The Rise of the Cider Bar: Wassail NYC

We chart the rise of the cider bar with Wassail, an acclaimed NYC destination for fine food and hard cider fans alike. As growth in the hard cider industry continues to gain momentum in the US, this is a trend to watch.

By Ruth Temianka

The Rise of The Cider Bar: Wassail NYC

Recent growth in hard cider production has led to a problem for drinkers and businesses alike all over the nation: where to buy it?

Image of the Wassail logo, with black text on a yellow backgroundThe answer to that question can be charted in the rise of the cider bar, a destination dedicated to showcasing the best of the fruits of America's labor, literally.

Hot on the heels of that trend is NYC cider destination Wassail, located in Manhattan's trendy Lower East Side neighborhood.

I spoke to the team behind the fast-growing business to learn more about why they chose to launch a business dedicated to hard cider and its production?

Pairing A Love for Cider and Each Other in NYC

Husband-and-wife team Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, are busy restaurateurs. Along with their business partner Sabine Hrechdakian and Cider Director Dan Pucci, the couple are transforming a small corner of Orchard Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side into a mecca for artful dishes and distinctive hard ciders.

Photo of Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim, owners of Wassail cider bar in NYC. Photo credit, Layla KhabiriWassail cider bar boasts over 90 hard ciders on draft and by the bottle. Each cider is carefully curated by Pucci to provide a full spectrum of flavor profiles, each representing the unique characteristics of local and international ciders.

The team also comprises talented bartenders and chefs creating vegetable-centric gastronomy that’s as artful as it is flavorful.

Finally Wassail hosts events featuring cider makers and cider historians to transform patrons’ experiences from the dreamily delectable to lusciously intellectual. This is a cider bar dedicated to teaching consumers about hard cider and why it's a beverage on the rise.  

How to Start a Cider Bar Business?

Image of the inside of Wassail cider bar in NYC, busy with guests and serversIt took two years of elbow-grease to bring their cider bar idea to fruition but the team’s proof-of-concept is paying off.

Not only did Wassail open to huge acclaim as the premier destination for cider in New York City but Lim and Sandler, successful restaurateurs of The Queens Kickshaw (recipient of a Good Beer Seal in 2013), are being hailed as heroes by cider enthusiasts nationwide. Cue Cider Con, Cider Week NYC and work with local and international makers to showcase the best of what fruit (and vegetables) have to offer.

How Did Their Business Strategy Help Them Succeed?

Having already established a firm following with their first restaurant, the business owners decided to do something a little different. With so much competition in NYC, Sandler and Lim decided to pick one beverage and build a specialist retail destination around it.

Throwing open their doors in partnership with cider trade associations raised the bar's profile with hard cider producers and brought eager consumers in through their doors to sample cider during festivals. The result was a great way to raise the bar's profile without having to compete in the crowded restaurant advertising space.

How to Build a Cider Bar?

Image of Wassail cider bar courtesy of Bon AppetitWhen Lim and Sandler first opened The Queens Kickshaw in 2011 they served three ciders.

Analyzing the restaurant’s POS data they noticed a 70% spike in cider sales during Cider Week. That led to a decision to fit a dedicated tap-line.

Lim and Sandler started to source cider using contacts gleaned from a map produced by Glynwood, a working farm and not-for-profit hub for farming in the Hudson Valley, which in turn introduced them to future Wassail co-owner Sabine Hrechdakian.

How to Serve Cider in a Bar? Solving the Logistical Challenge

When Wassail's owners first started out, production capacity to fill kegs was extremely limited. As a result, it took over a year and half before Lim and Sandler were able to obtain kegs of NY hard cider. Typically distribution for small makers is problematic as is storage. Speaking with local cider makers, the team found businesses filling each keg five times over to justify the purchase price.

Image of Wassail server pouring cider at the bar with a row of tap handles in the background. Image courtesy of nyooberserver With the cost of kegs prohibitive, Sandler and Lim learned makers instead source disposable or used kegs from outlets such as Union Beer Distributors. However that choice creates its own set of problems, including keg cleanliness and batch quality control.

Growing A Cider Bar Business

Though distribution remains a challenge for craft cideries, the couple’s business intuition was confirmed. Cider now constitutes 35% of overall alcohol beverages sales at The Queens Kickshaw compared to only 5% four years ago. It also helped spur the decision to focus on cider at their second Lower East Side location. The result? Press adulation.

Cider Bars and the Rise of Craft Beverage Production

In fact in the US has undergone somewhat of a hard cider renaissance with a 60% surge in craft cider consumption 2012-13. To meet that demand American hard cider production tripled from 9.4 to 32 million barrels annually 2011-13, mostly led by makers in Oregon. Sales of cider increased 75% 2013-14. In Wassail's home state of New York, the craft cider industry is following in the footsteps of craft beer, which has also boomed.   

Legal Challenges Supporting the Growth In Hard Cider Industry

The work of Wassail, Glynwood, Cider Week NYC and the newly-formed NYCA is breathing new life into old East Coast Appleseed orchards. This revival is facilitated by 2014 changes to the NY State laws governing farm cideries, part of a wider swathe of legislation supporting small batch or “craft” liquor production.

Photo of Wassail's Cider Director Dan Pucci. Photo by Liz Clayman. Cider making is a natural extension for apple farmers. By showcasing premium drafts, cider bar Wassail ensures producers can command better returns while also supporting choice and exploration for consumers.

Cider Bars Are Reintroducing Hard Cider To Consumers

Cider Director Dan Pucci sees this choice as especially important in a market where consumers are thirsty for the “experience” of cider as they rediscover the drink, learning what taste profiles and cideries appeal to them most. In turn, his own experience working with the close-knit cider community is what motivates the whole team at Wassail to continue their mission.  

With momentum building nationally, this cider bar's goal is to support their rise in every neighborhood across New York and beyond. Could hard cider prove as lucrative for restaurateurs, farmers and cider makers as it is for newly-informed consumers?

That prospect looks pretty appealing...or should that be “apple-ing”?!

Wassail cider bar and restaurant is located at:

162 Orchard Street
New York


What Do Cider Makers Have To Say About the Growth of their Industry?

Watch Kinnek ask the cider community during CiderCon 2016 in Portland! 


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