Whiskeys of All Sorts – Single-Barrel, Barrel-Proof, Corn, Even White Dog – Find a Home in Cocktails, Sparking New Interest and Sales of our Native Spirit
For a long time, American whiskey’s been a little like the classic boy next door — friendly, dependable, maybe even charming and sexy in a roughneck way, but a little too familiar to get excited about. That boy next door has been hanging with a pretty trendy crowd lately, and the results are evident all over the country. Bars focusing on classic cocktails and their modern descendants are brimming with bourbon and rye drinks. The Sazerac has come back with a vengeance and is now a popular option, joining the Manhattan and Old Fashioned in the holy trinity of American whiskey-based cocktails no bar should be without.
Bourbon, of course, leads the way, with new brands and experimental releases from the major distillers joining their already-popular annual products, like the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage and Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. But seemingly out of the blue, a host of new whiskey products also are catching consumer attention, such as the Hudson whiskeys from New York and High West ryes from Utah. Rye’s resurgence keeps advancing, and the few major brands — Rittenhouse, Sazerac, Wild Turkey — are seeing steady growth, and in some cases, selling out their limited production.
Lately, even unaged, “white dog” whiskey has entered the mix, with variants coming from distillers small (Death’s Door) and large (an unaged Buffalo Trace meant originally for the distillery gift shop has caught fire among bartenders), and the rumor mill is working overtime, spewing speculations as to which big distiller will rush out another unaged whiskey. Multi-grain or corn, barrel-proof or small-batch, experimental or old style — American whiskey found the sweet spot in sales, and the cocktail is the driver. In fact, it seems bourbon and rye cocktails could provide the necessary spark to ignite bar sales in the all-important fourth quarter of this challenging year.
Bourbon Behind the Bar
In Los Angeles, the quietly growing popularity of high-end whiskeys at the Bigfoot Lodge helped convince owners to reopen one of their properties as the American whiskey-centric Thirsty Crow last April.
“We found we were getting many more calls for higher-end ryes and whiskies, and now we’re having a hard time keeping most of the high end in stock,” says Brandon Ristaino, part of the bar’s opening team and known there as the “Bourbon Baron.” Thirsty Crow currently stocks nearly 70 bourbons and ryes and features classic whiskey cocktails as well as some modern variants — a Maker’s Mark Manhattan made with orange marmalade and a Molé Manhattan being just two of them.
Business is brisk at Thirsty Crow. In fact, management at parent company 1933 Group is so pleased with the progress of Thirsty Crow that they developed plans to retool the Bigfoot Lodge in west LA as a whiskey joint as well.
It’s a long road from the dark days when vodka pushed American (and other) whiskeys off the shelf and many brands struggled to stay alive. The industry consolidated to the point that you can now count on one hand the number of major American whiskey distillers.
Experiment to Expand
Dave Pickerell worked for years for Maker’s Mark, including time as the master distiller, but today he’s busy with the recently released WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, crafted in Shoreham, Vermont. He thinks the American taste revolution that ripped through fine dining, wine making and beer brewing has finally hit the distilling world.
“What’s really happened is that people have realized that they want cocktails with taste, too,” Pickerell says. The micro-distillers who garnered immediate favor with consumers may be influencing the big distillers to try different things as well, he says, and the trade can expect more interesting activity and whiskey experiments, especially since major supplier William Grant and Sons took on Tuthilltown’s Hudson whiskeys. This sends a strong signal to the micro-distillery world that there may, in fact, be a payoff at the end of the road.
Corn whiskey may be part of that evolution, but Pickerell suggests that serious experimentation, common in the micro-brewing world, is on its way and may broaden the palate beyond what is now expected. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a chocolate porter whiskey sometime soon, or something like it,” Pickerell says.
Lots of places have discovered the value of featuring more flavorful and reasonably priced American whiskeys in the current economy. “I’ve done four cocktail programs over the past year and every one of the places was interested in stocking a more extensive list of American whiskeys than in the past, even if thematically it didn’t necessarily go with the rest of the restaurant’s concept,” says Bobby Heugel, bartender and co-owner of Houston’s Anvil.
Heugel notes that bars and restaurants are responding to different customer expectations today in terms of American whiskey. Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam with Coke may be among the leading call drinks in the country, but consumers may be looking for something special on their night out. Additionally, he says, today’s patrons come to the bar with more knowledge than previous generations.
“Five years ago no one would have walked into a bar like ours and spotted, say, a Michter’s Rye on the shelf and said, ‘That’s what I’m in the mood for,’” Huegel notes. But now, it actually happens.
Patrons aren’t the only ones with their eyes on something special. Even though Templeton Rye is only legally available in Illinois and Iowa, brand manager Michael Killmer says bartenders elsewhere find ways to get bottles of the small production on their shelves. Three-quarters of the rye (which, by the way, is said to be Al Capone’s favorite) in the Chicago allocation goes to bars. “Bartenders are always looking for unique stuff,” Killmer says.
Small factors concerning American whiskeys are having an impact as well. The bargain they provide, especially when compared to other brown spirits, makes it attractive for consumers to cozy up to and for bartenders to experiment with. Younger consumers who dislike the hard sell have taken on bourbon, much the same way Pabst Blue Ribbon became the hipster’s brew of choice. That’s not to say you can’t charge a decent price for these drinks; today’s consumer remains somewhat willing to ante up for a unique libation. And, at least anecdotally, women are opting for whiskey cocktails more often than in years past.
At a recent event for the launch of Maker’s 46, the first new product in more than 50 years from the brand, women comprised more than half of the attendees, according to Trudy Thomas, beverage director at the Camelback Inn, Scottsdale, Ariz., which includes a BLT Steak outlet. This event showed the bourbon trend is popular with women, and more and more bartenders are opting for the spirit as well — and Thomas thinks she knows why.
Re-creating the Classics
“It’s so much easier to create cocktails with layers, complexity and balance with American whiskey than it is with vodka. That’s why you see bartenders trending to it,” she explains. “I believe that if you have as good a cocktail as the base starting with American whiskey, you can build a lot on top of it.”
Hard-to-get bottles like Pappy Van Winkle are popular with Thomas’ customers, especially the aged ryes, and some of the more popular bourbons at BLT Steak — like Four Roses, Bulleit and Basil Hayden — have a higher rye content in the mix.
Thomas focuses on post-Prohibition drinks with a modern twist. Sazeracs are hot, and she serves a blood orange Manhattan at happy hour. But the biggest-selling drink is the BLT Manhattan, also known as the Cowboy Killer, made with Grand Marnier-soaked morello cherries, Grand Marnier, sweet vermouth and Maker’s Mark.
That cocktail connection is one of the reasons 1933 doubled down on American whiskey with Thirsty Crow, says Ristaino.
“We’re finding that the big whiskey lists go in conjunction with well made Prohibition-style cocktails, especially as the consumer is asking for more from their bar experience,” he says.
Heugel notes that the newer, rare or experimental whiskeys generate more communication between bartenders and customers. With plenty of popular whiskey cocktails such as the Peach Sour (peach-infused bourbon, egg white and bitters) and bartender Matt Tanner’s Ticino 88 (cocoa nib infused rye, Dolin sweet vermouth, Luxardo bitters and a mist of Peat Monster Scotch), Anvil pours a lot of whiskey — Buffalo Trace is the second most popular spirit brand overall at the bar and Rittenhouse Rye 100 the third. Recently, Heugel selected a barrel at Buffalo Trace for the house pour, and while he’s a bit skeptical about the staying power of many of the newer styles, he likes working with Bernheim Wheat Whiskey and the Texas-made Balcones Baby Blue 100% New Mexico Blue Corn Whiskey.
At Thirsty Crow, says Ristaino, barrel-strength whiskies like George T. Stagg and Willett are surging. But there’s more to creating a successful whiskey bar than stocking obscure brands, he notes. “There’s something charming about the idea that you’re getting something special — a cozy bar with well-trained bartenders who know their spirit selection and can make mixed drink recommendations based on their knowledge and share the stories about small-production whiskeys.” As with any spirit, a perfect blend of training, knowledge and outstanding product sells. Bourbon and rye are finding space and delivering inspiration and dollars from behind the bar once again. NCB
Whiskey is a man’s drink, right? Wrong. While men remain the core consumer, if you want to really grow sales of the brown spirit at your bar, you need to engage the ladies. Luckily, women are increasingly curious about whiskey. We asked Meghan Leary, whiskey aficionado and author of Whiskey for Women, for tips to turn women on to whiskey.
• Show it off. Female consumers consult the drink list or order a cocktail based on the bartender’s suggestion, opening up an enormous opportunity to drive the sale of brown goods.
• If one gal in a “girls’ night out” group orders a cocktail, chances are the rest will do the same. The presentation and positioning of a newer category, such as whiskey cocktails, must be done with this in mind. Offer whiskey flights with tasting notes, create a “ladies only” whiskey list or serve whiskey cocktails to females on red napkins; women like to share cocktails, share food and share experiences.
• Romance is another angle to tap into, as American whiskeys enjoy a tremendously romantic history. Offer some fascinating Americana through bartender conversation, cocktail names and educational drink menus, and you can easily engage the female drinker. Marjorie Samuels of Maker’s Mark fame, for example, created the brand’s original marketing campaign in 1958, suggesting bottling it in used Cognac bottles and dipping the caps in wax. Educating bar staff on points of American whiskey culture like this can drive sales.
• Offer whiskey pairings with tapas-sized dishes infused with whiskey elements to appeal to the female consumer and prompt wonderful word-of-mouth marketing. Just look at the bourbon and bacon craze in bars throughout NYC. The ladies love it!
• Tap into the “success image” of whiskey. Studies show women are losing their jobs at a lesser rate than men and also are being promoted quicker in this economy. Many people identify whiskey with success, as industry magnates are often seen holding a glass of the brown stuff. Hosting young professional nights with whiskey tastings can bring in a slew of professional women on off nights, increasing sales and repeat business.
• Finally, whiskey can be a daunting spirit to jump into. To help a guest make the first dive into the glass, minimize any alcohol-forward experiences. Suggest the novice place her tongue behind her bottom lip or bottom teeth and then drink the whiskey. The tip of the tongue is where we taste sugar, and alcohol is just that. By eliminating that area, we then taste the bitter, sour and salty characteristics of a spirit and the experience is much more enjoyable, at least the first time around. And with whiskey, a good first experience will undoubtedly lead to many, many more!