Emerging markets: DIY or die

The menu arrives. It’s what you’ve come to expect from the modern bar – banana butter fat washing, smoke-injected spirits, aromatic mists, lavender foam – except you are in Yangon.

Yes, there is molecular mixology in Myanmar, a country with per-capita wealth of one 50th of the US and where internet is available to about an eighth of the population.

These are the real success stories of the drinks industry. Bars like Roof Alchemy don’t come about by accident, only hard yards. The mechanics of setting up a cocktail bar in the likes of Yangon couldn’t be more different to that of developed cities where bartenders are courted by distributors and brands and every handshake is golden.

According to Roof Alchemy’s founder, Chan Nyein Soe, there is “no liquor investment” in the country. “The downside is that our bartenders don’t get the masterclasses necessary for learning,” he says. “We do not have big cocktail competitions where bartenders learn from each other and they are not able to experience and taste all the different types of spirits.” Soe has had to be innovative – he joined the Myanmar Bartenders Association and created his own competitions. There are many products he can’t get his hands on, so he infuses his own spirit. He has no access to mezcal so creates smoke-infused tequila. Decent glassware is scarce but Soe finds vessels in laboratory stores and markets. In Myanmar, it’s DIY or die.

Buying basic ingredients is a challenge elsewhere too. Not so long ago in Israel you could expect to make a five-hour drive to source limes. Bar Shira, speaking from his Tel Aviv venue, Imperial Craft, which last year was voted among The World’s 50 Best Bars, said: “Israel is blessed with citrus, especially lemons and oranges, but to help protect the farmers it is forbidden to import citrus.” In the face of protectionism, Imperial Craft’s owners got creative. Before long, and by no coincidence, journalists started writing articles about limes and those attempting to improve distribution received good press. Demand was quickly whipped up. “Now there is an almost year-round supply of lime,” says Shira.

Cypriot Dinos Constantinides, of The World’s 50 Best Bars’ Lost + Found, is another creating world-class drinks in not-so-splendid isolation. “Distributors were only importing the brands that were already selling,” he says. “No one knew how to use brands such as Chartreuse and Cynar and importers didn’t know how to sell them.”

Constantinides was forced to ship product in from overseas, often paying double the price for spirits. He had to buy in high volume and needed a lot of extra space to store his dead stock. “The big distributors weren’t interested [in diversifying their offering]. As a result, an opportunity was created and a few small distributors got the chance to penetrate to the market,” he says.

Some new bar markets have issues with high taxation and anti-alcohol governance. Paul Bradley, who has opened a number of bars in Dubai, says spirits procurement is very different to his home market of the UK. He says categories come in waves – mezcal has recently arrived in the Emirate but once it falls out of fashion (he predicts it won’t last long) it will be gone for good. Another challenge is marketing a bar in which the advertising of alcohol is not allowed. In restaurant bars in Dubai the rules are even firmer – no alcohol can be displayed in front of customers. They can drink alcohol but they are just not allowed to see where it comes from.

All around the world, new bar markets are emerging despite considerable challenges. Often thanks to the schemes and enterprises of very determined bartenders.