The sleek World Bar on Manhattan’s East Side caters to an international clientele, many straight from the United Nations headquarters across the street, so it’s not a place where one would expect American whiskey serving as a hot part of the bar mix.
But Kenneth McClure, food and beverage manager for World Bar owner Hospitality Holdings, says the entire American whiskey category is on an upswing, not just there but at the company’s other Manhattan bars, which include Th e Carnegie Club and The Campbell Apartment. In fact, he sees American whiskey more popular now than at any time in his 20 years in the bar business. “It’s always been solid, but the Bourbon and rye business is definitely becoming more mainstream and widespread,” he says.
That’s music to the ears of people in the whiskey business. Th ese days, despite the weakened economy, most American whiskey makers and marketers seem to be smiling more than ever.
“Things are going great guns,” says Larry Kass of Heaven Hill, producer of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and other whis¬kies. “After years of fits and starts, and not doing things so well, the industry has found its groove and has done a pretty good job in the past 15 years of really educating a whole new generation of consumers.” The changes that started with the introduction of specialty small batch and single barrel Bourbons in the 1990s helped build excitement for the category, he says, which has led to six consecutive years of volume growth.
Straight whiskey sales grew less than 1 percent in 2007, according
to the recently released 2008 Liquor Handbook, published by Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group. Market leader Jack Daniels inched up 0.3 percent, to command 32.2 percent of the market, and Jim Beam gained 0.5 percent, a slow gain likely the result of having to pass higher grain prices on to consumers. Evan Williams and Wild Turkey fared better than the category leaders, with growth rates near 5 percent, but the real growth came from premium offerings. Gentleman Jack, a small batch whiskey from Brown-Forman, grew 30.9 percent last year. Maker’s Mark was up 8 percent, and the Beam Small Batch collection (Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek), increased 7.7 percent in 2007, and has nearly doubled since 2002. “The super-premium segment continues to show the most growth,” says Keith Neumann, global vice president for Jim Beam Bourbon. “As a result, these brands are fueling on-premise growth. These super-premium brands represent an aff ordable luxury, and the consumer appetite for these brands shows no signs of abating.” With super-premium Bourbon accounting for less than 5 percent of volume, according to Woodford Reserve brand director Wayne Rose, expect more specialty offerings in the future.
Clearing the Bar
Brand managers aren’t the only ones enthusiastic about whiskey
today. “Bourbon and other American whiskeys continue to be the best value in the world whiskey market,” says John Hansell, editor and publisher of Malt Advocate magazine. “Relative to competing whiskeys like Scotch, Bourbon matures quicker. Relatively speaking, you get the same quality product for a lower price.”
For operators with whiskey on the menu, this means opportunity.
A cocktail currently popular at World Bar is the Southern Charmer, made with Maker’s Mark, Frangelico, Angostura Bitters and muddled apples, says McClure. At Th e Carnegie Club, one of the last spots in New York where guests can smoke cigars, stronger and more assertive Bourbons such as Booker’s and Blanton’s Single Barrel do well neat.
In Philadelphia, at Starr Restaurant Group’s Barclay Prime, manager David Howard offers a Maker’s Mark Mint Julep, once a rarity in the North. He also twists his rye-based Manhattan by infusing Jim Beam Rye with golden raisins, cloves and lemon peel. There’s a resurgence in brown spirits, he notes, especially in places like Barclay Prime where meat rules. “American whiskey is one of the fastest growing collections we have,” says Ethan Kelly, spirits sommelier at Manhattan’s Brandy Library, which offers hundreds of brandies, including many rare bottlings, as well as extensive whiskey and rum selections.
Price is a big part of whiskey’s current appeal; he notes a Bourbon selling for $75 retail is about as high as it gets. “It’s a big asset in today’s economy, when we have younger people getting into spirits who don’t have the same level of disposable income as others, to give them a perfect opportunity to explore an entire category reasonably.”
In addition to quality and pricing, the American whiskey business has finally started to reap the benefits of the cocktail revolution (see sidebar). Restaurants devoted to presenting American spirits are doing extremely well.
At Bourbon House in New Orleans, for example, owner Dickie Brennan reports selling out a series of events that include a recent dinner pairing whiskey, cocktails and Creole dishes hosted by Maker’s Mark CEO Bill Samuels.
“We’ve had great response to our American spirits events; peo¬ple are always interested in what’s next, but it’s been especially true when these master distillers come here,” says Brennan, who also created the New Orleans Bourbon Society for his guests. Member benefits include invitations to seminars, cocktail par¬ties and dinner with master distillers, as well as a personalized tasting profile kept at the restaurant. Brennan says the program definitely has built business for the restaurant.
Places like Brandy Library and Bourbon House are thriving because they’re tapping into the offerings from distilleries that move beyond single barrel and small batch concepts to pro¬duce new brands and one-offs that keep consumers interested. Distilleries large and small have launched a number of new pre¬mium and super-premium products in recent years, including Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Antique Collection (George Stagg, Eagle Rare, Thomas Handy) and its Experimental series, among other products.
These unique bottlings come with some limitations, however. “We don’t make that much of these whiskies, so they are not nec¬essarily going to be at the chain restaurants,” says Kris Comstock, Bourbon brand manager for Buffalo Trace. It’s not that Comstock doesn’t want a big chain’s business; there just isn’t enough capac¬ity for him and many of the other small batch distilleries. “If a major national on-premise chain asked me if they could list a brand like Buffalo Trace right now, which I want to happen, I’d have to look at my inventory and see if it’s possible.”
Among the best-known special bottlings are the occasional releases from Woodford Reserve Masters Collection, a series of limited production whiskies never to be repeated. Th e first was a four-grain whiskey; the second came from Woodford finished in barrels from California winery Sonoma-Cutrer. Heaven Hill offers the limited edition Parker’s Heritage Collection, launched with a cask-strength Bourbon last fall, and an extra aged marquee expected this fall. Old Forester has its annual Birthday Bourbon, and intends to off er commemorative Repeal Bourbon this winter.
As distillers sell out of whiskies like these, their confi dence has been bolstered about what the world will accept from American distillers. Kass of Heaven Hill, which already makes Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, is confi dent that consumers are ready for more experimentation. “You’ve got a very energized and excited consumer who has tried single barrel and small batch Bourbon, who looks forward to new releases, vintages and bottlings, but beyond that is asking, ‘What else is out there in the American whiskey spectrum?’”
With distillers working overtime and testing their own skills at whiskey making, there’s a feeling consumers and operators will fi nd out soon enough.
If you wait long enough, everything becomes fashionable again.
Rye, the whiskey in which 51 percent or more rye grain is used in the mash, once was the primary American spirit. Its popularity had fallen to a mere afterthought by the turn of this century, a long way since the days when George Washington distilled it at Mount Vernon. Sure, a few major distillers still produced some of the spicy whiskey, but the days when cocktails were routinely made with rye were long gone.
Then the classic cocktail revolution struck and bartenders, urged on by their rediscovery of old recipes, came calling for the spirit once again. Now guests are clamoring for it, as well. “Oh God, yes, rye is hot—people are even ordering rye straight,” says Ethan Kelly, spirits sommelier at New York City’s Brandy Library. “When it comes in, it goes right out. It doesn’t stick around very long.” Judging by rye whiskey’s 30.7 percent volume gain in control states last year, reported by Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, the Brandy Library’s Kelly isn’t alone in noticing a trend.
“I think of them along the same lines as peaty, smoky Scotch whiskies,” says Malt Advocate editor and publisher John Hansell. “They are masculine, challenging whiskies that often express themselves best at younger ages. As American whiskey companies increase production over the next few years to meet anticipated demand, these young rye whiskeys will be smartly situated to accommodate the new and curious whiskey consumer.”
Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace, which now offers Six Year Old and 18 Year Old Sazerac Rye, credits cocktail-crazed New York, San Francisco and Chicago with helping to spur rye’s comeback. Larry Kass, director of communications for Heaven Hill—its Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof and 23 Year Old sell out—agrees. “Rye was the American whiskey used in so many classic cocktails. Not only are mixologists rediscovering rye in Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, but also in drinks like the Brooklyn, the Sazerac and the Algonquin. They are also adapting rye for new cocktails.”
There’s more to come: Jim Beam, maker of Beam Rye and Old Overholt, plans to introduce an ultra-premium rye whiskey called (ri)1 later this year, says Keith Neumann, global vice president of Jim Beam Bourbon. Stay tuned.
Jack Robertiello is the former editor of Cheers, and he’s written for the Food Network and publications such as the New York Daily News and the Washington Post.