Sale of straight whiskey and bourbon continue to climb
A bold American spirit rules this country: Whiskey is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, connoisseurs and novices alike. The heritage, mystique and above all, the taste of American whiskey has captured palates here and around the world.
Appeal is widespread. Whiskey geeks vie for tastes of tightly allocated, coveted superpremium expressions. New-wave mixology points up the brown spirit’s versatility and approachable riffs on the classic cocktails bring newbies into the fold. The charge of the American whiskey brigade is lead by savvy operators whose innovative operational and promotional techniques are tapping brown spirits.
As they have for the past few years, American straights, which include bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, are growing faster than the overall whiskey category. Consumption of straights increased 6.4% last year, to 18.8 million nine-liter cases, according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group, the research arm of Cheers’ parent company. Meanwhile, single malt Scotch consumption was up 3.7%, and total whiskey increased 2% in 2014.
“The whiskey geek is now a ‘thing.’ An ever-increasing number of guests are well informed and go chasing after rare bottlings,” says David Vaughn, sommelier/beverage director of Baltaire, which recently opened in Los Angeles.
Whiskey takes a central role at the bar of this contemporary steakhouse. Baltaire carries over 50 types of American whiskeys, ranging in price from $10 to more than $200 for a 2-oz. pour of cultish Pappy Van Winkle 23-year.
Vaughn creates interest in rare bottlings through social media channels. “The cult stuff and limited releases can generate a lot of excitement with our guests, but going through the hoops to get them has become a huge pain,” he says.
“We’ve seen more guests become enthusiasts, whiskey geeks,” says Dan Matuszek, founder/CEO of Brix, which operates Grane Whiskey Dispensary and Craft Cocktails in Omaha, NE. The modern-day speakeasy boasts 500 whiskeys behind the bar, with library ladders to reach the top shelf. The cult and limited-release expressions bring a lot of attention to American whiskey, says Matuszek, which has contributed to the category’s growth.
It’s not just those connoisseurs who are draining those bottles. American whiskey has broad appeal and is picking up new converts daily.
The demographic is changing. Younger legal-age drinkers are taking to granddad’s bourbon and rye, in cocktails, on the rocks, or sipping. More women are becoming fans as well.
“The demographic for whiskey is all over the place these days,” says Vaughn. “More women drink whiskey now than I have ever noticed in the past.”
Indeed, “the bread and butter for whiskey is the 22- to 40-year-old male, but we’re seeing more women ordering it, too,” says Kevin Danilo, co-owner of Batch Gastropub in Miami. “The younger end of that spectrum is the Whiskey & Cola crowd; the older end is the Old Fashioned drinkers.” Batch carries over a dozen American whiskeys, priced $8.50 to $15 for a 1 ¼-oz. pour.
“One of the things we have noticed is that women who come in with their husbands or in a group, they are interested in trying brown spirits, because they have heard so much about them,” says Himanshu Sahni, director of marketing at Le Malt–Brown Spirits & Wine Lounge, a fine-dining restaurant in Colonia, NJ.
Le Malt boasts more than 750 brown spirits from all over the world; the bottles are displayed in dramatically lighted showcases around the restaurant. As its name suggests, Le Malt’s collection is Scotch-heavy, but the number of bourbons is growing, due to guest requests.
The Cocktail Approach
One big factor in whiskey’s broadening appeal, operators say, is cocktails that are more approachable.
“We are trying to convert people to the dark side of the spirits category. We get them hooked on some cocktails—like a Julep, with an eye towards expanding their horizons. Before you know it, you have a whiskey lover on your hands,” says Beau Williams, co-owner with wife Keely Edgington of Julep Cocktail Club in Kansas City.
Julep has more than 400 bottles of whiskeys on its backbar. Prices range up to $65 for 2 oz. of Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece. “The lion’s share of whiskey sales is in cocktails; people love the classics like Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and spins on those, and of course, Mint Juleps are a big deal,” says Williams.
For sippers, during weekday Happy Hours, all whiskeys at Julep are 25% off. “It’s an incentive to try some better whiskeys,” he notes.
“More approachable, less spirit-forward cocktails work with the younger demographic,” says Danilo at Batch. Complementary flavors of fruit and spice that don’t mask the whiskey can make a light and refreshing drink for summer; whiskey is not just for the winter months, he says. During its Whiskey Wednesday promotions, Batch prices premium well (Jim Beam) Whiskey & Colas at just $5 and other cocktails from $6 to $7; all Old Fashioned variations are $10.
“Cocktails broaden our market of whiskey drinkers. These drinks appeal to someone who is not yet a bourbon drinker, and start to reel them in,” says Gary Callicoat, president of the Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, a 19-unit casual-dining chain based in Columbus, OH. That includes riffs on classics such as a pecan-infused Manhattan and a Luxardo-Cherry Old Fashioned.
The Bourbon Mule is a variation of the Moscow, featured on Mule Mondays. On Whiskey Wednesdays, Rusty Bucket guests can choose any American whiskey for $6. “We get a lot of traction on the promotion, to sample through those whiskeys” says Callicoat.
Cocktails at Le Malt are individually crafted tableside at custom-made retro-styled carts, according to general manager/mixologist Richard Tandoc. One of the best-sellers is the Boardwalk Empire ($14), a twist on the Manhattan, made with bacon-infused Maker’s Mark Bourbon, and garnished with a crispy slice on top.
When a customer orders a whiskey at Le Malt, it is brought to the table, presented, and poured into Glencairn whisky glassware. “Rocks” are slow-melting large spheres of ice; Manhattans and Old Fashioned are garnished with an edible orchid encased in ice.
Buy the Barrel
As a river of whiskey flows through America’s bars and restaurants, it’s not enough just to offer a few labels and cocktails. Operators have to think outside the box to catch the interest of consumers and create a point of differentiation.
The Rusty Bucket chain buys its signature whiskey by the barrel. Callicoat has set up a private selection barrel program at Woodford Reserve with master distiller Chris Morris, blending from up to eight different barrels into a single vatting.
“Each one of those private selection barrels is different and unique,” Callicoat says. “Once the barrel is empty and you’ve drained the last bottle, that’s it, you can never recreate it.” So far, the chain has run through 11 barrels and is blending yet another this fall.
The bottles have the Rusty Bucket logo etched in the bottle and the label is cobranded as Woodford Reserve Gary’s Personal Selection, Batch No. X. For each barrel release, about three times a year, the bar designs a signature cocktail to complement that unique flavor profile. At press time, it was Gary’s Lemonade, made with Gary’s bourbon, shaken with freshly squeezed lemon juice, orgeat, soda water, simple syrup, and housemade grenadine.
Also in the works is to formulate a contracted craft beer to mature in those used barrels as Gary’s Private Selection Barrel Bourbon Ale. “Should be super interesting,” Callicoat notes.
Tapping Quality and Quantity
“Our methodology behind the bar is quality and quantity. That’s a niche in the market nobody has taken advantage of,” explains Danilo at the aptly named Batch Gastropub. Virtually all of the cocktails are pre-prepped in large batches, then either barrel-aged in custom casks or dispensed at tables from self-serve taps.
“By employing kitchen techniques, we can serve higher-quality product in a faster timeframe and also cut some costs and pass those savings along to our customers,” Danilo says. “So we are able to deliver craft cocktails to our guests in 30 seconds instead of five minutes.”
The company had 50 five-liter barrels crafted for the restaurant, which it uses for maturing cocktails and dispensing house-made sodas. The restaurant’s logo features that distinctive barrel as do glassware, T-shirts and other promotional items. “The logo is recognizable, unique and represents our concept,” says Danilo.
Also unique at Batch are seven tables with built-in taps each dispensing two beers, a cocktail and a spirit. The glycol long-draw systems run on a tablet computer that meters consumption to a tenth of an ounce, knows how many people are seated at the table and when it’s Happy Hour time.
Offerings change on a regular basis; a spiced cider and whiskey cocktail was one of the recent bestsellers on draft. “Miami is a bottle-service driven area, and these taps are a way of offering that consumption on demand service in a nicer way,” explains Danilo.
Locking Up Interest
Julep has an active Locker program. Memberships are $1,500 per year; every other month, the bar selects a bottle of spirits according to individual customers’ taste preferences and drops it into his or her locker. Whenever they visit, members and their guests can enjoy bottles from their lockers.
“It’s a more sophisticated version of bottle service,” says Williams. Members also receive advance notice and preferential treatment at tastings and other events, plus a Festivus holiday party.
Presentation of sipping whiskeys for all guests at Julep is splashy: Neat pours are served in Glencairn whisky glasses, with eyedroppers to add just the right amount of branch water.
Flights are a way to show off rare or unusual bottles. Julep’s Sugar and Spice flight ($12) highlights three rye whiskeys. “It’s a subcategory that people are getting turned on by in a big way,” Williams says about rye. (Indeed, rye has skyrocketed 536% in volume over the last five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.)
Julep plans new flights for the fall, including more high-end options as well as a selection of non-distiller producer bottlings. “NDPs are a hot topic,” says Williams. “Some people snub their noses at brands that don’t produce their own juice. The question is, is it good or isn’t it? Maybe they aren’t producing the whiskey themselves, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be damn tasty.”
Overall, operators are upbeat about the future of American whiskey. “I do not believe whiskey has even come close to reaching its full potential,” says Matuszek.
“The trend will continue to grow for the next few years as mainstream consumers become more interested in higher-end products and that interest filters out of the major metropolitan areas and into suburban markets,” predicts Vaughn at Baltaire.
For certain, it’s an exciting time to be into whiskey, says Williams. “I hope people continue to give whiskey a shot because it’s one of the most enjoyable spirits out there. It doesn’t take the nerdiest kid on the block to fall in love with this stuff.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer.