photography by Paul Hilldebrand
LIKE SOME OLD AND RECENTLY RECYCLED TV PROGRAMS (Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, Lost In Space) which have been recreated in a more contemporary mode, bourbon’s friendly old brands have lately become imbued with a trendy 1990s patina. Such familiar bourbon names as Jim Beam, George Dickel, Evan J. Williams and W.L. Weller are now, incredibly, in vogue.
The change couldn’t have come soon enough, as the category has been fighting a rear-guard action against diminishing sales, which most brown spirits are facing at the end of this century. But today’s consumption trends–more moderate drinking of beverages with a higher perceived quality–place an array of single barrel, small batch and aged bourbons in the midst of a wave that has already swept single malt Scotches and microbrews into the forefront of American drinking.
Bourbon has long maintained a steady, albeit slow, decline, following among older, more traditional drinkers; but now younger trend chasers who consider being knowledgeable about better brands a veritable point of honor have discovered the spirit.
The Highballs of yesteryear may be gone, but single barrel bourbons, served with a little water or on the rocks and in such classic cocktails as the Manhattan, have been key in helping add luster to the “All-American” spirit.
“I wouldn’t say bourbon is lighting up the sky, but it certainly is one of those pinpoints of light,” says beverage consultant Tim Johnson of Tim Johnson & Assoc., Overland Park, KS. At the recent Cheers Beverage Conference in Chicago, Johnson spoke of “a spirited renaissance in the spirit side of on-premise, and bourbons, especially small-batch bourbons, are part of that renaissance. We’re kind of rediscovering America’s whiskey.”
“The middle-aged baby boomer is only now discovering the small batches,” Johnson suggests. “But certainly the older generation, the class of ’46, the moms and dads who fought in World War II, were drinking bourbon for a long, long time. As with all things, those folks aren’t around as much anymore, and now the baby boomers can afford the small batch bourbons, the more ’boutique’ styles. The Generation-Xers are discovering that bourbon is O.K. to drink, starting off maybe with Jim Beam and working their way up to Maker’s Mark and then on to some small batches like Booker’s or Knob Creek or something along those lines.”
“Bourbon is definitely more trendy now,” explains Carlo Nordi, director of operations at the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton Hotel, “because finally in Kentucky suppliers are understanding that they’ve got to go to the premium levels. The public is looking for premium stuff, and it’s important how they put their package together. Now, finally, they’re coming with neat designs and promoting them better.”
“We’re actually selling a fair amount of it,” says Bobby Gagnon, a partner in The Gate, a well-known bar in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, NY. “It’s catching on. I can see it sort of creeping up, becoming on the order of single malt Scotches, where you’ve got people experimenting beyond your traditional Jack Daniel’s, Maker’s Mark kind of thing. I wouldn’t exactly call it excitement. I’d call it more of a sort of refined experimentation.”
“There’s a lot of advertising that’s taking place, a lot of push by the bourbon makers,” explains Solomon Melesse, general manager at the American Restaurant in Kansas City, MO. “They’re really competing with single malt Scotches. They’re wanting to compete with after-dinner drinks like cognac. I think also overall the flavor of bourbon is familiar to people. They can relate to bourbon.”
Melesse maintains that it’s the 40-somethings who are drinking bourbon and calling for classic bourbon cocktails, not the younger drinkers. Willie Grandieson, who has manned the American Restaurant bar for the past 24 years, says he sells “a lot of” straight-up Manhattans.
Telling bourbon’s story as the All-American spirit is an important way of piquing greater consumer interest, says Johnson. “We try during training programs to really stress that American bourbon is a legal definition; it’s a type of whiskey. It has a distinct flavor, it has a unique history and characteristic.”
And the creative back-bar merchandising now available also helps. Many of the ornate display cases that some of the distilleries provide have put the focus on the category, says Johnson. “Any time you have to take a small key to open up your Baker’s or Booker’s, that adds almost a cognac image to it. Any time you can’t visually show your guests your offering, you’re going to have to do it via menus, suggestive selling, or by using something like a bourbon cart before and after dinner. The cognac cart doesn’t have to be just for cognac.”
The selection IS the promotion
Some operators have established themselves as bourbon headquarters. Diane Rector, beverage manager of the bar and restaurant in Louisville’s Galt House hotel, doesn’t think twice about adding a new brand when it becomes available; the Galt House stocks all 105 bourbons its home state produces. The reason? “Bourbon is our specialty,” says Rector. “We simply decided about a year ago that we needed to have some sort of a signature item in the bar, and it just kind of clicked. We decided to go with the Kentucky theme, which of course means bourbon.”
The best sellers in the 25th-floor D’Marie Lounge and the 103-seat Flagship Dining Room are the single barrels, including such ultrapremiums as Pappy Van Winkle, a 20-year-old family reserve, and Woodford Reserve. Van Winkle, Henry Clay, a 16-year-old, and 15-year-old Joseph Finch top the price spectrum at $8 a shot.
Promotions are unnecessary at the D’Marie, according to Rector. “The selection is the promotion.” She sells half-shots for novices or customers who like to sample. “Customers will get three or four half-shots at a time to taste them. Then they’ll decide which one they like the best, usually throw some ice on it and drink it.” Information on how to taste bourbon and note-taking material are supplied free of charge, and the half-shots are served on sampler sheets.
Rector says she plans to begin working with distillers later this year to create some promotional opportunities. “It’s one of our goals. We will work with local distilleries and have them come in when we have a large group in the hotel and explain to them how their bourbon is distilled.”
Myth, Heritage, Mystique
Even though Bar Marmont, the Chateau Marmont hotel bar often referred to as Los Angeles’ best, is primarily known for its Martinis, it provides an “excellent” selection of bourbons, says manager Beau Robb, who explains bourbon’s popularity simply. “A few years ago when the bourbon people, especially Jim Beam, realized that they were losing market share to the single malts, they began to understand that what people were buying when they bought a single malt Scotch was the mythology of the drink, and the heritage and mystique that go along with that. They also wondered why they were losing, specifically, to Maker’s Mark. Part of the reason was Maker’s hand-dipped bottle; people loved that kind of stuff. So consequently Jim Beam said, ‘We need to start making our own superpremium bourbon.'”
These days, says Robb, when customers walk into a bar like his, they see not just two bottles but an entire shelf of premium bourbons. It makes them think twice. “They start to look at it differently and think, ‘Well what is this? What’s going on? What’s the difference between this, this and this?'”
Many of those ordering bourbon at Marmont are “people who’ve drunk Jim Beam and Coke, or Jack Daniel’s, and who are now seeing that they can do better within bourbon itself. When they go to a better kind of place, they want to drink a better kind of drink, but they still want to drink bourbon, so they just step up a level.” At Bar Marmont, a handful of customers will order single-batch bourbons like Booker’s or Basil Hayden by name, but most simply ask ‘What’s good?’ “We suggest one and they say, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try.'”
“The main thrust of it is that there are more styles and the availability is out there,” the Gate’s Gagnon, who stocks 18 bourbons, points out. “The liquor market definitely took a hit when the ‘beer mania’ thing came on. Now people tend to be sort of wandering back into spirits. And now that they’re coming back, and there’s an expanded selection, they’re able to enjoy a variety. People enjoy doing that.”
Indeed, since opening a year ago, the Gate has seen sales of bourbon rise by an impressive 50% to 60%. The 100-seat bar offers a pub-like atmosphere but serves no food, with a customer average of about $15.
Gagnon sees drinkers spanning the age range. “A lot of young people who were traditionally Jack Daniel’s drinkers are now spending a bit more money and checking out what else is out there.” Most drink it straight up. “That kind of stuff,” he stresses, “you don’t mix.”
“You’ve got to show off your liquor”
At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Carlo Nordi keeps a barrel of Jack Daniel’s, signed by the company’s master distiller, at the entrance of the hotel cigar club. (Many operators and drinkers alike mistakenly refer to Jack Daniel’s, a Tennessee sipping whiskey, as a bourbon. Bourbon, by law, must be made from a mix of grains containing 51% to 79% corn. It is a straight whiskey that must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.) Jack Daniel’s is “made in very, very similar manner, but aged differently,” according to one industry expert. “A lot of people regard it as a bourbon, which technically, it’s not. But both have the same basic audience, the same drinker.”
The Ritz-Carlton carries about 50 bourbons, a wide variety that today’s aficionado demands, according to Nordi. “The guest nowadays is not like before. They used to order bourbon and water or Scotch and water. Now they want to know the brand.” Here, Wild Turkey is the bourbon they ask for most.
“Twenty years ago you’d go into a bar, and you’d see 20 drinks and that would be it,” he notes. “Nowadays you’ve got to show off your liquor. If you’ve only got two tequilas, you’re not going to sell much. Now you’ve got to have 10 or 20 tequilas. Vodka is the same thing; simply stocking Stoli, Smirnoff and Ketel One doesn’t do it anymore. It’s the same with bourbon.”
Howard Riell is a veteran business writer and longtime contributor to Cheers.
PRIVATE LABEL MASH
Chicago’s century-old landmark Berghoff Restaurant, best known for many years for its house brand beers, has also served its own brand of bourbon since 1934. Chairman Herman Berghoff, 63, explains that around Prohibition, many distillers were hard-pressed for income, and they came around offering deals that sound like today’s commodities futures.
“They said, ‘If you pay for the raw bourbon after it’s distilled, we will age it to your specifications and proofage. We’ll give you a certificate showing how many barrels you own, and then when you call for it in, say, 10 or 12 years, we’ll run it through the process of filtering, bottling and labeling, and we’ll charge you a bottling charge at that time.’ And that’s what we’ve done for the last 60 or more years.”
Berghoff’s sour mash bourbon is aged 10 and 14 years. “We never put it in a contest with other bourbons because it’s strictly a house product, but I would say it rivals that ultrapremium area. We’re more reasonably priced because our whole philosophy and pricing structure is more reasonable.” The historic restaurant, which features a 65-foot stand-up bar, has an average check at lunch of $9, and just $16 at dinner.
Middle-aged and older drinkers are the 700-seat establishment’s “stronger” bourbon customers. “There are young drinkers, but I can’t tell you how dynamic that part of the trend is because it’s not our customer.” Most of the customers, which are a mix of old-time regulars and tourists, order their bourbon neat. “There are mixed drinks, but I think 80% to 90% of it is straight,” says Berghoff.
The Berghoff’s house brand Boilermaker, a combination of beer and bourbon, sell very well together, according to Berghoff. “You’ll find some people here at the bar who will still drink some beer and shoot it with a bourbon. That’s more the older version. Today there’s not a great deal of it, but to the old-timers it was fairly common.”–HR