The whiskey category is expanding so much that many operators have had to enlarge their backbar selections. Another indicator of the spirit’s popularity: the proliferation of whiskey bars, specialists that carry dozens or even hundreds of different expressions. And despite the locavore movement, imported whiskies from all over the globe still take the lion’s share of most bar and restaurant lists.
“Whisky is a growing category, that’s for sure,” says Philip Prendeville, general manager of Barrel 44 Whiskey Bar in Columbus, Ohio. The two-unit concept boasts a selection of 170 whiskeys, about half of which are imports from Scotland, Ireland and Canada.
Irish whisky is driving the growth in imported whisky, according to the 2012 Liquor Handbook (published by Cheers parent, the Beverage Information Group). While the leading brands of imported whisky were up 2% from 2010 to 2011, Irish whisky increased 24%.
“We’ve seen a lot of new whiskeys from Ireland,” Prendeville notes. “Scotland is perhaps the most prolific exporter of whisky; they make so many different ages, expressions, limited batches and barrel-finishes.”
Barrel 44 also carries a Suntory Yamazaki 12-year-old whisky from Japan. Pour prices for whiskeys at the bar range from $5 to $60. “People are willing to spend more on the smaller-production, higher-quality spirits,” Prendeville says.
Twin Peaks, a 25-unit casual chain, currently carries 18 whiskeys, 50% of which are imports, but the selection will soon bump up to 26. “We plan to grow the whiskey selection at Twin Peaks even more,” says Tim Timbs, director of purchasing for Front Burner Restaurants, Twin Peaks’ Addison, Tex.-based parent company. “We know that is what our customer is looking for, and [the whiskey selection] elevates us above our competition and makes a quality statement,” he says.
Mixology’s Key Role
Whisky’s growth has been buoyed in part by the rising tide of today’s cocktail renaissance. The spirit is a key component of many classics, and the movement has generated renewed appreciation for fine liquor—especially brown spirits.
“Mixology is driving interest in whiskey,” says Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. “Putting whiskey in cocktails makes the spirit more approachable, beginner-friendly,” he explains. The Kimpton Hotels concept stocks 250 whiskeys in its “Liquid Library”; just 20% is domestic, the majority is Scotch. “That’s where the action is in terms of different styles and expressions,” says Ryan.
Also on the list are four Japanese whiskies from Suntory and four rarities from Amrut in India. Dram prices for Sable’s whiskies range from $10 up to $450 for a 40-year-old Bruichladdich, but most prices fall in the teens to mid-$20.
“People are opening up their palates to whiskey. Part of that is the new creativity with cocktails, putting new twists on the classics,” says Nick Elliott beverage manager for Whiskey Kitchen in Nashville, part of the M Street Entertainment Group. “That’s especially true for female clientele, who are more apt to try a whiskey-based cocktail than a shot.”
Despite the restaurant’s proximity to Tennessee whiskey and bourbon country, a full 35% of Whiskey Kitchen’s list is devoted to imports. Many of those are malts from Scotland, but the list also includes a Japanese whisky. Elliott is adding more imported whiskies, especially in the burgeoning Irish category.
More Worldly Customers
A taste is typically all it takes for many consumers to move beyond mixed drinks to exploring the wide world of whisky. Consumer palates are changing as well, becoming more sophisticated, which bodes well for full-flavored whiskies.
“In the two years since Sable has been open, I’ve watched some regulars go from being vodka-and-soda drinkers, moving onto bourbon and ginger, then graduating to single-malt Scotches; now they are ready to try anything new,” says Ryan. He believes that Scotch whisky is the ideal drink for curious customers to explore, because that segment encompasses lighter, approachable styles, as well as complex and peaty examples.
“These days customers are taking the time to appreciate what they are drinking instead of just throwing it back,” agrees Sam Crook at the Whiskey Warehouse in Charlotte, N.C. Crook is the corporate chef for Bottle Cap Group, a bar management group for five concepts.
The Whiskey Warehouse carries 78 varieties of the eponymous spirit, about 50 of which are imports. Prices range from $4 for a 1.5-oz. shot of Jack Daniels to $29 for Macallan 18-year-old Scotch and the Irish Middleton Rare. For explorers, the Warehouse boasts Yamazaki 12- and 18-year-olds from Japan.
The brown spirit is becoming more appealing to younger consumers. “Whisky used to be what your father and grandfather drank; now we notice more younger, middle-class professionals starting to drink into the category,” notes Timbs of Front Burner Restaurants.
His company sees so much promise in the category that it plans to expand its Whiskey Cake Kitchen concept. A prototype has been open for two years in Plano, Tex., offering 94 whiskeys—49% of which are imports. The collection includes Crown Royal XR, Glenfiddich Cask of Dreams and Yamazaki; prices range $7 to $120. Front Burner intends to open two more Whiskey Cake Kitchens in 2013. “We’re looking for this concept to really take off in the next couple of years,” says Timbs.
Selling with care
Promoting tastes of rare and old batches, exotic barrel finishes and other experiments will tantalize whisky aficionados who seek them out. But the richest, most aromatic dram doesn’t sell itself. Operators all preach the whiskey gospel via hand-selling, presentation, comparative flights and persuasive tasting events.
“We get a lot of ‘whiskey dorks’ that come into the bar, always looking for something new,” says Ryan at Sable Kitchen & Bar. “We do a lot of hand-selling.”
Sable staffers try new products as they are introduced. Whiskey is served in glasses designed to enhance the spirit, shaped like a pot still and etched with Sable’s logo. Customers can purchase the glasses to take home as souvenirs.
Whiskey Cake Kitchen takes cool care of its spirits. Bartenders choose from three kinds of ice—balls, slow-melting cubes and shaved—depending upon the drink, while specialty glassware is used for neat shots. A blackboard displays off-menu, limited-run whiskies.
“There is a certain draw to rare and unusual whiskeys, and we want to offer products no one else has,” explains Elliott at Whiskey Kitchen. Exotic isn’t enough, however, he cautions, quality has to be in the bottle, or it won’t sell.
The restaurant offers 1-oz.- and 2-oz. shots; the first is a tasting portion, and the second the standard pour. “That allows customers to try more whiskeys without too much of an investment,” says Elliott. Flights include three 1-oz. pours; guests can choose from any three on the list, which is discounted 10%.
Whiskey Wednesdays at Sable means a curated flight of four ¾-oz. pours for $25, which includes take-away informational cards. Flights focus variously on styles, distilleries, grains, production methods and other arcana.
“With so many whiskeys, the list can be overwhelming for some customers,” says Prendeville at Barrel 44, speaking of the venue’s four-page book. “Our staffers are educational ambassadors to help customers explore their preferences.” That includes custom flights of any whiskeys on the list, as well as set selections.
For beginners, Prendeville recommends first exploring American, Canadian, Scottish and Irish styles side by side. The bar also holds monthly tastings in a private room, at which industry professionals share their knowledge with customers and staff.
At Sable Kitchen, Ryan once donned a Mexican wrestling mask to spar with Kimpton’s master sommelier Emily Wines in a Whisky versus Wine event, which paired a six-course dinner with selected whiskies and wines. “It ended in a tie,” recalls Ryan. Besides Sable’s regular tastings and dinners, an upcoming Winter Whiskey Wonderland program will devote the drinks menu to whiskey cocktails from all over the world.
The world of whisky keeps expanding, in terms of customers’ appreciation, operators’ selections and import options. Even though Japan has crafted fine whisky for decades, only now is it appearing widely in this country. India is now making a splash in the U.S. market., and more examples from France, Sweden, Germany and other countries will be debuting here as well.
“We are going to see an even wider range of choices [as] whisky is being produced in just about every country in the world,” says Ryan at Sable. “It’s going to be amazing.”
Getting Your Irish Up
The Irish whiskey category is on fire: Sales of 9-liter cases increased from 1.4 million in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2011, according to the 2012 Liquor Handbook (published by Cheers’ parent, the Beverage Information Group). And producers are expanding and promoting their lines accordingly.
The leading Irish whiskey brand, Jameson, in September announced it is expanding distribution of its Jameson Black Barrel to New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. Jameson Black Barrel, which blends a rare, small-batch grain whiskey with a full-bodied pot still whiskey, had launched in New York in 2011.
Tullamore D.E.W., the third-leading Irish whiskey brand (Bushmills is the second), in September reopened the its Visitor Centre in Tullamore, Ireland, and redesigned its bottle to emphasize the heritage of the 83-year-old brand. The triple-distilled, triple-blend whiskey is also building a new $43.5 million distillery in Tullamore, which is expected to be completed in 2014.
Kilbeggan, the fifth-leading Irish whiskey brand (John Power is the fourth), on Sept. 17 hosted celebrations in honor of Halfway Day in major cities across the country, including Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. What is Halfway Day? It’s the date that is half way—or exactly six months—until St. Patrick’s Day 2013.—MD