The imported whiskey category overall has struggled a bit of late with a 5.2 percent decline in 2009, according to The Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, but bar managers and mixologists are finding success with both key brands and new offerings.
A category once dominated by Scotch and Canadian whiskeys is opening up to new comers in the Irish whiskey category alongside some unlikely entries from Japan, India and other places.
“Certainly as with all spirits, you are seeing artisanal, small-batch brands popping up around the world,” says John Lermayer, head bartender at The Florida Room at the 195-room Delano Hotel, part of the Morgans Hotel Group, in Miami. He notes that boutique Scotches, Irish whiskey overall and new whiskey from Japan as some of the most interesting trends. He carries about 95 imports, priced from $12 to $500 and top Scotches include Johnnie Walker Black, Chivas and The Macallan (priced from $15 to $18).
Dylan O’Brien at Blood Hound, a single-location bar in San Francisco, agrees. “There are a lot of small brands from everywhere that are hitting the market,” he says. He sells 24 imports, priced from $6 to $15.
As on-premise consumers—men and women alike—continue to discover whiskey drinks when they go out, bar managers and mixologists agree that new and old favorite imports continue to delight. While some of the on-premise focus has shifted to single-malts and Irish and Canadian brands, blends are still popular with Dewar’s White Label leading the category.
Experimenting with Scotch
The Scotch whiskey realm is dominated by a game of who can come up with the next great flavor, as more and more manufacturers are experimenting with new barrels. Much of on-premise Scotch consumption, according to operators, remains classic and straight up. The category’s leading brand is The Glenlivet, according to BIG.
“What was once a regimented, concerted style, manufacturers are now putting some modern twists and releasing some different blends,” says Lermayer, adding that they are responding to consumers’ interests in a broader range of whiskies. “The whiskey manufacturers are adapting to this to appeal to more young people and women. The flavor is milder; you are starting to pick up more fruit and baking spices—making it more palatable.”
J.P. Caceres, mixologist at the single-location Againn Gastropub in Washington D.C., concurs. “The most exciting thing that I’m seeing in Scotch is how they blend the oaks. You are seeing a lot of people playing around with rum and wine casks to refine the flavor.” One example he notes as unique is the Balvenie PortWood 21 Years, which begins its aging in used Bourbon barrels and then is moved to Sherry barrels and is finished in Pedro Ximénez oak barrels.
Because his clientele is mainly made up of lawyers, Caceres says many just come in asking for Macallan which is popular with the legal set. New younger clientele, however, are more likely to try new flavors from among the 120 whiskeys, which are available for $12 to $200 a two-ounce pour, and a half ounce tasting is one-quarter of the price. Other top Scotches at Againn are the Balvenie PortWood 21 Year Old ($36 a two-ounce pour), Bruichladdich 12 Year Old 2nd Edition ($15) and Ledaig 10 Year Old ($12).
Scotch cocktails also continue to open up the category across the country as mixologists experiment with the different flavors to add depth to cocktails. “The More Butter?” priced at $12 at Againn is made with Balvenie 12 Year Old, Punt e Mes, butter-infused St. Germain and house-made bergamot bitters.
Though Reserve 101 in Houston isn’t what co-owner Mike Raymond calls a “mixology bar,” they do use cocktails to introduce consumers to some of the more peated styles of Scotches. For example, he creates a Bloody Mary with a peated Scotch, called the Bloody Scotsman, which is made with Caol Ila 12 year old, and the Blood and Sand ($10) is made with Glenrothes Select Reserve (or Dalmore 12 Year Old), Herrings Cherry Liqueur and orange juice. In addition, Raymond offers Scotch infusions—mostly served neat or on the rocks—made by infusing Glenrothes Scotch with apple in one and peach in another.
In the Canadian whiskey category, the Crown Royal brand reigns supreme and recently released its top-tier entry Crown Royal Black. The top seller of all imports at Reserve 101 is often Crown Royal. Jack Daniel’s is often a close second and sometimes takes the top spot. “Crown Royal Black has done pretty well for us,” Raymond notes. He also offers a coffee-infused Canadian whiskey, made with Canadian Creek, which is served on the rocks with Baileys or in the Canadian Bulldog, which mixes the infused whiskey with half and half and a splash of Coke.
“I’m hearing a lot of chatter about Canadian whiskey,” says Lermayer. “[Canada] doesn’t get the same respect as the other whiskey-producing regions.” However, the only Canadian whiskey available at The Florida Room is Crown Royal ($15).
Even as people continue to experiment with new tastes, at the Five Star Bar in Chicago, Canadian whiskey remains an “old school staple,” says Karl Hendershot, manager. “The flavor profile is a lot softer than other whiskeys.” He’s even noticed that interest in Crown has gone up over the past couple of years, including a lot of calls for Crown & Coke.
Crown Royal Black is also a hit at Blood Hound. “They are using single-use Bourbon barrels for a darker, sweeter, richer flavor,” says O’Brien. “Everyone tries the ‘Black’ thing—the name really does move the needle.” Most whiskey consumption is straight up at Blood Hound.
Luck of the Irish?
Irish whiskey continues to get attention in the drinks arena. “Irish whiskey is the most underrated of all of the whiskey categories,” says Lermayer. “This stuff is really drinkable and fun to mix. You are seeing variations of American whisky cocktails made with Irish whiskey.” He notes drinks like sours and juleps made with a variety of Irish whiskeys. The top three Irish whiskeys at The Florida Room are Jameson, Red Breast and Black Bush, all priced at $12 a pour.
O’Brien at Blood Hound is also seeing more Irish whiskeys hit the scene. “I recently picked up the John L. Sullivan [brand] made with single use, Bourbon barrels,” he says. It is used in drinks like The Tipperary cocktail ($8), which mixes John L. Sullivan with Carpano Antica Formula and Green Chartreuse, according to O’Brien. His top Irish whiskeys are Jameson, Powers and Red Breast.
“Irish whiskey is not so boutique anymore,” says Caceres, noting that John L. Sullivan was popular in the Burnackle Bar cocktail this summer. The cocktail ($10) is made with John L. Sullivan infused with raisins and curry powder, lime, egg white, organic banana liqueur and bitters. “The first thing that hits your mouth is banana, then the curry,” he explains. Among the top Irish whiskeys at Againn are Redbreast 12 year old ($14 for a two-ounce pour), Jameson 1780 12 years ($14) and Knappoque Castle 1995 ($12).
Jameson—often the choice among bar and wait staff—remains the top Irish whiskey hands-down, say some bar managers, and it is also the top Irish whiskey according to BIG. “I’ve seen a significant increase in Jameson,” says Raymond. “Some weeks we go through about two to three bottles of Jameson—that’s a lot.”
Watching the evolution of whiskey drinking in this country, Raymond thinks Irish is about to get big. “People who are starting with Jameson will move onto Redbreast and others,” he explains.
“Jameson has a global stronghold, especially in Chicago,” agrees Hendershot. “Jameson has also gotten into the mix with 12 and 18 Year Old versions.” The popular Irish whiskey is mostly consumed as a shot ($5) at Five Star Bar, but people do sometimes call for Jameson and ginger ale. Paddy’s Irish Whiskey ($7) is also popular.
On the higher end, some customers at Five Star are flocking to Tulamore Dew and Middleton, both priced at $18 a pour. “People will have these once, but they can’t drink that on the regular,” he says, noting price as a driving factor.
Japan and Beyond
With the imported whiskey scene continuing to evolve and more consumers looking for different flavor profiles, the door is open for imports from non-traditional countries like Japan and India.
“Japanese whiskey is doing really well,” explains Lermayer. “It’s a fun product to sell and educate people on. Consumers don’t always associate whiskey with Japan. They get bright eyed over the fact that you have a whiskey from there.” He even features the most popular Japanese whiskey in the Rising Sun cocktail ($16), made with Yamazaki 12 Year, Aperol, Drambuie, lemon juice, ginger and lemon grass.
Caceres is also seeing a similar trend in Washington D.C. “Japanese whiskey is going strong,” he says, adding that the category is lead by the Suntory Yamazaki brand. “We carry the 12 year old and 18 year old, among others.”
In fact, he even infuses the Yamazaki 12 Year Old with butter and features it in the Shogun Square ($12), which mixes the Yamazaki 12 Year Old “Butterscotch” with Orchard Apricot Liquor, Oloros Lustau Sherry and Agostura Bitters.
Be it unique flavors from Scotch aged in Port casks or the latest offering of Japanese whiskey, imports are poised to continue to please the most discerning palates. And, as Lermayer says, “It’s an awesome category across the board. I want to see whiskey come from more regions and see Scotland experiment with different barrels and copper stock to push the limits of tradition.”