“To be sure, these are interesting times to be in the whisky business,” says Hart Johnson, beverage manager for Piper’s Pub, a Scotch/Irish restaurant in Pittsburgh. For 17 years, the pub’s focus has always been imported whiskies, with a collection of around 100 single-malt Scotches, about 20 Irish whiskeys and a sprinkling of Canadian.
But now, Johnson has been adding imported whiskies from England, India and Japan. “Customers want to try something new every time they stop in for a drink,” he says.
Although it may seem that consumers are focused on bourbon and rye, crossover is occurring toward imports. Thirsting for the new and novel, geeks and newbies alike are looking to farther shores for new experiences, driving interest in whiskies from all corners of the globe.
“I’ve been seeing some bourbon drinkers switching over to the smoother single malts,” says Tim Beadle, general manager of Small Batch–Whiskey and Fare. The St. Louis, MO-based establishment is part of the multiunit Baileys’ Restaurants group. Small Batch carries more than 120 whiskeys, about 20% of which are imports.
For crossover Scotches, Beadle points to Auchentoshan’s American Oak and Three Wood expressions. Lowland malts are triple distilled for a lighter taste, and these two whiskies are matured in bourbon barrels.
“Imported whiskies are trying to cater to American palates more than they used to, partly to counter the rise in popularity of bourbon,” says Krissy Harris, creative director at The Wren, a gastropub from the New York-based Bua Bar Group. Americans perceive Scotch as peaty, and many don’t care for that flavor, Harris says. She sees more Scotches aged in rye or bourbon barrels to appeal to the U.S. market and demonstrate the whisky’s versatility.
Overseas brands are also putting terms familiar to Americans on labels to get trial, she adds, pointing to Johnnie Walker Rye Cask, as an example. The Wren carries 50 to 70 whiskeys; about half are imports. But sales still lean more toward bourbon and rye, Harris says.
“We are so close to bourbon country that it’s difficult to focus on imported whisky,” admits John Ford, owner/manager of The Littlefield, Cincinnati Bourbon Bar and Kitchen. The restaurant carries 90 whiskeys, 60 of which are bourbon. But Ford has been expanding the Scotch selection because of customer interest.
“We have a few Canadian whiskies, too, which the staff likes a lot and talks it up because the whisky is a great value,” says Ford, citing Pike Creek Whisky. “If we find a product we like, we won’t ignore it just because it’s not bourbon,” he notes.
Another market trend over the past few years is an increase in “non age statement” (NAS) whisky releases, chiefly malt Scotch, but also some Irish whiskeys. Increased sales have led to a depletion of older stocks of whisky. Some producers have chosen to forego the usual statement of spirits’ ages on the label in favor of limited or small-batch releases, often touting different wood treatments.
“We’ve seen age statements disappearing from Scotch labels,” notes Beadle at Small Batch. Instead, communications focus on the spirit’s ingredients and distillation and maturation methods.
He doesn’t see the NAS phenomenon as a bad thing. “Whiskey drinkers get excited about all the limited editions and new labels; they are looking for new experiences.”
Johnson at Piper’s Pub also sees advantages to the NAS trend. “All the single-malt distilleries are hopping on that bandwagon, putting out a dozen different releases a year. When we started, there was just, you know, Glenlivet 12-year, 15, 18. It’s nice to see more variety on the backbar.”
Blended whiskies, which often don’t carry an age statement, are also seeing a bump in interest. “‘Old man’ Scotch is becoming cool again,” says Pete Vasconcellos, bar director at The Penrose, another gastropub from the Bua Bar Group. He’s seeing an uptick in Cutty Sark and other “less-hip” whiskies.
“Cutty Sark is doing a lot to reposition the brand as how to drink with your dad, or your grandpa. It falls right in line with what Miller Lite did, bringing back the retro bottle,” Vasconcellos says. Cutty Sark is “a solidly made blended Scotch: a little peat, not too much smoke, not too sweet, well balanced. It has great baking spice notes.”
Whisky can be, and is, made in many parts of the world: France, Germany, Australia, Finland, Sweden and Wales—to name just a few. Currently in vogue are whiskies from Asia—Japan, India and Taiwan.
“Asian whiskies have been hitting the news hard these days,” says Beadle at Small Batch. He has a Taiwanese whisky but hasn’t seen much demand yet.
“There’s huge interest in Japanese whisky,” reports Harris. When The Wren opened Harris didn’t stock any Japanese malts until a group of twenty-somethings came in asking for them, she recalls. “Whisky drinkers tend to be experimental. For sure, the Millennial market is always looking for the next new thing, and that seems to be Asian now.”
Casa Fuente in Las Vegas invested in the category in a big way, buying by the barrel. The cigar lounge inside The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace became the first drinking establishment in the North American market to own a private barrel of Asian whisky when it secured a barrel of Kavalan Taiwanese whisky last fall.
“With Asian whiskies being one of the hottest categories in spirits right now, it seemed like the place to start,” says Michael Frey, proprietor of Casa Fuente.
Frey has had great success with Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel program. Since the Japanese distilleries didn’t have barrel programs yet, Max A. Solano, beverage program specialist, whiskey and spirits educator at distributor Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits of Nevada, reached out to Kavalan Distillery in Taiwan for Fuete.
“Our barrel is unique, balanced with a lot of depth. The whisky was matured in an oloroso sherry cask for over five years, it is complex with a rich sherry, fig and raisin nose,” says Frey.
The whisky is served neat, priced $29 for a 1-½ oz. pour; $200 for the bottle. Casa Fuente carries 80 whiskeys, 38 from Scotland and 38 from the U.S.; the rest are Irish and Canadian.
At The Littlefield, Ford invested in a case of Suntory’s Hibiki about six months ago. “Cincinnati is not always on the cutting edge of trends,” he says, but he decided to jump. He bought a case because he had heard that the expression would sell out.
“If a whisky is rare, customers get interested,” notes Ford. “And if I am the only one left with a bottle, I can price it accordingly.”