Whiskey's Got Groove
The New Cool: Scotch, Irish and White
Whiskey connoisseurs are noticing a lot of new faces sidling up next to them at the bar recently. Younger faces. Female faces. Just like Cadillac successfully rebranded from your grandfather’s car to something you’d actually appreciate being seen driving, whiskey — particularly Irish and Scotch — has relaxed its hold over the old-man-with-a-cigar set and made a move on the hip trendsetters. In fact, imported whiskey is markedly starting to dominate previously untapped subsets of the market. It’s no longer your grandfather’s favorite drink. Imported and high-end whiskies are finally cool (to the masses) in their own right.
“I’m in a city where blended Scotch dominates what people drink because it’s a Latin-based culture,” says John Lermayer, head bartender at The Florida Room in Miami. “I was kind of shocked to start seeing these really cute, young, small women ordering [Johnnie Walker] Black [Label] on the rocks like it’s going out of style. Young people are now drinking tons of blended Scotch. It’s a very versatile and drinkable spirit.”
“Women are now coming in groups, knowing exactly which single malt they like,” echoes Donal Brophy, co-owner of Scottish gastro-pubs Highlands and Mary Queen of Scots in Manhattan. As for the impetus, Brophy points to a “return to Puritan kind of spirits. They’re starting to appreciate that a single malt neat or on the rocks can be enjoyed just as much as a sweet cocktail.”
Why is Scotch taking off with a different crowd? The trend can be attributed to the revival of ‘50s and ‘60s culture in pop media. Giving a nod to TV shows such as “Mad Men,” bar owners and operators, along with brand marketers, are aligning themselves with that culture of cool. Brophy hosted a “Mad Men” season launch party earlier this fall in partnership with Glenfiddich, featuring private tastings with the master blender so guests could be further educated about the oaky spirits swirling in their glasses.
Further proof that knowledge is power and that an informed consumer will make a notable difference in your bar’s sales: upscale bars like Highlands are booming thanks to these sessions. “Whiskey manufacturers have been doing a phenomenal job marketing their products,” says Brophy, adding that he gives much of the credit to labels such as Balvenie and Glenfiddich that frequently send hip and “super fabulous” brand ambassadors to his bars to buy customers a drink or two. “When you have a good face to a brand, it goes a long way and makes customers even more attracted to the brand,” he says.
Once they’re captivated, the product will push itself. “I have whiskey and Scotch cocktails on my menu,” Lermayer notes, “but they don’t sell nearly as well as the straight spirits. We give out little tastes here and there, explain where the batches are coming from, but beyond that we don’t need to heavily market this.”
One order setting the nation ablaze: the Pickleback. A simple shot of whiskey — most likely Jameson — with a shot of pickle juice as a “back” is catching on in multiple cities. “They’re fun, even though they hurt the next day,” laughs Lermayer of the craze, which is said to have come out of Brooklyn just a year or so ago. “The Florida Room was the first to serve them in Miami, and since we’re an industry hangout spot, a lot of the other bartenders in the area picked up on it and implemented it in their own bars.”
The Pickleback inspires both bartenders and patrons. Barkeeps across the country are now fiddling with pickle brine, creating their own in much the same way they conjure up house-made bitters. As for patrons, the curiosity factor tends to win out, luring fans of shots and fans of whiskey alike to the bar for the double thrill, not to mention the whiskey neophytes introduced to the spirit as they seek to join the trendinista set. The rise of the Pickleback also has further bolstered sales of Jameson, already the leader in the fastest growing spirits category.
Just because the newbies are flocking to Picklebacks and rocks glasses en masse doesn’t mean the passionate whiskey drinkers are being left in the dust. At Brandy Library in New York City, which proudly boasts more than 400 different single malts, offers eight different private labels, each created to Brandy Library staff’s own exacting details. That’s enough to set the most diehard whiskey drinker’s heart aflutter. “Most distilleries always have a few special casks they don’t release for sale and keep for special private bottlers,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of Brandy Library.
“We can then get very specific in what we want. More honey, less peat, no iodine, no maritime influence and so forth. They then take these special casks and create something unique just for us. When we came up with the recipe for our Islay batch, the [distiller] liked it so much they were trying to keep our blend for themselves. We were able to talk them into selling to us,” smiles Desoblin.
The whiskey trend, stemming from a surge in ‘50s and ‘60s pop culture, has taken hold at hot spots like The Highlands and Brandy Library (top and lower right), both in New York, where new spirits are offered along with a range of expressions and private stock selections.
As for the next hot trend within the whiskey umbrella, expect to see explosive movement from a uniquely American segment: white whiskey. Companies such as Moonshine and White Dog are introducing clear, un-aged blended whiskeys — distilled from corn or corn and wheat — to bars and consumers. The spirits play into the drink local trend. “The consumers get a real kick out of those. Plus, since it’s a clear spirit, you can mix it with just about anything or have it straight. It’s equally smooth,” Lermayer says. That makes it a prime candidate for another new whiskey drink trend: punches. “I’m about to implement punchbowl service,” Lermayer offers. “The textbook term for ‘punch’ is citrus, sugar, a spirit and fruit juice, and you can certainly use whiskey. Punchbowls are really picking up steam as a trend. We make a great Bushmills punch. After all, who doesn’t love a solid punch?”
Distilleries also are coming up with new whiskey expressions. “Balvenie has a new Caribbean cask, which is doing quite well,” Brophy says. “Particularly with the ladies. It’s got this tropical fruit flavor to it that they love. Fusing that with their Speyside staple product, the end result is quite delicious.”
Even the country of origin is changing. “Japan has some quality products now,” Desoblin shares. “Yamazaki is a single malt whisky, made near Kyoto. The region is known for having pure waters, a diverse climate and high humidity, all of which are ideal for whisky making. And they’re using interesting wood in their casks, such as mizunara, which is from a tree only in that region of the world. No one else in the industry is using that type of wood,” Desoblin says.
Whatever your customers are ordering, it’s crucial that the ethos of the establishment is in line with the new mentality. “Gone are the days of being intimidated by Scotch and whiskey,” surmises Brophy. “We’re in an era where asking the bartender a ton of questions is perfectly fine. We want to help you learn; not make you feel stupid if you don’t know every little detail. Our goal is to make this an open and fun experience, just as the whiskey category wants to be to the emerging market.” NCB
Building a Wall of Whiskey
Want to break into the whiskey category but not sure what bottles to put on the shelves? Brandy Library’s Flavien Desoblin breaks down some staples to stock.
Lagavulin 12 Year Cask Strength Edition. “It wasn’t available in the U.S. for the last five years, but now it’s back. It’s got a great finish, a good body and it’s good for a beginner or an intermediate whiskey drinker. Serious fanatics also appreciate it.”
Hibiki 12 Year Old. “It’s from Japan, and it’s a blended whisky with a bit of bourbon in there, which you can absolutely tell from the nose. It starts light, packs a big middle, and yet finishes light and smooth.”
Pig’s Nose 5 Year Old. “It’ll be gentle to you on a Sunday. The label actually reads ‘’Tis said our Scotch is as smooth and soft as a pig’s nose,’ and it’s true. It’s got a very sweet finish, and it’s great for a beginning whiskey drinker.”
Clynelish 14. “This has some peat notes, but women like this one a lot. It’s a super generic Speyside, with just a shade of smoke. It’s got a delicate salty beginning but a great caramel finish. It’s the perfect introduction to Scotch.”
Highland Park 18. “This will satisfy your craving for something deep, with a good weight and body, but not too bold or overpowering. It’s got some notes of sherry, but they’re subtle. It’s the perfect single malt.”