Ask many forward-thinking operators and they’ll tell you that American whiskey is hot. Operators tout Bourbon’s über-mixability, the grippy bite of rye and the multi-faceted smoky layers of Tennessee Whiskey.
Creative mixologists use them all year long in classic and modern drinks that try to match each spirit’s aroma, weight and flavor profile with seasonal ingredients. Patrons also enjoy their powerful and subtle nuances sipped neat, over ice or with a splash of water. Many operators were keen to share how these whiskeys are successfully marketed to both fans and newbies and the role that Bourbon has played in whiskey’s current revival.
“Whiskey in all forms is one of the most up and coming spirit categories in the cocktail scene today,” notes Carlo Splendorini, lead bartender at MICHAEL MINA in San Francisco, part of the 18-location chain led by the Las Vegas-based Mina Group. “Demand by the public has grown and people have really started to take the time to learn about the subtle differences in whiskey.” Indeed, statistics from the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, show a 2.3 percent increase in total sales of straight whiskey from 2009 to 2010.
Many beverage directors have said that whiskey’s revival has been led by Bourbon, as the spirit’s accessibility and versatility have made it a mixologists’ darling. A much wider variety of Bourbon labels is available today on bar shelves than even ten years ago, points out Paul Rodriguez, the beverage director for Village Whiskey, a thirty-seat, whiskey-centric bar in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, who stocks 63 Bourbons priced from $6 to $50.
He cites Bourbon’s surge in popularity in part to a contrast to neutrality. In a word, unlike some white spirits, Bourbon is full of character, with a tinge of innate sweetness that foregoes the need for an additional sweetener—like some flavored spirits.
While Bourbon must legally be comprised of at least 51 percent corn, subtle differences in the remainder of the mash bill translate to labels’ individuality. Maker’s Mark, for example, uses winter wheat instead of the more common rye. Bourbon labels owned by Beam Global Spirits & Wine (including the newish offering Maker’s Mark 46), saw a staggering 13.9 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010, proving that the brand is retaining loyal aficionados and attracting an increasing number of fans.
Still, flavor profiles among different brands of Bourbons can be much narrower than those of various Scotches, says Curtis Cheney, head barman for Del Frisco’s in Fort Worth, Texas, part of a nine-location steakhouse chain headquartered in Wichita, Kansas. He believes that even the most loyal Bourbon drinker can be persuaded to try a new brand. And while Rodriguez says Scotch and Irish Whiskey can often both be too complex and too expensive to use in cocktails, quality Bourbon is both wallet friendly and a willing partner to other components in the shaker.
Rachael Lowe, director of wine and spirits for Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower, which has 339 guest rooms, agrees with the strength of Bourbon’s market position and potential for further growth. “Mixologists are integrating it into more and more cocktails. It’s almost a trend to be able to talk educatedly about Bourbon.” She features it in several cocktails at the three bars onsite. At ReBar, the Strawberry Fashion ($17) mixes Bulleit Bourbon with The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters and strawberry purée; Sixteen’s Manhattan ($16) uses Maker’s Mark 46, Punt e Mes, Angostura and brandied cherries. The hotel carries twenty different Bourbons, priced from $12 to $25.
While Bourbon is often smooth and easygoing right out of the gate, rye’s peppery bite frequently has a higher learning curve. Rye has a claim to fame of being the first American whiskey and it was in fact one of the most popular spirits during Prohibition. Village Whiskey stocks ten rye whiskeys priced $9 to $60, and Rodriguez says rye is where mixologists are leading American whiskey. He recites the old adage, “rye to mix, Bourbon to sip,” which speaks to its usefulness in cocktails. The addition of Aperol, grapefruit, lemon honey and mint in his De Rigeur ($13) balance and round out rye’s peppery notes.
The Sazerac is perhaps the best-known rye-based cocktail, where an absinthe rinse adds an intriguing layer of aromatics to the potent potable. MICHAEL MINA’s Self Serve Sazerac ($10) is a whimsical, modern riff, where a chilled shot of Rittenhouse 100 Rye is served alongside a gelée of Peychaud’s Bitters, an absinthe marshmallow and candied lemon zest. When reaching for peppery rye, Splendorini typically avoids mixing it with juices, opting instead for the cleaner finish that other spirits and fortified wines will provide. “Because Bourbon is sweeter, more complex and also more viscous, it can better hold up to mixing with more fruit based cordials and syrups,” he says.
Challenges and Advantages
One obstacle that whiskey as a category has had to overcome is its association as a category marketed to an “Older Generation.” But in contrast to some brands that might seem older school, Splendorini contrasts Scotch’s high price point and potential stigma as “what my father drinks” as more of a deterrent than the way domestic whiskey and Bourbon are marketed. “Whiskey across the board has really positioned itself not to be old an unapproachable, but more classic and retro.”
This fascination with vintage, retro and off-the-beaten track options translates to a propensity for single-barrel bottles from producers including Knob Creek, Jack Daniel’s and Four Roses. “The uniqueness of every single barrel gives them appeal,” explains Rodriguez, who believes the complexity of these products can also attract and serve as a bridge.
So how else can operators reach out to neophytes of American whiskey—both Scotch lovers as well as non-American whiskey drinkers? “Being able to speak of the reasons behind their flavor profiles and price tag and perhaps a story specific to the label, gets the guest excited about the product and also makes it more memorable, Lowe notes. She believes that differences among brands of American Bourbon, rye and whiskey are more of a reflection of the producer and their techniques like wood used and ageing times than they are terroir differences.
The Points of Difference
A little bit of knowledge also goes a long way with patrons. It definitely helps to know that Bourbon’s high corn content renders it generally sweet and mild (and that it doesn’t legally have to be produced in the state of Kentucky); that rye is peppery and bitey because of the grain used; and that Tennessee whiskey’s charred new oak barrels generally result in a smoky, full-bodied spirit.
Rodriguez believes in whiskey newbies starting simply, with a classic libation like a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. The addition of ice will draw out the whiskey’s nuances and its character will really shine through the handful of complementary ingredients. Village Whiskey’s Old Fashioned ($12) pours Bottle in Bond Bourbon, lemon, sugar and house-made bitters and eschews any muddled fruit, opting for the original, more spirit-forward version. Cheney’s standard introduction to whiskey is two ounces of the brand of choice and one to two ounces of water in a standard Old Fashioned glass, served with a tall glass of ice water to add as need be.
Large volume producers frequently release offerings specifically designed as “easy-on-the-palate” introductions to whiskey. The earthy sweetness of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey makes it sippable neat, on the rocks or cut with water; and Jim Beam Red Stag infuses 80-proof, four-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon with natural black cherry flavors.
A Drink for All Times of the Year
As with other drinks ingredients, seasonality drives whiskey cocktails. But luckily the spirit is flexible throughout the year. In cooler months when Lowe lauds its “warming effect that feeds the soul,” whiskey is often used in Hot Toddies, or in beverages like Manhattans or Sazeracs and typically not cut with juices or mixers. Splendorini likes pairing the spicy notes found in whiskey that’s been aged in charred new oak with fall and winter ingredients such as pumpkin, apple, allspice and nutmeg.
When the temperature rises, guests crave lighter and more refreshing tipples. Del Frisco’s Blackberry Ginger Cocktail (priced $12 to $17, depending on location) is a fresh, summery blend of blackberries, mint, lemon and ginger ale mixed with Woodford Reserve.
One of the hottest introductions to the U.S. market of late is white, or unaged whiskey, represented by brands like Smooth Ambler and the Philadelphia Distilling Company’s recently released SHINE. Many operators agree that, at least for now, it’s still finding its place on the shelf. So far Rodriguez (whose grandfather was a Moonshiner) hasn’t been very impressed with most of the available products, many of which he says can suffer from being monochromatic and harsh.
Splendorini also agrees that white whiskey can be hard to make friends with. “[Whiskey’s] softness comes from the barrel when it is aged, so unaged white whiskeys are reminiscent of grappa, which is a big deterrent for people,” declares Splendorini. However, Lowe considers the relative neutrality of the unaged variety as an attribute—an empty canvas for cocktails, per se. Time will tell if their use becomes a growing trend.
As American whiskey reaches out to an even wider demographic, operators are increasingly featuring it in classic, modern and seasonal cocktails. Venues are also inviting guests to sip both large volume and artisanal brands to explore whiskey, rye and Bourbon’s multi-faceted, diverse aromas and flavors. “The end result is all good things for whiskey,” declares Splendorini, who hopefully predicts it will become a staple on all cocktail lists.