In case you missed it, American whiskey is on a big, fat roll.
Already the fourth-largest spirit category and the largest whiskey sub-category, according to 2011 stats supplied by the Distilled Spirits Council of America, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey grew again last year, outpaced only by vodka, Irish and single malt Scotch whiskies.
That popularity helps explain why bars like American Oak in Alameda, Calif., keep opening, featuring substantial selections of America’s home-grown spirit. Much of the cocktail talk has been about the recovery of rye from a fading ingredient to a hipster’s favorite tipple, but while rye did grow by 50% last year, the total volume is still quite small.
Instead, it’s bourbon and to a lesser extent Tennessee that is doing the heavy lifting in bars and restaurants, but not only in cocktails. Bars and restaurants are thriving with a dedication to whiskey similar to something pioneered in the early part of the century by vodka “Martini” bars and continued with more apparent lasting success by agave bars — the backbar crammed full of single-category expressions popular and rare, unique and pricey. American Oak, which just opened, offers more than 75 American whiskies on a total list that tops 100, including a smattering of Canadian, Scotch and Irish whiskeys. Seventeen ryes make the list as well, and while there are cocktails, beers and wines sufficient for the picky drinker, this is a place where flights of whiskey have a certain appeal.
The single-spirit theme has been played well in many locations, and there’s another spirit-focused trend emerging. Some bar folk, a bit exhausted with the never-ending evolution of the cocktail renaissance, have tweaked the idea of well-curated spirit lists to create spaces that go beyond simple pour and sip.
Aidan Demarest’s Neat in Glendale, Calif., is a prime example; the bar has 300 or so bottles of selected spirits, served neat as well as with soda, fresh fruit juice, beer or other mixers. Demarest calls it a spirit sampling bar, and customers can roll their own Jack and Coke or Moscow Mule as strong or weak as they like, or just chase the spirit, whatever they choose.
One of the unspoken secrets of the emergence of cocktails in America is that many spirits were simply too rough, tough and unsophisticated to the emerging urban smarty pants who wanted to sip more than shoot their drink. Now that spirits are so much better, in general, a gently softened liquor doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
It’s part of the countervailing trend to simplify matters at the bar. But having it both ways might be the most popular current trend: focus on a category of spirits, feature cocktails made with them and represent the category in a new light. That’s my interpretation of what’s going on at New York City’s Viktor & Spoils, where mescal madmen Steve Olson, Andy Seymour and Leo DeGroff have gathered a range of mezcals menued by agave species (espadin, tobala, madrecuixe, etc.) as well as some cocktails that can’t fail to bring novices into the realm of mescal lovers, Seymour’s La Grita De Dolores in particular (crema de mescal, Tanqueray 10, Bittermans Chocolate Mole Bitters and grapefruit peel). As lovers of a terribly misunderstood and poorly represented category of spirits, the trio may have hit the mescal surge at just the right moment, as agave spirits are winning fans fast and furiously. There are rumblings about the potential effects on agave spirits caused by newly proposed rules by governing bodies in Mexico, but in the meantime, the mezcal bar, like the whiskey bar, has some new found respect.