Demand for Imported Whiskey Heats Up

The enduring brown-spirits boom may have been fueled largely by American whiskey, but imported whiskies are undergoing a healthy—and pricy—growth spurt.

Whiskey bars have long been in vogue in the U.S., usually specializing in single malt Scotch and the few Irish whiskies that were available at the time. As more Irish distillers come on line with different expressions and finishes, they also have been getting serious attention from the bars and whiskey lovers. 

More recently, Japanese whiskies have caught the zeitgeist, not only in whiskey bars, but also in restaurants that traditionally would carry few imported whiskies. Even Canadian brands are getting their due lately, especially the high rye expressions.

Price seems to hold little concern for customers at these whiskey-centric operations. This has emboldened operators to sniff out one-offs, limited editions and other rarities that customers want to sample.

Luck Sarabhayavanija, managing partner of Ani Ramen in Jersey City, NJ, had planned to create a display wall of Japanese whiskies for the bar—until he found out how difficult it was to source them here.

“Obviously, there’s the greatest interest in all whisky than ever before,” says Bill Thomas, owner of Washington, D.C.’s Jack Rose. He’s behind the bar’s collection of whiskies topping 2,700. 

“I think the average whisky drinker right now is branching out into every style,” Thomas says. “Nothing is off limits. Of course, there’s a lot of interest in Scotch, in Japanese, but even newer, interesting countries like India, Australia, France.”

Thomas, like many whiskey bar owners, thinks the American whiskey explosion has helped bars like his flourish, even though so much of what he stocks is imported. “If anything, the boom in bourbon is opening up a domestic market for new whiskey drinkers that are turning their eyes to international whiskey as well. Bourbon is almost serving as a gateway to all other styles of whiskey,” he says.

Scotch Treat

Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, OR, offers many as 1,100 whiskies at any one time. While many are American-made, imports generally are more likely to be sought after—both by customers and by the owners.

“With Scotch, on a daily or weekly basis we’re reviewing new releases or checking with the brand reps and brand ambassadors to see when certain items will come in. We’re in a control state so we have to work a little harder to get some things,” says Colin Howard, education director at Multnomah.

“We try to have everything we can that makes sense,” he adds. “People are coming in interested in being adventurous and knowledgeable about the Scotches that are available, and paying for the value there.”

Not all operators can justify the level of investment in imported whiskies made by Jack Rose and Multnomah Whiskey Library. But creating a solid list that spans the globe is easier these days than ever before. 

At PY’s Steakhouse in the Tucson, AZ-based Casino Del Sol, property mixologist Aaron De Feo oversees a comprehensive imported whiskey list. The restaurant lists a number of flights, some that mix and match regions, but with many that focus on Scotland. 

For example, the Grand Highlands Tour includes Glengoyne 10 year old Scotch whisky, Ardmore Traditional Cask and Glendronach 12 year old. The Rich and Famous flight features Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, Springbank 10 year old and Highland Park 16 year old. PY’s Steakhouse prices both flights at $16 each.

De Feo says customers are keen to explore whatever is new. “Cask finishes are always a big sales point for people. Glenmorangie and others have offered these for a long time, so it’s something most Scotch drinkers understand and look for,” he notes.

“There’s also a growing trend to put out some more affordable marques that are more interesting, as a counterpoint to all the high-end bottlings that have been coming out,” De Feo adds.

Irish Smiling

Irish whiskey’s growth is still driven by the immense power of Jameson. The Pernod Ricard brand does about 80% of the Irish volume in the U.S. 

But with more brands coming, more activity from various suppliers and new iterations pushing their way into the market, Irish is poised to be a leader in appealing to bourbon and rye consumers. There are some 25 or so new distilleries coming online this decade.

“The Irish boom is still booming,” says Thomas. “People are venturing far beyond Jameson in favor of other great Irish distilleries and expressions that have greater complexity and nuance. As a category, it’s one of the fastest growing and diverse.” 

But higher-end Irish growth has stalled a little recently: Data in the 2017 Liquor Handbook by the Beverage Information Group (Cheers’ sister company) indicates that Redbreast and Powers, two superpremium Irish whiskey brands, each fell about 4% last year.

“We sell some higher-end Irish, but the big spenders are geared more to Japanese, Scotch and rare bourbons these days,” says Howard. “I think the ‘non-Scotchness’ of Irish—the fruity and ethereal quality that comes from pot still distillation—actually works against it.” 

But Irish whiskey does attract a slightly different drinker, he notes, “and they appreciate the rarities like Yellow Spot and Green Spot.” 

Go Canada

Canadian whisky consumption was up 2.2% in 2016, according to the 2017 Liquor Handbook, reaching 16.2 million nine-liter cases. The category’s share of total spirits consumption held steady at 7.3%.

Brands are commonly blended, consisting mostly of light corn whiskey with Canadian rye and sometimes bourbon added. As rye has grown in importance with the younger American consumer, much of the so-called flavoring rye whiskies are being bottled at 75% rye and above. These present an alternative to the smooth and mellow style that Canadian whisky is known for.

That’s made the whiskies more popular at bars for cocktails, but the Canadian-focused drinker hasn’t quite emerged the same way as the Japanese, Irish or Scotch fan.

“Canadian drinkers are relatively a smaller group for us, although the Canadian distillers are putting intelligent efforts into their whiskies, and the ryes are pretty interesting and approachable for bartenders,” says Howard.

Big on Japan

A Japanese whisky and soda cocktail at Ani Ramen in Jersey City, NJ.

While Scotch remains the big dog of imported whiskies at most whiskey-focused operations, and Irish is thriving, lately it’s been Japanese brands that are in vogue and garnering the most curiosity, Howard says. “We offer an extremely wide range of whiskies that gives people access to common ones, like Suntory Toki, but also allows them to really get into the deep end,” he says. 

As the profile of Japanese whiskey becomes more pronounced, customers come in expecting to be able to sample expressions that they themselves can’t get their hands on. The main issue for Multnomah Whiskey Library, as it is for most American operators, is getting enough and being able to maintain variety. 

“You never really know when you’re going to get your next shipment,” Howard says.

While Japanese whisky remains a tiny portion of overall imports, the buzz has helped launch a cultish following for the limited availability brands now appearing in the U.S. 

“We curate a list that’s approaching 400 whiskeys from across the world,” says De Feo. 

“Most people are focused on bourbon and Scotch, so that’s what we have the most of,” he adds. “But Japanese whiskey is so popular it’s necessary to have as much as you can, even though it’s not always available.”

Ani Ramen in Jersey City, NJ, is a prime example of how the Asian spirit has caught the fancy of whiskey enthusiasts as well as food and beverage industry folks. The Japanese noodle house collaborated with mixologist Kenta Goto, proprietor of New York’s Bar Goto, to create a bar serving Japanese-style cocktails and sake with a late-night menu. 

Luck Sarabhayavanija, the managing partner of Ani Ramen, wanted to recreate a display wall of Japanese whiskies he first saw in the casual drinking restaurants known as izakayas in Japan. Then he found out just how difficult it was to source them here.

“We wanted to get all the expressions of Suntory’s Yamazaki and Hibiki, for example, but it’s just not possible because they are all allocated,” Sarabhayavanija says. 

He started connecting with other restaurants and retailers to see if he could get bottles from them that weren’t moving, but that too proved difficult.

“People are buying at retail and selling for three to four times that amount, and that makes it tough for the operator.” Sarabhayavanija is currently stocking about 28 different Japanese whiskies, ranging from Iwai Black (priced at $10 a pour), to Hibiki Harmony ($20), Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu ($65) all the way up to Mikka Taketsuru ($80).

As ambitious as the effort was for a ramen bar, it’s worked. 

“When we first started off, our drinks were about 50% cocktails, 30% sake, sochu, wine and beer, and about 20% Japanese whiskies, a lot for a ramen house,” Sarabhayavanija says. “Four months in, we’re about 35% Japanese whiskey. People are coming in just for that now.”

Small pours, price reductions and flights help promote the attraction, and Ani Ramen has developed a reputation as an industry late-night whiskey spot.  

“They’ll try a couple of different whiskies, something at a lower price point, but those that we charge $40, $60, $80 or more, we get people on the weekend looking for celebratory drinks,” Sarabhayavanija says.

Bartenders Boosting Demand

The whiskey cellar at Jack Rose in Washington, DC, boasts a collection of whiskeys topping 2,700.

De Feo, who managed to source a stash of Japanese whiskies before the current boom, says scrambling for product is likely to continue as long as bartenders keep singing its praises.

“We as a hospitality community sparked this when we got behind Japanese whiskey when it wasn’t yet popular, turning on Scotch drinkers to show them how different and still similar it was” he says. “Word-of-mouth from educated bartenders and consumers realizing what a great product it is helped make it take off, and I don’t think there will be enough to go around for some time.”

Of course, the limited allocations and number of distilleries in Japan prevents the sort of deep exploration that Scotch allows, says Howard.

“In Scotland, there’s a wider range—if someone likes Lagavullin or doesn’t know about another region than Speyside, there’s a lot more to explore,” he explains. “You can only take the journey so far with Japanese.”

Spirited Promos

Whatever the region, operators still rely on promotional activities to showcase their imported whiskies.  There’s a monthly calendar of events at Multnomah Whiskey Library, including dinners with brand ambassadors or distillers. The bar also has a club membership that gives participants advance notice of ticketed events as well as new whiskey arrivals.

“We’re constantly hosting whisky events with distilleries from the U.S. and abroad, to introduce novices to a particular new style, and aficionados to a new release,” says Thomas of Jack Rose. 

Curated flights for every category and the opportunity to taste new releases helps build loyalty, he says.

But above all, bars like these rely on staff education, awareness and promotion.

“Customers trust the recommendations of our staff quite a bit,” says Howard. “We show that we’re on a different plane for education selection and staff. People come in knowing that when they ask ‘Hey, what the exciting new thing you have?’ they’ll get an educated answer.  

Jack Robertiello is a freelance spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY. Read his recent piece Cordial Trends in 2017 Point Towards Changing Tastes.

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