American whiskey is such big business on-premise that at least one operator is buying the spirit by the barrel.
“We started our barrel program two years ago,” says Brad Miller, beverage director for Bellevue, WA-based Schwartz Brothers Restaurants. The beverage director and his team go directly to Bourbon distillers where they taste barrel samples until they find the right flavor profile.
As of June the Schwartz Brothers’ five upscale dinnerhouse restaurants had run through 10 barrels of Bourbon, and Miller was ready to buy four more. Beyond the barrel program, Miller has increased the Bourbon selection at the three Daniel’s Broiler concepts from 30 to 70 during the past three years, and bumped up the rye whiskey count to about 10.
Prices for American whiskeys at Schwartz Brothers range from $8 to about $35 for a 2-oz. pour. “Customers are going for the high-end whiskeys,” says Miller. Another trend: Millennials are getting interested in whiskey, accounting for part of the growth spurt in Bourbon and American whiskey.
American whiskey is experiencing a Bourbon boom, with category volumes and revenues growing at record levels. A new generation of customers in getting into whiskey thanks to a number of factors, including patriotism, price, cocktails and new products and flavors.
Bourbon/Tennessee is the largest whiskey category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), at nearly 17 million cases and $2.2 billion in revenue. Volume last year rose a substantial 5.2% and revenue was up 7.3%. Tellingly, much of that growth was in the superpremium sector, up 12.4% in volume and 14.4% in sales.
The leading American brand was the venerable Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, according to Beverage Information Group’s Liquor Handbook 2013. Most of the rest of the top 10 brands were Bourbons, including numbers two and three Jim Beam and Evan Williams, respectively. Maker’s Mark in fourth place among leading brands posted impressive gains of 14.4%, thanks in part to the new Maker’s 46 expression it released in 2010.
MADE IN THE U.S.A.
Why have Bourbon, Tennessee and rye whiskeys grown so popular in the past few years? Part of the appeal is the made-in-America label: Why look abroad for brown spirits when top-quality goods are being distilled right in our backyard?
A proliferation of craft distillers and new marques from established producers have kept the brown spirit top of mind. Plus, most Bourbons are a good value relative to other high-end spirits.
“This is America, we need to be drinking American whiskeys,” says Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. The Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants upscale-casual concept boasts about 250 whiskeys; about a quarter of them are American.
But Ryan points out that “we do more volume with American whiskey than we do with Scotch.” He sees a younger demographic getting interested in whiskey, because the brown spirit is hip, and not what their parents drank.
But it is, in many cases, what their grandparents drank, and that’s part of the appeal. The interest in retro fashions and cocktails fueled in large part by the popularity of the AMC series Mad Men continues to give old-school brown spirits a boost.
“There’s been a return to the classics, a getting back to something uniquely American like Bourbon,” says Allegra Angelo, beverage director for 50eggs Restaurant Group. The Miami-based company operates three concepts: casual Southern cuisine restaurants Swine and Yardbird, and Khong River House, which features Southeast Asian food and gin-based drinks.
Yardbird is Kentucky Bourbon-centric, with over 60 on the list, ranging in price from $9 to $27, with a score of ryes and a dozen “experimental” whiskeys, notably items from Balcones in Texas and High West in Utah. Swine has a slightly smaller collection as well as fine rum. “There’s a new whiskey on the market every week,” notes Angelo. “Buying whiskey has become an exciting chase.”
There are plenty more whiskeys to chase after. Distillers have been busy experimenting with different mash bills, barrel finishes and other variations. Just last year, 46 new Bourbons debuted, according to DISCUS. The rye whiskey subsegment jumped 50%-plus in volume last year, with 22 new ryes on the market.
It’s not just the intriguing labels that attract consumers; price is a big factor. Dollar for dollar, American whiskey is a much better bargain compared with other top-shelf spirits.
“Customers can drink several American whiskeys for the price of a single single-malt Scotch,” points out Ryan. At Sable Kitchen, Bourbons run $7 up to the mid-$20s; Scotch can run into the triple digits a glass.
“It’s not a question of quality by any means,” he notes. Scotland is farther for shipping, the grain is more expensive, and the aging process is costly. “Bottom line: American whiskey is cheaper,” Ryan says.
“Our whiskey prices range from $5.50 all the way up to $50,” says Chris Fields, front-of-house manager at Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar, with two locations in Pittsburgh. Even that top end sells, he notes. “We get a lot of out-of-town businesspeople who like to try new spirits.”
Winghart’s main location carries more than 80 whiskeys; of that 50% is Bourbon, about 15% is Tennessee and Canadian whiskey; single malts from Scotland and Japan make up the rest of the list. “We carry a few whiskeys you can’t find around here,” Fields says, citing Willet Single Barrel Bourbon as an example.
COCKTAILS IN THE MIX
“Bourbon is perceived by consumers as being more mixable than Scotch,” says Ryan. It’s the base in many classic cocktails—Whiskey Sours, Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. All cocktails at Sable Kitchen are priced at $13.
Most of the whiskey volume is in mixed drinks with just a few brands: Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniel’s. “Buffalo Trace is eminently mixable, it’s a bartender favorite, considered hip right now and is at a good price point,” says Ryan.
The main Daniel’s Broiler sells an average 4,000 Manhattans a year, priced at $10 each. “Since we sell so many Manhattans, I didn’t want to use run-of-the-mill Bourbon,” Miller explains. “I wanted a flavor profile that would stand out in the cocktail. We picked a little woodier, spicier Bourbon out of the samples for our barrel.”
Winghart’s also sells quite a few Manhattans as well as Old Fashioneds. Fields has also created a few signatures, such as the Ball Grabbing Ginger, made with Drambuie, Bulleit rye and Snap ginger liqueur. All cocktails are $10.
50eggs’ cocktails tend toward the experimental, like the South by South Sidecar, which mixes Atlantico rum with Wild Turkey Rye ($13), and an Old Fashioned that includes bacon-washed Bourbon and maple syrup ($15).
FLAVORS AND LOCALS
Flavored whiskey is a relatively new but rapidly growing development in the category. Red Stag, Beam’s flavored line, posted gains of nearly 36%, according to Beverage Information Group statistics. Now all of the major players have flavor entrants or are testing some.
Hard-core aficionados may scorn whiskey in cinnamon, cherry, honey or maple varieties, but for novices—especially younger, legal-age drinkers—the flavors are an easy introduction to whiskey.
“If flavored whiskey is a gateway [spirit] that gets someone to try whiskey, then those products deserve to be on the market and they do appeal to a certain demographic,” notes Angelo. Still, the only example she carries is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, which is a favorite of one of the bartenders.
“Younger drinkers are approaching the category both through flavored whiskey and through cocktails,” echoes Ryan. He doesn’t carry any of the flavors, but if a customer requests honey whiskey, “I say, ‘I’ve got some honey—I’ll mix it for you.’”
“A lot of the younger crowd is into flavored whiskeys, it’s transitional for them,” concedes Miller. But he doesn’t carry any of the flavors because he doesn’t believe they fit his concepts. Another reason: “I’m not a big fan,” he notes.
The rise of craft distilling is stirring up the entire spirits spectrum, and local spirits fit right in with the locavore philosophy of many restaurants.
“There has been a boom in craft spirits; it’s nuts,” exclaims Angelo. She doesn’t carry any Florida whiskeys but stocks a number of artisan products from around the country.
“Craft distilleries are opening like crazy all over Washington State,” notes Miller. Schwartz Brothers carries local Dry Fly and Woodinville whiskeys.
Sable carries a few local whiskeys, such as Lion’s Pride from Chicago. “But Kentucky is just five hours south, so Bourbon is kind of local for us,” Ryan points out.
MORE TO POUR
Operators will continue to find new ways to promote whiskey. The Bourbon Bash, an annual event held at the Bellevue Daniel’s Broiler attracts a bigger crowd every year and offers more whiskeys to taste. More than 200 consumers pay about $90 for a ticket to sample 120 Bourbons and enjoy some appetizers at the four-hour event.
At Winghart’s, Fields is busy rounding out his whiskey collection, adding 30 more labels. And he is putting together some tastings and classes to educate both staff and customers.
And at 50eggs, Angelo wants to build whiskey lockers at Yardbird, where for a monthly fee, customers could collect and store rare, highly allocated bottles and also get invites to special tasting events. “Kind of like an underground whiskey club,” she says.
Angelo is also busy adding custom whiskey flights to Yardbird’s list, in addition to the curated flights. “It’s a really exciting time to drink American whiskey,” she says. ·
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who writes about all things drinkable.
Taking a Shine to White Whiskey
Once known as moonshine, white dog or white whiskey has acquired new caché. The unaged, clear whiskey is a way for small producers to get a fast ROI; established brands are releasing white whiskey so that fans can compare it to their mature products.
In addition to craft brands such as Buffalo Trace and Death’s Door, Jack Daniel’s unveiled an unaged rye whiskey this year, and Maker’s Mark began selling Maker’s White at its distillery. Jim Beam recently released Jacob’s Ghost White Whiskey, an 80-proof whiskey that has been rested at least a year in charred, white oak barrels.
Reactions to unaged whiskeys are mixed, however. “Whiskey should have oak on it,” declares Allegra Angelo, the beverage director for Miami-based 50eggs Restaurant Group. “That’s what makes whiskey great, the interaction with the wood.” But she does carry one or two that fit the concepts, such as Troy & Sons Moonshine.
“I personally like white whiskeys, and think they are underutilized,” counters Chris Fields, front-of-house manager at Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar in Pittsburgh. Winghart’s carries White Dog from House Spirits and Hudson New York Corn Whiskey and Fields has created a few cocktails using the clear spirit. “I don’t think white whiskeys are getting enough attention,” he says. —THS