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LI distillery tastes success with flavored liqueurs

The strawberries floated in a 50-gallon vat of Long Island potato vodka and would soon be ghosts of their former selves, turning white as they gave up their flavors.

At the Long Island Spirits distillery in Baiting Hollow, owner Rich Stabile thinks his new Sorbetta line of flavored liqueurs will appeal to higher-end consumers, despite the $22 price for 375ml in these wallet-conscious times.

Last year the distillery sold 4,000 cases of vodka instead of the projected 5,000 as the Wall Street crisis hit the firm's core consumers, he said, but in the past few months business came back, led by the January debut of the new liqueurs.

"I started to see that consumer comeback a bit more in November," Stabile said. "I think certain people still have money and at some point got sick of denying themselves some simple treats. It's not like you're buying a second home," he said. "You're buying an affordable luxury."

The Sorbetta comes also in lemon and orange, but strawberry's been the star seller.

At the distillery Friday, he picked out a fat strawberry from the vat of vodka and remembered selling out 500 bottles of the flavor on Valentine Day's weekend at his tasting room.

He joked that Sorbetta sales were a "leading indicator" of the economy bouncing back. The new offering has accounted for two-thirds of the 750 cases of liquor he has sold so far this year, Stabile said.

Last year's lower-than-projected revenues delayed the launch of other Sorbetta flavors, he said, but this year, the business is expecting its best year since its mid-2008 launch.

Long Island Spirits has been expanding its sales outlets to other states, going from six last year to 10 now and 20 projected by year's end.

The "artisan-crafted" drinks are finding their niches in boutique hotels and the tastes of discerning consumers, Stabile said.

"You don't see everyone stop buying Grey Goose and better quality products," he said, referring to another high-end vodka. "Granted, [Sorbetta is] $20, but you go buy a bottle of wine for $20 and it's gone in a dinner. You can spend $20 on this and enjoy it over the course of several dinners."

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