THE WORLD’S whiskey
American straight whiskies, from Kentucky,
Tennessee and elsewhere, are surging
On the streets of Manhattan’s East Village, a polyglot neighborhood of Eastern European butchers, music students and multiply tattooed hipsters, whiskies are not immediately thought of as the drink of the moment. So it might have seemed risky when Mike Slatsky and his partners Bruce Bronster and former Tennessee Titan Keith Bulluck opened Smoked, a barbecue and American whiskey-themed restaurant last April. But if the crowds gathered there on a recent Thursday night are indicative, the two are going down quite well together.
James C. Russell, known by everyone as Jimmy, is master distiller at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
“Bourbon has always been a significant part of barbecue,” says Slatsky. “We felt that in New York there weren’t that many barbecue places with an extensive bourbon selection.”
He’s onto something there NYC restaurateur Danny Myer’s Blue Smoke stocks up to 40 American whiskies, and numerous other bars do good business as whiskey spots in the city, but most of the other NYC barbecue restaurants focus on beer or Margaritas and tequila, rather than whiskey, as the main beverage component. While other downtown bars notably, former Cheers award winner dba have a high whiskey profile, few have jumped onto the food and spirit bandwagon.
Down in Kentucky, restaurateurs know all about the suitability of matching whiskey with food. At the Holly Hill Inn in Midway, KY, chef-owner Michel Ouita recently hosted Woodford Reserve master taster Peggy Stevens for a special summer dinner that included cocktails, bourbon tastings and a multi-course meal. During the evening, Stevens paired bourbon with pecorino cheese, toasted almonds, fresh cherries and chocolate, part of the promotion for her newly released cookbook, “Woodford Reserve Culinary Cocktail Tour, A Journey with Bourbon,” which she edited with cookbook author Ronni Lundy.
Photo courtesy Wild Turkey
Among the food/beverage/cocktail items were a Champagne Cocktail made with cherry-infused Woodford Reserve; chicken liver pté with Woodford; seared jumbo sea scallops flamed in Woodford Reserve served over Wiesenberger cheese grits with heirloom tomatoes and fresh tarragon; field greens with melon, shaved country ham, toasted pecans and Woodford Reserve vinaigrette; and slow-grilled, bourbon-marinated leg of lamb with Woodford spiked jus, summer corn pudding and Kentucky ratatouille.
AROUND THE WORLD
PHOTOS: OSCAR G. PEREZ/
Smoked and Holly Hill Inn are two wildly different types of restaurants, serving different types of customers. But the fact that there’s a growing trend in restaurants including bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskies as an essential beverage component and ingredient in southern, or at least Appalachian southern, cookery, is a testament to how well the category has weathered the white spirit storm that challenges the popularity of other brown spirits in America.
That interest is reflected in some worldwide drinking patterns as well. According to Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown-Forman in Louisville, last year for the first time, an American whiskey Jack Daniel’s outsold the leading Scotch Johnnie Walker Red Label to become the world’s favorite whiskey. Morris, speaking at a whiskey tasting he conducted at the “Tales of the Cocktail” multi-day celebration in New Orleans, was enthusiastic about the growth potential for all American whiskies.
“Nothing seems to quench the thirst for better bourbons,” agrees Ron Givens, sometime Cheers contributor and author of the upcoming book, “Bourbon at Its Best: The Lore and Allure of America’s Finest Spirits,” from Emmis Books. “No matter how many new whiskies come into the marketplace, there seems to be room on the shelf for more. From major distillers to smaller independent bottlers, the range of products is amazing.”
With so many back bars growing overcrowded with flavored vodkas and rums, places like Smoked are doubling down on whiskies. Smoked stocks more than 55 American whiskies, primarily bourbons and ryes, a lot for a spot not designed for malt fanatics alone. Specialty cocktails there range from the well-prepared Old-Fashioned (Michter’s, bitters and brown sugar) to the introductory (the Paris, Texas, made with Champagne, Woodford Reserve and blackberry liqueur; and the Beginner’s Bourbon, made with Wild Turkey, Wild Turkey Liqueur, peach schnapps, pineapple and cranberry juices).
Slatsky says the cocktails have become entrance-level drinks for customers unsure about whether they like whiskies. But so far, they’ve taken a shine to two of the least well-known Michter’s and Pappy Van Winkle. Whichever are more popular, the range of whiskies available has given Smoked a bar-restaurant-cocktail niche downtown that Slatsky says has brought in locals seeking bourbon tastings to help them learn more.
This is the kind of news American whiskey makers like to hear, and the strength of the category has encouraged many suppliers to broaden their offerings. Heaven Hill, for instance, maker of whiskies like Evan Williams and Henry McKenna, is about to launch a new wheat whiskey, which company spokesman Josh Hafer says may be commercially unprecedented. “We can’t find anything, nor can the [federal regulators] that shows that anyone has done this before,” says Hafer.
At 51 percent wheat, the new offering, called Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, will be available in selected states starting this fall.Photo courtesy Heaven Hill
Hafer points out that the American whiskey business still has at hand many potential tricks to tweak consumer interest. Single barrel versions like Jack Daniel’s do well, as do barrel proof items like Wild Turkey’s Kentucky Spirit. There are even popular vintage releases, like Evan Williams and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. Ryes have started to make a comeback, too, spurred in part by the cocktail resurgence and champions like Esquire writer David Wondrich. But innovations common to the Scotch whisky business, like different oak finishes and the use of peat, have yet to be fully explored, although Morris of Brown-Forman said in New Orleans that his company has experimented with different wood finishes (any resulting spirit couldn’t be called bourbon, based on U.S. law, but is still a whiskey: Brown-Forman’s Early Times, which is aged in a mix of new oak and used barrels, is labeled “Kentucky Whiskey.”)
Givens says that Heaven Hill’s Bernheim and the much-discussed Brown-Forman Woodford Reserve Four Grain (said to be the first whiskey in recent memory distilled from the four grains used to make American whiskey corn, rye, wheat and barley) are “pushing the category into esoterica. [They] show how far the industry is willing to go to keep the customer satisfied.”