Homegrown & Hot: Bourbons are Back on the Charts

Bourbon is whiskey Americans can relate to. You don’t need a refined, well-educated palate to appreciate its assertive character. Bourbon is loaded with big, complex flavors and has about the most captivating aroma of any whiskey. In addition, it’s affordable. You don’t need a line of credit to bring home a world-class contender. Little wonder American whiskeys are undergoing a popular resurgence.

“The category is continuing its five-year growth streak,” states Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill Distilleries. “What’s noteworthy about the growth of the American whiskeys compared to other spirits is that it has not just come from the upper end. While single barrel, small batch and extra-aged bottlings certainly led the way, value brands have also grown year on year.”

The chant “Buy American” also is more frequently heard in bars around the globe. Kris Comstock, bourbon brand manager for Buffalo Trace Bourbon, says export figures for American whiskeys are strong and getting stronger, especially in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and Japan.

“There is so much inexpensive yet high quality bourbon available in the U.S.,” Comstock explains. “Whiskey aficionados overseas largely drink premium brands and have limited access to bourbon. Clearly consumers in foreign markets appreciate the character of a skillfully crafted and patiently aged American whiskey.”

Here in the States, the bourbon renaissance is attracting two rather surprising segments of the market: women and those under 30. Celebrated chef and mixologist Kathy Casey thinks women are gravitating toward American whiskeys and their softer, more flavorful palates. “Until recently, women have been somewhat intimidated by whiskey’s reputation as a ‘man’s drink’ and images of cigars and brown leather chairs. All of that’s changing.”

Brian Miller, head bartender at cocktail haven Death & Company in New York City, agrees. While still contending that bourbons are trend-proof and have always been popular, “I am seeing more and more women drinking whiskey these days and I think that’s incredibly sexy.”

Consumers under 30 also are fanning the flames. “In the past few years they’ve made bourbon a hip category,” observes Trey Zoeller, founder of McLain & Kyne, makers of Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon. “I’ve seen instances in restaurants where young people were sitting at a table full of whiskeys and many of those were bourbons. That wouldn’t have been the case three or four years ago.”

Riding the Mega-trend
Today, being tagged a “good whiskey bar” is like getting a triple-A rating from Standard and Poor’s. Achieving the honorific begins on your back bar, Comstock says. “Increasing your selection of the many new small-batch and single-barrel bourbons today can draw in consumers looking to explore the depth and breadth of the category. It worked for micro-brews, single malts and ultra-premium tequilas, and it works equally well for bourbons.”

When expanding your selection of whiskeys, Joe Murray, brand manager for Early Times and Old Forester, advises separating the concepts of price and quality. “Bourbons are expensive to produce and many labels now cost $50 to $100 or more. A whiskey with a hefty price tag doesn’t necessarily mean it’s significantly better than one costing less. I suggest stocking brands that are easily within your clientele’s financial reach.”

Incorporating whiskeys into specialty drinks is a field-tested method of increasing their sales, but the experts we consulted urged hedging your bet. “Cocktails are getting are increasingly expensive and most consumers aren’t going to spend $8 to $12 on a drink featuring a whiskey they’ve never tried, or possibly even heard of,” says Joe Uranga, vice president of marketing for Wild Turkey. “Sampling promotions afford consumers the opportunity to taste different bourbons side by side without spending a dime for the experience. It creates a win-win situation where both the guest and the bar benefit equally.”

One of the standout whiskey bars is the Bourbon Bistro in Louisville, Ky. Included on its substantial drinks menu is a roster of nine bourbon flights ranging in price from $10 to $20. One flight pairs the talents of three wheated bourbons, another matches up two bourbons and a Tennessee whiskey, while yet another features three small-batch whiskeys.

Industry veteran Kass thinks most consumers find whiskey daunting at first and don’t want to risk exposing their naiveté, especially in the on-premise setting. “Menu descriptions and a well-trained wait staff that help demystify whiskey and educate consumers make a world of difference when it comes to generating sales. Tasting events and featured tasting flights are extremely effective at building interest and trial,” he suggests. “American whiskeys have great names, great heritages and great personalities behind them — they just need to be served up properly to consumers.”

Mixologist Casey also considers thorough staff training paramount to building better sales. “When a server is passionate and knowledgeable about a whiskey or particular cocktail, the guest picks up on the person’s excitement. It creates something akin to an electrical arc between them. That’s how you drive sales.”

Death & Company’s Miller considers knowledge a tremendous ally behind the bar. “We regularly conduct spirit tastings for everyone on our staff. These sessions not only help our bartenders and servers be more confident when making recommendations to guests, they go a long way in helping us create sensational cocktails.”

Manhattan Transfer
Much in the same way the Martini bolstered the popularity of super-premium gins and vodkas, the Manhattan is providing added impetus to the resurgence of bourbon. To Miller’s way of thinking, the classic cocktail and its many creative variations are unsurpassed for promoting top-shelf whiskeys. “I can think of no finer way to showcase a classy bourbon, no matter what the cost, than the Manhattan.”

The venerable drink originated in 1874 at the Manhattan Club in New York City. When asked to concoct something special, the staff devised a cocktail using whiskey, Italian (sweet) vermouth, bitters and a slice of lemon. Needless to say, the drink they dubbed the Manhattan Cocktail made a lasting impression.

Every great whiskey bar should have an equally great Manhattan to its credit. In the process, consider substituting the sweet vermouth for a different style of aperitif, such as Dubonnet or Lillet. Both are available in two styles — rouge and blanc — and are ideally suited for use in signature Manhattans. In fact, the list of possibilities includes the most famous names in fortified wines: Port, Sherry and Madeira. Each imbues the cocktail with a distinctive velvety texture, fruit-laced bouquet and flavor-laden palates.

As generations of Old Fashioned enthusiasts will attest, bourbon and muddled fruit taste sublime. Don’t overlook the creative option of adding muddled oranges, lemons, cherries, peaches, apricots or tangerines to the cocktail. The fresh flavors marry beautifully with bourbon and muddling adds greatly to the drink’s production value.

Another reliable method of bolstering the character of a Manhattan is to modify it with a liqueur. For example, the New Orleans Manhattan is made by first swirling the inside of the chilled cocktail glass with Frangelico. The excess is discarded prior to pouring in the Manhattan. The liqueur adds a delightful nutty aroma and flavor to the cocktail.
Perhaps bourbon’s resurgence is behind the renewed interest in the Manhattan, although it’s equally likely the revival has everything to do with the drink itself. It is about as marvelous as a cocktail gets. NCB

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