The Wonders of Whiskey

Dr. Thomas Turner is not only of the most popular and sought-after speakers who presents at the Nightclub & Bar Show, he’s also a Master of Whiskey for Diageo. He’s an expert in all things whiskey (and whisky) and isn’t afraid to let his bias for this spirit show.

“If all whiskeys tasted the same, they’d be vodka,” is something Tom says regularly.

While he’s certainly serious about his favorite spirit, he is refreshingly free of pretention. While many whiskey drinkers may expect him to rattle off the “proper” way to enjoy a dram, his approach is the exact opposite: “Rule number one of whiskey drinking is, as long you are paying for it, you drink it however you like.” He eschews the stereotypes of whiskey drinkers, which is apropos as those stereotypes have been getting broken down more and more every year.

While all guests are important to your bar, the whiskey drinker is one of the most valuable. Not only is whiskey still experiencing massive popularity, their spends are typically higher than those who prefer other spirits or beer. According to a survey conducted by Diageo, the average whiskey drinker tips 30 to 40 percent and tends to have a higher income. Compare that to the average vodka drinker who tends to tip approximately $0.78 per cocktail and you can see why the whiskey drinker is so good for business. These guests also tend to be more engaged with those around them than beer drinkers or those who drink other spirits.

There are a few things you can do to attract this target, make them feel comfortable and convince them that you operate a serious whiskey bar. First, when they ask for their drink, ask them how they want it. Inquire as to whether they want it neat or on the rocks. Second, ask if they would like a water back. Third, treat them with luxury. If they’re willing to spend $18, $20, $50 or more for just 2 ounces of their favorite liquid, don’t treat them like a guest who ordered a domestic beer. Those who order luxury goods should have a luxury experience. Lastly, know your whiskey.

To that end, where did whiskey come from? You’ll likely be unsurprised to learn that the Irish are credited with inventing it. In Gaelic, it’s uisce beatha, or “breath of life.” Breatha was later dropped, the name became anglicized and that’s where we get the word whiskey. You may have noticed that there are two ways that this spirit is spelled: whiskey and whisky. Whiskey is the Irish spelling while whisky is the Scottish spelling. The Irish version is the most commonly used in America while the Scottish variation is most common in Canada.

You also probably know that there are many styles of whiskey, with many subcategories within those styles. Realize that, as Tom says, “One whiskey isn’t better than another, they’re different from one another. They’re done for different palates, different times, different drinking occasions.” Starting with America, bourbon is whiskey made anywhere in the United States that’s at least 51% corn. It must be aged a minimum of two years in brand-new barrels that have the insides burned and color is not permitted to be added. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made solely in Kentucky or Bourbon County, KY. Bourbon County is a dry county: nobody may produce, sell or consume alcohol there. Another American style, the one experiencing massive popularity at the moment, is rye whiskey. Rye must be at least 51% rye and straight rye must be at least 80% rye. The great thing about having rye on your menu is that its spicy, sweet finish is fantastic for making cocktails. That brings us to Tennessee whiskey. The big difference between Tennessee style and others is not the sour mash, it’s what is called the Lincoln County Process, which means the whiskey is mellowed out through the use of charcoal.

Let’s move north of the US to Canada. The Canadian definition of their style of whisky is this: it must be made, distilled and aged in Canada and must have the distinctive Canadian characteristic. What is that characteristic? In simplest terms, Canadian whisky is flavorful with a creamy, smooth mouthfeel. Also, contrary to popular belief, Canadian whiskies are not rye, the vast majority – say 99 percent – are blended. Another misconception is that they’re cheap and not worth the time to enjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Do yourself a solid and taste several Canadian whiskies.

Now to Ireland. Irish whiskey is produced in several styles: pot still, pure pot still, blended and single malt. Pot still means that the product consists of around 10% malted barley and about 90% unmalted barley. Jameson is a pot still whiskey. Redbreast, on the other hand, is a pure pot still whiskey, meaning that it is made by using 100% unmalted barley. Single malt means means the whiskey is made at a single distillery from malted barley. You can read more about single malts here. Blends, of course, are blended whiskeys, either single malt and grain or unmalted barley and grain. The Irish versions of this spirit are becoming increasingly popular because they’re approachable with light, sweet flavor profiles with tastes of peaches and nectarines. However, there are distillers who are experimenting with things like peat, as is the case with Connemara, a peated Irish whiskey. In case you’re wondering why Jameson is so dominant in America, it boils down to the old Catholic versus Protestant feud. Jameson was said to be made by a Catholic producer while Bushmills was supposedly produced by a Protestant company. With the massive Irish Catholic population in America, Jameson understandably became the more popular of the two. The reality is that they had the same owner – it was just a marketing ploy…that worked like a charm.

So, we now find ourselves in Scotland. Most scotch comes from the region of Speyside but there are many, many styles of scotch, from light and sweet to heavy and smoky. This is an exciting time for scotch drinkers and those looking to experiment with scotch because many distillers are branching out from the traditional styles for which they’re known and coming up with products that are vastly different. You should know that older doesn’t necessarily mean better and you should definitely know which scotches are smoky and which are not. Giving a fan of smoky scotches something without that flavor profile will result in them most likely shrugging and saying, “Eh, it’s alright.” Give something smoky to a person who hates smoke and they’ll want to murder you.

“Always take care of the whiskey drinker because they will take care of you,” says Thomas, and he’s spot on.

Are you thirsty to learn more about topics like this from amazing speakers like Dr. Thomas Turner? Registration for the 2016 Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show opens in the fall!

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