The imported whisky category continues to grow, thanks to increased consumer interest in brown spirits. Restaurants and bars are responding by adding more expressions to offerings and creating specialized whiskey bars to cater to aficionados.
Despite increasing competition from Bourbon and homegrown whiskey, Scotch still commands a big share of the on-premise market, especially at the top shelf. Easy-drinking Irish whiskey continues its meteoric rise in popularity in the U.S., especially among younger drinking-age consumers.
And fans are geeking out about new world whiskies from Japan and India, now appearing at more trendy American bars. Operators are reinforcing that interest with flights, whisky clubs and tastings.
The whiskey category has sustained healthy growth during the past few years. Supplier gross revenues for the category were up 6.8% in 2012, according to the most recent statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
“Irish whiskey is definitely growing in popularity across the country,” says David Marks, general manager of the recently opened Ashton Cigar Bar in Philadelphia. The elegant lounge boasts a wide-ranging collection of more than 200 whiskies, classic cocktails, craft beer, fine wines and 200 cigars—plus a state-of-the-art air purification system.
Marks reports selling a lot of Redbreast, Jameson expressions and Powers John’s Lane among his 20 bottles of Irish whisky. But Scotch comprises about 40% of the bar’s whisky list; 2-oz. pours range from $8 to $150. About 10 whiskies are priced above $100 with an equal number in the $8 to $9 range, says Marks. But Ashton is selling a lot of high-end product: “My bartenders have to keep climbing the ladder up to the top shelf,” he notes.
High-end imports are also in demand at Jack and Tony’s Restaurant and Whisky Bar in Santa Rosa, CA. The restaurant features modern American regional cooking, and the bar specializes in whisky, with some 400 selections; 60% is Scotch. The menu is presented in an 11-page, leather-bound book and price ranges from $7 for well whisky up to $155.
Do those pricy pours sell? Absolutely, according to Jack and Tony’s chef/proprietor Jack Mitchell. “At that price point, our guests are drinking a little piece of history, getting bragging rights and experiencing whisky that is extremely rare,” he says.
Whiskey, especially Scotch, had long been pigeonholed as granddad’s drink. But that stereotype has changed, as more millennials and women discover the venerable brown spirit.
“We’ve been seeing a broader range of people coming in to try Scotch,” reports Matt Moore, general manger of the Penn Field location of Opal Divine’s Austin Grill. He likens the increasing interest to the growth of the craft beer scene.
The Austin, TX-based three-unit casual chain was named after the mother of Susan Parker, who owns the company with her husband Tom. (Opal Divine was a big Scotch fan.) It boasts Texas’s best Scotch menu, with over 60 single malts.
“Our clientele likes big flavors—the big hoppy craft beers and peaty Scotch,” says Dave Faron, proprietor/general manager of 44 Stone Public House in Columbia, MO. The British-accented gastropub serves rich and full-flavor food as well.
44 Stone’s spirits list includes a dozen each Scotch and Irish whiskies, as well as a handful of American ones. Prices range from $5 to $46 for Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old.
“A large percentage of our whisky drinkers are female,” notes Mitchell at Jack and Tony’s. “We also get a lot of younger hipsters, who are interested in exploring the world of whisky.” Beyond a solid local clientele, Mitchell says the wine-country restaurant gets a lot of tourists who want a change from wine tasting.
“Irish is a smooth, easy-to-drink whiskey; with it we can make drinks that are female-friendly, which drives sales,” says Josh Petzel, general manager at The Local in Minneapolis. “A lot of millennials tend to drink whiskey neat—they want unadulterated flavor,” he notes.
The Local carries about 17 Irish whiskeys; a 2-oz. pour ranges in price from $6 to over $100 for Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve. The bar goes through a couple of bottles a month of this latter rarity. “We mostly sell a lot of the $10 to $15 range, to guests looking for an upgrade but don’t want to take out a mortgage just to taste a whiskey,” Petzel says.
For many operators, offering a curated collection of imported whiskies creates a competitive point of differentiation and establishes a destination for enthusiasts.
The Local, for example, 10 years ago had a spirits list that included 60 single malt Scotches. “We dialed that back to focus on Irish whiskey to complement our theme,” recalls Petzel.
Since then the Irish-themed bar has the distinction of selling more Jameson than any other on-premise location in the world for five consecutive years, says Petzel. The Local launched its own brand of Irish whiskey, 2 Gingers, in 2011; the brand was sold to Beam a year ago.
The bar’s signature whisky is also featured in a few cocktails such as the Big Ginger and the Skinny Ginger ($6.50); 2 Gingers also appears in a number of the Local’s food recipes, including the best-selling appetizer: boneless chicken tossed in a whisky glaze.
“Our whisky collection sets us apart from other places, and for whisky fans, we are a destination,” says Faron. When he opened 44 Stone Public House three years ago, the proprietor stocked mostly lighter Lowland and Speyside whiskies, but the demand has been for the briny, peaty Islays, especially among aficionados.
“At Jack and Tony’s, we have one of the top whisky collections on the West Coast in terms of size and depth,” says Mitchell. “Most bars or restaurants can’t afford to stock all 11 expressions of Bowmore—we can. It’s one of my favorites, and there is an audience for it here.”
As a cigar bar, Ashton wanted to give the cigar smokers what they wanted, Marks says. “Which is why we went so heavily into whisky, especially Scotch. Cigars and whisky go hand in hand.”
NEW WORLDS TO EXPLORE
Although Scotch and Irish get most of the attention, a number of countries are producing intriguing whiskies, including Canada, Japan, India, Scandinavia and France. As allocations allow, operators are adding some of these to their lists.
“We don’t just offer Scotch and Irish, but also Canadian, Welsh, French and even Swedish whiskies,” notes Mitchell at Jack and Tony’s.
The Japanese category is just starting to expand, with a few brands now exported to the U.S. “It’s an interesting category, with a flavor profile similar to Scotch, but more creative with grain bills and wood aging,” he says.
“Whenever I get a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki, it goes really quickly,” says Faron at 44 Stone. “It’s limited availability and demand is so high, I can’t get enough.”
Since the Local is based in Minnesota, “Canadian whisky is huge here,” says Petzel. Windsor is a big seller, as well as calls like Crown Royal and Seagram’s Seven Crown.
Ashton’s collection includes a few bottles from Japan, India, France and Australia. “Indian whisky sells very well,” Marks says.
The world of whisky continues to grow, with more expressions being released and more people caught by its heady charms. Operators are working hard to keep up.
Ashton just opened in September and Marks is already looking to expand his list. At Jack and Tony’s, Mitchell sometimes adds as many as 10 whiskies in a week, either new expressions or products that haven’t been exported before. He is also constructing a menu of flights; three 1-oz. pours of the whiskies will be paired an appropriate cigar.
Distilleries have been busy experimenting with different grain bills and cask treatments, says Moore. Malts aged in rum or sherry barrels are popular with Opal Divine’s guests, because it adds a touch of sweetness that appeals even to those not really into Scotch yet. “It’s kind of like training wheels,” he concludes. ·
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who writes about all things drinkable.
Whisky Fests and Flights
The finest collection of whisky in the world won’t sell by itself. Operator tactics range from fests and flights, specials and fan clubs.
Opal Divine’s Austin Grill hosts two well-attended whiskey fests annually, one in June for American and Canadian products, and another in December with a focus on malts. The ticketed events showcase rare and unusual bottlings, and many go onto become a “Malt of the Moment,” a blackboard limited-time offer.
The casual chain’s three restaurants also offer a number of Scotch Verticals, samplings of aged malts from a specific distillery, or a Regional Malt Sampler ($22 for six ½-oz. pours) comprising the biggest names from each of the regions. “It’s a great way to educate people,” says Matt Moore, general manger of the Penn Field location of Opal Divine’s. Enrollment in the Quaich (named for the traditional drinking cup) Club is up to few dozen. Members track whiskies as they taste through the collection, aiming for a commemorative plaque.
The Local in Minneapolis offers a tasting flight of products from the Kilbeggan distillery: Tryconnel, Connemara, Kilbeggan and its own 2 Gingers. The restaurant has hosted dinners and tastings, mainly as prizes in charity auctions.
Jack and Tony’s Restaurant and Whisky Bar in Santa Rosa, CA, offers 10 preset flights: Some are regional, some tied to a brand, others focus on flavor profiles. But many guests enjoy creating a custom sampler from anything in the collection, says chef/proprietor Jack Mitchell.
Guests interested in really exploring the wide world of whisky can purchase a Passport, which is stamped as they taste through the collection. No one at Jack and Tony’s has completed this yet, Mitchell says, but about five-dozen guests are working on it. —THS