An unusual scene is being enacted in bars across the country. Customers are ordering American whiskies. Straight, blended, bourbon, rye or sour mash, people are drinking whiskey neat, in highballs and cocktails.
After decades of decline, American whiskey is seeing a renaissance. While brown goods sales still are down overall, the top ten straight whiskies, along with a slew of small high-end brands, are up to sales volumes they haven’t achieved since the mid- ’90s. Leading the pack is that distinctly American spirit, bourbon.
“The bourbon business is finally starting to do things right,” said Larry Kass, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill Distilleries. “In the past, inventory drove sales and marketing strategies, but that’s changed in the past few years.”
What has changed is that a very traditional industry has cautiously ventured into new territory. Distillers have been introducing high-end niche products that have garnered attention from both critics and consumers. That, in turn, has raised awareness of not just the new small batch or single barrel whiskies, or even bourbons as a whole, but the wide variety of American whiskey being produced by old distilleries and newcomers alike.
At the same time, the climate is right for these products. Bar patrons have acquired increasingly sophisticated palates and are willing to try new things. And they’re willing to pay a high price for ultra-premium brands that promise a special experience.
“These products are so unique,” said Thomas Sasser, president of Harper’s, a seven-unit restaurant chain based in Charlotte, N.C. “People continue to be about quality and things that are scarce and hard to come by, and if you enjoy sipping on a fine whiskey or cognac, they taste great. Even people who say they hate bourbon really enjoy them.”
AMERICAN WHISKEY FACTS
American whiskeys are made in several styles, including straight and blended, using different combinations of grains.
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskies are straight whiskies, meaning they are not blended with other whiskies or neutral grain spirits.
Bourbon must be made from mash containing between 51% and 79% corn and aged at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. It can be made anywhere in the U.S., but most is made in Kentucky. Bourbon’s flavor is influenced by the mash (up to four types of grain are used), the level of char in the barrels (there are four degrees) and how long it is aged.
Tennessee whiskey is similar to bourbon, but is filtered through maple charcoal before aging.
Corn whiskey is made principally from corn (content of more than 79%), and is not aged. It got the name “moonshine” during Prohibition after the light by which mash men tended their illegal stills.
Rye, another distinct style of whiskey, uses mostly rye in the mash. Only three major distillers still make rye whiskies (Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac), but the style is now being micro-distilled by people such as Fritz Maytag at Anchor Steam Brewing.
Sour mash refers to the use of at least 25% of the previous distillation’s spent mash in the new fermentation to provide consistency from batch to batch. A sweet mash uses only fresh yeast for fermentation.
“American consumers are very curious,” said John Haskell, editor of whiskey magazine Malt Advocate. “They’ve embraced experimentation in Scotch and Irish whiskey. They also likely will spend more for a lot of flavor, character and heritage in American whiskies.”
ALL AROUND THE WORLD
Growing interest in whiskey is part of a larger cultural trend. As the world grows smaller because of globalization and through the wealth of information available through the media, especially the Internet, consumers want to know they’re getting what they pay for. As they learn more, they demand more in terms of quality and authenticity from the products they buy.
“I think industry growth is due in part to a return to classic cocktails and the classic cocktail culture,” Kass said, “which has to do both with a good economy in recent years, American culture and genuine interest in bourbon as a unique American spirit. There’s a certain pride in bourbon, and it’s achieving the same level of acceptance and respect as single malt scotch.”
Interest in the category has grown to the point where many operators are featuring a growing collection of bourbons and straight whiskies. That’s still relatively easy to do, since there are fewer bourbon producers than Scotch producers.
HMS Host, Bethesda, Md., for example, is opening a Woodford Reserve Bar & Grill in the Louisville, Ky., airport this year. Named after the bourbon produced by Brown-Forman, the operation will celebrate Kentucky, according to Stan Novack, vice president of concept development at HMS Host.
“Woodford Reserve has won a lot of awards, so we’re happy to be working with them,” Novack said. “The restaurant is all about bourbon, bluegrass, horses and all that Kentucky represents. We’ll feature a lot of local products and menu items.”
The Harper’s unit in Louisville also takes advantage of local customers’ drinking habits. The restaurant’s bar features 44 American whiskies; 28 of them are small batch or single barrel bourbons.
“When we first visited the Louisville market, we were amazed at the number of bourbons in our competitors’ restaurants,” Sasser said. “Waitstaff would ask us if we wanted a single barrel bourbon with our coffee after dinner instead of a cognac. We got excited about it and thought this would be a great way to get to know the locals by having a great single barrel list.”
But bourbon country isn’t the only place where American whiskey is popular. Old Glory, a barbecue restaurant in Washington, D.C., carries about 75 to 85 brands. The operation invites customers to join its Bourbon Club, and any patron who tries all the bourbons on the list gets a brass plaque inscribed with his or her name on the wall.
The Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, Ky., also has its own bourbon club, called the Society of Seelbach Bourbon Connoisseurs. Initiates receive a card with a list of the 44 Kentucky bourbons that the hotel’s restaurants and bars stock, and each time they try one, bartenders check the brand off the list. A completed card earns the guest a spot on a wall plaque commemorating customers here, too.
Keen’s Steak House, NYC, may specialize in single malt Scotch, but has a number of American whiskies in stock that sell well as an alternative. The restaurant merchandises its selection on a shelf to the right of the bar.
Most of the interest in these products has been a result of word-of-mouth. Since the small brands have little to spend on marketing, most are putting their efforts into getting critical acclaim at tastings and promoting positive reviews. Most concentrate on educating both bar and wait staffs and consumers.
“If you had to ask me who’s responsible for the buzz, it’s been the bartenders,” said Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark. “We couldn’t have become a national brand without the help of these young professional bartenders. Most of the people we talk to can remember their first introduction to the brand and more than half were introduced by a bartender.”
So how do you go about generating interest in American whiskies?
* Bourbon lists. With a collection as extensive as Old Glory’s, restaurant owners thought it important to offer customers a bourbon list with brief descriptions of the products.
“Even though we have a bourbon list, we still try to get the staff to answer questions,” said Drew Jackman, president of Capitol Concepts, which operates Old Glory. That means, of course, that the most important thing you can do is:
* Staff training. Jackman runs frequent staff training and relies on suppliers for help in educating employees about whiskies. At Joe’s Stone Crab in Chicago, new employees taste almost all products during orientation, and brush up on their knowledge during weekly staff meetings.
“When a new product comes in, we try to get a representative from the supplier to talk about it,” said Michael Rotolo, direictor of operations for Joe’s.
“We have a lot of family members from the distillers drop in,” said Lee Heatherington, assistant manager of Harper’s, Louisville. “Bill Samuels has come for the past two years at Christmas to spend time with the staff. And there’s a lot of literature out there about bourbon; the staff gets most of their knowledge from books.”
“Because we’re so close to the distilleries where bourbon is made, we arrange a lot of tours for the staff,” said Adam Seger, director of restaurants at the Seelbach Hilton. “They love to be able to tell guests that they’ve met master distillers and seen how a particular bourbon is made.”
* Drink menus. Whiskey is no longer just the drink of cigar-smoking older men in suits or a shot of red-eye in a dirty glass down at the local saloon. “We’re seeing a lot more women drinking bourbon in mixed drinks like ginger ale or Coke,” Jackman said.
Joe’s Stone Crab in Chicago offers a drink menu that features the classic cocktails the original Miami branch has been known for since the ’50s. Those include a Manhattan made with Knob Creek, a Maker’s Mark Mint Julep and an Old Fashioned made with Crown Royal.
* Tastings. One of the best ways to expose your customers to new things is to give them the opportunity to try them. Keen’s Steak House hosts monthly tastings and offers a bourbon tasting at least once a year. The restaurant invites Paul Pacult, editor of Spirit Journal, to host blind tastings of about nine products and talk about them for an hour. Afterwards, guests are served Keen’s ale, whiskey samples and hors d’oeuvres. The cost is $65 for the two-hour event.
* Samplers. Another way of giving customers a chance to taste and compare whiskies is to offer them samplers or flights. The Seelbach Hilton offers flights of three or five bourbons in its Oak Room bar. The flights are served on whiskey barrel staves grooved to hold tasting glasses, and range in cost from $12 to $25. One flight, for example, includes a clear, unaged Woodford, Woodford Reserve, and Seelbach Woodford (one of two bourbons bottled exclusively for the hotel), which demonstrates the effects of aging on a whiskey.
While Harper’s doesn’t have a formal flight program, it does offer half-ounce samples of different bourbons for a reduced price. A sample of four single barrel bourbons, for example, is about $15.
* Menu items. Whiskey, particularly bourbon and sour mash, is a versatile spirit to cook with, and many restaurants now feature permanent menu items made with bourbon. Harper’s, for example, features maple bourbon pork chops and Maker’s Mark grilled shrimp.
The menu at the Seelbach includes seven dishes made with bourbon; the chef matches a different bourbon to each recipe based on its character and flavor profile. The kitchen also uses spent mash from distilleries to make pancakes and biscuits, as well as using wood chips from old barrels for smoking meats and fish.
* Bourbon dinners. Like wine dinners and beer dinners, dinners featuring a particular spirit are becoming more popular. Bourbon dinners feature dishes made with bourbon and different bourbons or whiskies served with each course. Old Glory does special bourbon
* Incentives. Depending on your operation, incentives may be a good way to motivate the staff to learn about, and sell, American whiskies. Old Glory, for example, often offers wearables or tickets to sporting events as prizes to staff members who achieve specific sales goals. “It’s more a matter of getting staff comfortable with products so they can sell,” Jackman says, reinforcing the importance of education and training.
* Promotions. Most operators probably would agree that high-end whiskies are best sold by hand. “We prefer education for guests over promotions that might steer guests to something they wouldn’t otherwise order,” Rotolo said. Promotions, however, can be very appropriate and effective in certain situations. In high-volume operations where the staff doesn’t have time to hand-sell products, promotions can help do the job. And promoting mainstream brands can lead to interest in the category and prompt customers to trade up.
This fall, HMS Host is running promotions with Jack Daniels on Jack and Coke and Manhattans. The airport bars it operates will give away mouse pads as drink coasters. Jack Daniels also is running a consumer promotion this fall searching for the country’s best tailgate party team.
* Seminars and festivals. Both customers and staff can learn more about whiskey at seminars and festivals. Jim Beam sponsors the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, which conducts seminars in cities around the country and offers a newsletter to its 80,000 members. The distiller’s small batch collection also conducts bourbon tastings across the country. And Bardstown, Ky., hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival held in September each year.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Given the growing success of the products distillers have introduced in the past several years, expect to see more in the future.
This fall, for example, Fortune Brands (fomerly Jim Beam) is introducing a new version of Distiller’s Masterpiece, this time a 20-year-old bourbon finished in port casks. Buffalo Trace recently discovered forgotten barrels of rye whiskey in its warehouse and has bottled them as 18-year-old Sazerac Rye. Other distilleries are considering more non-traditional products, too.
“Our company was founded on an opinion of one — what my father thought bourbon ought to taste like,” said Samuels. “That doesn’t leave a lot of flexibility. We’ve been setting aside a lot of barrels, though, to see what happens to the flavor profile when you age it longer and so forth. At some point, we might offer something different. We’re about three years into the experiment and don’t know where it’s going.”
Like many distillers these days, Samuels isn’t doing it for the money or the marketing department, but for the love of whiskey. That love is earning American whiskies newfound respect.
HOW BOURBON REALLY GOT ITS NAME
Baptist minister Elijah Craig is often credited with “inventing” bourbon. But Elijah Craig never distilled whiskey in Bourbon County,
Kentucky. This uniquely American spirit has been around ever since pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains after the Revolutionary War. As people settled and claimed land, they founded counties that covered entire regions.
One of these huge counties, established in 1785, was named Bourbon, after the French royal family. Long after this area was carved into much smaller counties, people still referred to it as “Old Bourbon.”
Corn was the principal crop at the time, and to make it easier to trade, farmers distilled corn mash and made whiskey. Much of this whiskey was shipped to the rest of country on the Ohio River from a port in the old county. “Old Bourbon” was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin.
People took to the new style of whiskey, and in time bourbon became the name for any corn-based whiskey. It wasn’t until 1964 that Congress passed a law defining how whiskey must be made to be called bourbon.