the brand in the Chicago market. But Haynes really wants to focus on the home bartender by persuading folks that making drinks at home shouldn’t be an intimidating prospect.
“While it’s a very easy thing for people at a bar or restaurant to understand, the home consumer is the person we’re trying to invest our energy into,” says Haynes. “We want to make sure they feel comfortable using the products and know they can make a good drink at home that’s just as good as something you would get at a bar.”
Haynes and his team have come up with a catalogue of recipes, many of which are riffs on classics that only require a few ingredients. A Persimmon Negroni, for example, simply swaps out Campari for Apologue persimmon liqueur and mixes in equal parts gin and sweet vermouth. A take on the sweet, tangy Daiquiri replaces simple syrup with the aronia berry liqueur. Haynes suggests serving the celery root liqueur simply with a twist over ice.
While Apologue has seen great success with its core line, it doesn’t plan on stopping there. It released a limited-edition pawpaw liqueur, which both Boyd and Ray say is their favorite. “Since its inclusion on our menu, I have found out the pawpaw is the largest indigenous fruit to the United States,” says Ray. “The things you learn as a bartender!”
Apologue is also introducing a saffron liqueur next year that will add another savory bottling to the lineup. And it wants to collaborate with as many like-minded brands as possible. “Our thing is creating meaningful connections through the things that we make and putting awesome flavors together,” says Haynes. “We’re working on some nontraditional things, like a collaboration with a mezcal producer. We’re always interested in doing things outside the liqueur space—collaborations with breweries and anybody that’s making awesome stuff. We’d love to sit down and get creative with them.”
In a time when craft distillers are seeing their hard work turn into great success, Apologue is in good company. There’s a shared mentality among local producers that when one small brand in a category wins other brands in that category win too.
“There’s some awesome stuff happening here in Chicago and nationwide,” says Haynes. “I think people are seeing you can do it too. If someone told me 10 years ago that we’d be doing this, I’d have thought that was crazy. But I think if you believe in it, the better you can make it happen, because people in your community are willing to lend support to see a genuinely, holistically good idea succeed. I think that’s the thing missing from the liqueur sect. There’s not a lot of soul, and we’re trying to change that.”