Rachel Malm: USA Spirits Ratings judges brands the same way the best drink buyers do
Rachel Malm is well placed to know whether a new spirit brand is going to work or not, for that is what she does every day in her job as associate at Bitters in Bottles in San Francisco.
Assessing each brand for their quality, their value for money, what they look like and how easy and tactile are they to pick up? Those are all the questions she would ask of any new brand wanting to get a listing, and they are also the key criteria used to determine which brands pick up medals in the USA Spirits Ratings competition.
Here she looks back on her career in the drinks industry, what trends she has seen in lockdown and why she is looking forward to being part of the judging panel for the 2021 USA Spirits Ratings.
How did you get into the drinks industry and why did you want to have a career in it?
My first job was as a host at a small Italian restaurant in my hometown. Throughout college I stayed in restaurants because I enjoyed the fast paced energy of service. Eventually while working as a server in Los Angeles I kept asking my bar director so many questions he finally asked a question of me: “Would I like to come work behind the bar?”
I said yes and began as a bar-back, and quickly discovered there will always be something new to learn. I loved it, and as they say - the rest is history.
Can you describe your current role and your main responsibilities?
I am currently part of the small team at a specialty spirits shop in South San Francisco. In addition to day-to-day store responsibilities I am able to share my expertise as a bartender in the formulation of our curated cocktail collections, as well as the creation of our exploratory bottle flight offerings. One of the most fun and special opportunities I enjoy as part of the team is the opportunity to taste and evaluate selections for our store’s private barrel program.
What do you find most rewarding about your role and what you can achieve?
Most rewarding about my role is acting as an ambassador for the products we carry. Each bottle reflects a multitude of stories, from the history of the land, to the raw materials and regional styles of production, to the life journeys of the makers crafting the spirits.
As someone who interacts directly with consumers I view myself as a storyteller and humbly accept the high level of responsibility I have to relay their stories accurately and respectfully. It is such a pleasure to be able to share in the joy of a guest’s newest discovery.
How has the last 12 months been for you adapting to life with the pandemic - what changes have you made?
To say the past 12 months have been challenging would be a complete understatement. The heart-break of shut downs, closures, and the loss of family members and loved ones forced the hospitality community to make many difficult adjustments.
One positive adjustment I’ve seen in the industry at large, as well as for myself, is a major shift in focus towards honoring personal health and wellbeing. Recently I have been able to participate virtually and work as contributor with Focus On Health (https://www.fohealth.org/), an amazing organization seeking to support the mental, physical, and financial health journeys of individuals in the food and beverage sector.
While I still enjoy a good Tequila from time to time, I’ve also been enthusiastically exploring the wide range flavors available from new non-alcoholic offerings, mixing up both low and no ABV libations.
What trends and changes in drinks/ spirits buying habits have you seen in the last year?
Last year anyone who already stocked a home bar likely expanded their personal spirits collection and some people definitely started stocking a home bar for the first time. Moving forward as we return to bars and restaurants I expect to see a more engaged drinker perhaps more informed in their personal taste preferences and eager to discuss the nuance of their next beverage selection with their server or bartender!
What do you see as being the key trends for 2021 in terms of the styles of spirits being bought and the countries and regions where they come from?
2021 will be the year of the importance of place. One-offs, seasonal batches, single barrel or other special editions have already proven to be in high demand. Brands who prominently feature terrior and effectively showcase their unique identity via transparency to the consumer will remain on trend.
With so many competitions why do you want to be a judge in USA Spirits Ratings?
I’m humbled and honored to participate alongside so many industry leaders and experts. As spirits professional I am keen to keep my palate sharp and continue to build my flavor “memory bank”. USA Spirits Ratings and the entries always offer a diverse spectrum of spirit styles and flavor profiles to explore.
What do you think about its judging criteria that judges spirits on their quality, but also value for money and design and packaging?
Value and bottle design are important and practical details that directly affect how individuals interact with a product. Any ratings system that pays specific attention to this aspect of bringing spirits to market gives those who enter a more holistic view of how their product will be received.
USA Spirits Ratings especially unique panel is made up of expert buyers and bartenders that span business to business but also regularly work with consumers and are in touch with the latest trends and preferences.
Do you think this way of judging is more in tune with how professional spirits/ drinks buyers decide which spirits to list?
I do believe the perceived monetary value of a bottle as well as the physical design and packaging play a significant role in what buyers decide to purchase and stock. One of the simplest reasons being: shelf space is valuable real estate. Certain aspects of pricing, bottle ergonomics, and label design can mean the difference between being placed in the well for frequent pouring, featured prominently, or possibly going un-noticed in a corner.