The Bourbon Boom Continues On-premise

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By Jack Robertiello

 Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House opened about 15 years ago, the concept—whiskey cocktails and hundreds of bourbon brands served in a fine-dining setting—seemed to be a theme that only a city with a hard-drinking reputation like New Orleans could support.

That’s certainly changed, as many cities now have at least one watering hole where American whiskey—bourbon, Tennessee, rye and malt, from small distillers and large—takes center stage. And with good reason: Consumption of straight American whiskey was up 6% in 2017, reaching 22.5 million nine-liter cases, according to the Beverage Information Group’s 2018 Liquor Handbook. That follows a 7.2% increase in 2016 and a 5.5% gain in 2015, bringing brown spirits back to sky-high numbers last hit two decades ago.

Lucky Day in Buffalo, NY, opened last year with a robust menu of more than 150 American whiskeys of all sorts. “Whiskey is pretty popular all over the country these days, especially bourbon, and that’s just as true here,” says Gavin Neaf, Lucky Day’s bar manager.

“Buffalo’s food and beverage scene has picked up pretty rapidly in the past few years,” he adds. “And when it comes to whiskey, people are interested in anything new, in finding things to explore, learning and growing in the category.”

Most larger cities can now boast a handful of whiskey-centric operations, but few as committed as New York’s American Whiskey. Opened in 2013, the bar offers upwards of 300 American whiskeys gathered on the menu by both distillery and under such rubrics as “Rustic & Rich,” “Light & Floral” and “Dry & Spicy.”

The bar aimed to create a large open space in midtown Manhattan with an impressive domestic whiskey list, says partner Kevin Hooshangi. “We wanted to be accessible to a large group of people and spread the gospel of American whiskey.”

To do this, he notes, “we knew we had to have as much juice as we could get our hands on, and at the same time, we had to stay educated and current with all of the creative things that were happening in category. We really wanted to give our customers what they wanted while having the opportunity to expose them to whiskey they wouldn’t normally order at a bar.”

Stock Up

The sort of comprehensive approach American Whiskey takes is in part what has kept Bourbon House humming all these years, says beverage director Barry Himel. Bourbon House carries 400 whiskeys in total; more than 230 are American whiskeys.

Given the growing demand for brown spirits today, “we were fortunate to get our hands on many interesting bottlings, and customers who come in for the first time love it,” Himel says. “It’s a luxury to have all these options, when five years ago, you could maybe count on two hands the number of ryes, and now we might have 50 of them alone,” he notes.

Like many of the contemporary whiskey-focused operations, Bourbon House offers 1-oz. and 2-oz. pours. Prices range from $3.50 for 1 oz. of Early Times 354 bourbon to $315 for 2 oz. of Hirsch 16-year-old.

As new distillers emerge and established suppliers expand their offerings, it’s an interesting time to be buying whiskeys, Himel says. “For example, bourbon producers have taken a leaf from the Scotch makers, with a lot of different whiskeys finished in many different types of casks. So for a bourbon connoisseur, it’s exciting—like being part of the next evolution in the category.”

Single Barrel is Big

Single barrels of whiskey, now that more producers are making them available to good customers, have become a backbone of many operations, including the six-unit Whiskey Cake, part of Dallas-based Front Burner Restaurant Group.

“We wanted to have a variety of single barrels—ryes, bourbons, with a mix of mash bills,” says Scott Sharrer, vice president of operations for Whiskey Cake, which currently has locations in Texas and Oklahoma. “That gives us the opportunity to really educate our consumers, give them barrel-proof versions and compare one to another.”

Depending on location, Whiskey Cake offers single-barrel iterations of Eagle Rare, Angel’s Envy, Whistle Pig Rye, Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Bernheim wheat whiskey, Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek. About 70% of the 360 to 450 whiskeys offered are U.S.-made, Sharrer says.

While single barrels are now more widely available, some operations opt for highly specific expressions. At Kansas City’s cocktail-focused The Monarch, bar director Brock Schulte selected a private barrel of the Jefferson’s Reserve Ocean bourbon expression, crafted with additional aging at sea.

“Anytime I taste salinity, I tend to enjoy that flavor better. So with the Jefferson Reserve Ocean, aged at sea, it really helps add a little bit of salinity to the finish,” Schulte says. He uses the bourbon in a riff on the classic Brooklyn cocktail called the Louisiana Purchase, with Monarch Amer Picon liqueur, vermouth and a pinch of saline.

Double-barreled or barrel-finished whiskeys do well at The Monarch, Schulte notes. “Otherwise we sell a lot of rye these days, and rye is a favorite of mine. People seem to really like spicy, and rye is the perfect complement to that. The proportion of rye we sell is growing fast, but we still have lots and lots of bourbon drinkers.”

Whiskey Classics and Craft Cocktails

Himel says he’s seeing a retreat from overly complicated cocktails. Instead, there’s more interest in the classics with small tweaks and interesting elements, such as smoked and barrel-aged cocktails. “We’ve developed a barrel-aged cocktail program that has been wonderful for us,” he says. “We started with one and have as many as five at a time, depending on the season, and they remain one of our top sellers.”

Bourbon House’s barrelled cocktails currently include a rye Manhattan (Jim Beam rye, Cinzano Rosso vermouth, Angostura bitters); a Bourbon Sidecar (Elijah Craig Small Batch, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, lemon bitters); and the Old Chicory Old-Fashioned (1792 Small Batch, Hoodoo chicory liqueur, maraschino liqueur, orange bitters and a bourbon-soaked cherry), all priced at $15.

You can’t run a legitimate French Quarter bar without a Bourbon Milk Punch. Bourbon House offers a frozen version, priced at $7, that blends milk, ice cream and Old Forester bourbon.

The bar’s own creations include Calling All Angels (Angel’s Envy bourbon, Armagnac, mint and turbinado sugar, for $14); Rooftops in Havana (Larceny wheated bourbon, ginger liqueur, caramelized pineapple, lemon, ginger beer, $12) and the Red Herring (Bulleit rye, Cherry Heering, lime, Luxardo maraschino, rhubarb bitters, absinthe spritz, $12.)

The Monarch offers a number of classic cocktails as well as originals such as the Beet’s Antique with Remus Repeal Reserve bourbon, The Scarlet Ibis Trinidad rum, Rhum Clement Mahina Coco, KC Canning Co. Beet tarragon shrub, a pinch of salt and a barspoon of creme fraiche.

The bar’s signature Monarch Millionaire cocktail is made with infinity bourbon, gold-flake Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, house-made grenadine, salted Peychaud’s bitters, lemon, egg white and Tangerine Agrumato. It comes with scratch-and-play ticket—and the chance to win up to $5,000.

In addition to a seasonally changing cocktail menu, American Whiskey offers slushies that sometimes include whiskey. “The slushies are very much experimental and change often,” says Hooshangi. “We bought the machine three years ago because we were inspired by other bars doing craft slushie cocktails. We also wanted to honor the craft cocktails that kept whiskey relevant through Prohibition.”

Local Spirits

With the more whiskey experienced drinkers, “we’ve seen two separate trends: One is the gravitating towards new expressions, and we’ve noticed and uptick in the American single-malt category, as well as over-proofed ryes with cask finishes,” Hooshangi says.

“The other is a leaning toward local whiskeys, as well as whiskeys from the guest’s original home.” New York has a lot of transplants, he notes.

Indeed, regional whiskies are making headway throughout the country. At Lucky Day, New York brands including Widow Jane and Hudson are popular, as are products from the nearby Black Button Distillery, including their experiments with barrel finishes.

A new or perhaps revived style of spirit known as Kansas City whiskey (a blend of whiskeys with a spike of oloroso sherry, created by bartender Ryan Maybee and consultant Steve Olson) is featured at The Monarch. It’s currently in the Silver Dollar cocktail ($15), made with tea-infused Rancio Tabacal wine, smoked Rieger Kansas City whiskey, cream-soda reduction and bitters.

Whiskey Cake has managed to get some barrels from celebrated Texas distillery Balcones: It was the first restaurant to feature a barrel of Balcones malt whiskey. “We’re a locally sourced restaurant and look to source as much as we can from a 100-mile radius,” Sharrer notes, “so having these better Texas whiskeys is a trend we’re certainly seeing.”

The current flight list at Whiskey Cake includes an all-Texas compilation, with Garrison Brothers bourbon, Balcones Baby Blue and Herman Marshall bourbon, priced at $18, as well as all rye (Rittenhouse rye, Sazerac rye 6 year, High West Double rye, Bulleit rye, for $16) and bourbon flight (Lexington bourbon, Elijah Craig Small Batch, 1792 Small Batch, Woodford Reserve, $16).

Education is Key

Education continues to be crucial in managing whiskey-centric operations, not only in training staff staff, of course, but also educating customers looking to deepen their whiskey experiences. “We feel the greatest responsibility, which we do not take lightly, is to be available to educate our guests, listen to them and have direct communication with the distilleries and distillers,” Hooshangi says.

Whiskey Cake holds monthly classes for staff but also invites in guests to sample and discuss multiple styles of whiskies. Hosted whiskey dinners routinely sell out at all locations.

“It’s a great unique opportunity for most people to hear from national brand ambassadors or people from the distillery to talk about the brand and its background,” says Sherrer. He’s looking to expand into developing online educational material for customers.

“We’re pretty passionate about education behind the whiskeys we sell. It’s an industry where, until fairly recently, it was hard to get a lot of real information about some brands and what they are,” Sherrer says. “Now a lot of people are excited about this industry, and they don’t have the tools so we want to help educate them.”

Neaf agrees. “It takes, first and foremost, a well-educated staff. We have reps from the distilleries come in to do training, we keep our regular customers informed about new bottles and flights, things like that.”

You want to stand behind the bar with confidence and be able to tell people facts about the whiskey and not just the story on the back label, Neaf adds. “You need to be able to stand behind what you sell that way today.”

Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer and judge based in Brooklyn, NY.

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