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Tradition and evolving palates continue to show support for American brown goods.
By Jack Robertiello
The Maker’s Manhattan at Café Nell in Portland, Ore.
| september 2009
f you were wondering how the American whiskey business is doing these days, a glance at The New York Times this past summer might provide a hint. A full page Knob Creek ad in late June announced that demand for the Bourbon had outstripped supply, and that new shipments wouldn’t arrive until November. In addition to being a brilliant marketing play, this is a sure sign that the premium and super-premium side of the American whiskey business is humming along nicely despite the country’s economic woes. American whiskies are benefiting from a number of trends, not the least being the relative bargain they represent. “Even at the high end, they aren’t outrageously expensive, and they are a phenomenal value, especially compared to other brown spirits like Cognac or Scotch,” says Michael Bonadies, president and CEO of single location 21c Museum Hotel. The hotel has a Louisville, Ky. location and is developing its second hotel in Austin, Texas. The return of classic cocktails also has helped drive the category’s strength, pushing the Manhattan, Sazerac and Mint Julep back onto many menus. Among whiskey connoisseurs, the buzz about the return of rye is creating a halo effect for all American whiskies, with brands such as Rittenhouse and Sazerac ryes selling out their small productions. Among leading straight whiskey brands, Jack Daniel’s continued growing in 2008, up 1 percent in volume. Jim Beam, the second leading brand, sank more than four percent, but Beam Global’s other main brand, Maker’s Mark, grew 6.9 percent. Most brands that lost volume last year—Early Times and Ten High, for example—do a large share of their business off-premise. Meanwhile, strong on-premise whiskies such as Wild Turkey, Jim Beam Small Batch (Knob Creek, Booker’s, Baker’s and Basil Hayden) and Woodford Reserve showed great strength. Many brands that are popular on-premise but too small to show up on the list of top brands by volume, such as Blanton’s, Old Weller and Michter’s, also are gaining popularity among consumers and mixologists. Old FAvOriTes When it comes to American whiskey at casual dining chains, sales are good but it mostly is the usual—Jack and Coke. “When you look at what spirits we sell most, Jack Daniel’s is in the top three,” says Peter Czizek, vice president food and beverage research and development for Dave & Busters, the 53-unit, Dallas-based chain. While he offers drinks such as Lynchburg Lemonade on the menu, Jack and Coke is the whiskey sales leader. “The Jack drinker is a little more traditional, and drinks in a fashion that hasn’t changed over the years much,” he notes. Jack, Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are the three straight whiskeys on the concept’s core list, with units having leeway to add up to three additional brands such Gentleman Jack and other small batch whiskies.
Whatever impact classic cocktails are having, though, they’re also not affecting trends much at the 99 Old Chicago and 35 Rock Bottom restaurants, says Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager for the two Louisville, Colorado-based chains. “Bourbon is not an easy thing. If you’re drinking vodka and cranberry, Bourbon is not likely to be your next thing,” she says. When drinks featuring American whiskey make the menu there, they usually include Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve, but Finklang doesn’t find her chain customers ranging far beyond their own “classic,” for the most part: Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s and Coke. The super-premium brands make the list to offer guests a trade-up, but they are not sales leaders. Mixing iT Up dOwn sOUTh In the whiskey heartland of Kentucky and Tennessee, operators report that traditional consumption patterns are holding sway. At the contemporary American, single-location concept, F. Scott’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar in Nashville, most customers like their brands served straight or on the rocks rather than in classic cocktails, says Elise Loehr, the proprietor and wine director. “We’re a conservative market here—we don’t have a lot of the trends that you might in more major markets.” To thrive in a whiskey market such as Nashville, F. Scott’s stocks about a dozen whiskeys, mostly super-premium brands
Proof (above) and other Washington, D.C. restaurants say the Bourbon business is brisk.
september 2009 |
Leading Brands of American Straight Whiskey
(thousands of 9-liter cases) Brand
Jack Daniel's Jim Beam Evan Williams Maker's Mark Early Times Wild Turkey Ten High Old Crow Ancient Age/AAA Heaven Hill Bourbon Kentucky Gentleman Gentleman Jack Ezra Brooks Kentucky Tavern George Dickel Old Charter Old Grand-Dad Old Forester
Brown-Forman Beverages Beam Global Spirits & Wine Heaven Hill Distilleries Beam Global Spirits & Wine Brown-Forman Beverages Pernod Ricard USA Constellation Spirits/Barton Beam Global Spirits & Wine Sazerac Heaven Hill Distilleries Constellation Spirits/Barton Brown-Forman Beverages Luxco Constellation Spirits/Barton Diageo Sazerac Beam Global Spirits & Wine Brown-Forman Beverages
Source: The Beverage Information Group
4,679 3,264 1,030 720 687 588 487 385 365 270 194 173 170 162 163 135 130 124 95 104 4,725 3,129 1,120 770 649 636 486 398 380 290 217 208 181 175 166 125 125 121 102 100
1.0% -4.1% 8.7% 6.9% -5.5% 8.2% -0.2% 3.4% 4.1% 7.4% 11.9% 20.2% 6.5% 8.0% 1.8% -7.4% -3.8% -2.4% 7.4% -3.8%
Whiskey-based drinks such as the Hoodwinked cocktail above are a growing share of the bar business at Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky.
Jim Beam Small Batch Beam Global Spirits & Wine
Woodford Reserve SBL Brown-Forman Beverages
such as Blanton’s, Booker’s and Black Maple Hills, priced from $8 to $24 a serving. “They look for Gentleman Jack or Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel rather than Jack Black,” she says. In Louisville, there is no lack of operations featuring Bourbon. In fact, the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes the Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of establishments, including landmarks the Old Seelbach Bar and The Brown, that serve at least 50 Bourbons each. While Proof on Main at the 91-room 21c Museum Hotel makes the list, the restaurant was designed not as a Bourbon palace but as a fine dining establishment and cocktail destination, a place downtown where woman could wear their little black dress, says Bonadies. “It was key to include Bourbon, but also great cocktails because there were plenty of great Bourbon bars but not so many where you could get great cocktails,” Bonadies notes. Tourists and locals are driving interest in whiskey, especially among newer brands, so the restaurant offers regularly changing whiskey flights for $16 to $18 and has partnered with distilleries to choose single barrels for exclusive house usage. The menu always includes at least one classic whiskey cocktail, priced from
| september 2009
$8 to $10, as well as house creations priced from $9 to $11 such as Hoodwinked, made with Eagle Rare, Aperol, St-Germain and Regan’s Orange Bitters. As hoped, the whiskey-based cocktails are a growing share of the bar business. pOpUlAr QUAFFs BAck eAsT Washington, D.C. has long been a whiskey stronghold where connoisseurship runs high, says Derek Brown, drink consultant and head bartender at the speakeasy-style bar, The Gibson. “Bourbon remains the whiskey choice of consumers. Rye has definitely made inroads, but Bourbon is the spirit I get the most calls for.” At the Gibson, he uses Old Weller Antique Bourbon in a number of cocktails, which Brown calls “a great mixer that packs an appropriate wallop.” Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek are the most popular call brands, with Wild Turkey and Four Roses also doing well. Sambonn Lek, head bartender at the roughly 580-room Renaissance Mayflower Hotel’s Town & Country Lounge in D.C., reports that brands such as Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Booker’s, Baker’s
and Blanton’s are popularly requested on the rocks, often by international guests intrigued by whiskey. The hotel carries a total of 16 American whiskeys, priced from $10 to $35. Older regulars prefer Manhattans, and overall Maker’s Mark, the house Bourbon, is most popular; he uses it in his Old Fashioned and signature Whiskey Sour made with Maker’s Mark, Bourbon, fresh lemon and honey. Both are priced at $14.50. Lynchburg Lemonade and the Kentucky Martini, made with Maker’s, amaretto and bitters, also make the bar’s 101 Martini menu. Various economic issues—the declining dollar, the high cost of other brown spirits—have helped steer guests to American whiskey, says Matthew Boettcher, director of restaurants for the Mayflower. Interest has encouraged the hotel to carry the three top Jack Daniel’s iterations after years of carrying only Jack Black, as well as such top shelf tipples as the 20-year-old Distillers’ Masterpiece, priced at $35. Adam Bernbach, head bartender at D.C.’s Proof, says that American whiskey’s attraction may fade when the weather warms in other regions, but not in D.C.—especially as local bartenders have championed the Rickey, the regional classic often made with gin but originally made with Bourbon. He credits the “amazing value” of American whiskey as a reason why so many bartenders like to add classics and experiment with new recipes, and he says greater rapport between bartender and guest makes selling them easier. He’s seeing growing interest in Bulleit, especially among women,
and he himself likes working with Buffalo Trace, Sazerac Rye and Elijah Craig 12 and 18 year olds. Bernbach is in the middle of changing the Proof menu, and he says he intends to focus on the creative, the seasonal and the culinary, with emphasis on lesser-known classics—including a highball selection—and spirits served neat with garnishes. American whiskey is to be front and center. “It’s a great spirit to work with, and we’ll start with the original Rickey and build on that.” keeping cOMFOrTABle in The nOrThwesT In the Pacific Northwest, contemporary drinking trends vary place to place. At El Gaucho in Seattle, one of four steakhouse operations the company owns in the metro area, customers are getting through rough economic times with comfort foods and such familiar whiskies as Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Booker’s. They’re often served neat or on the rocks, a style that accounts for about 60 percent of whiskey business, says head bartender Laren Waterbury. The restaurant group stocks 13 American whiskeys, priced from $7 to $20. “They’ll spend $15 on a specialty cocktail if you push them that way, sure, but they really want to be in their comfort zone,” he says. With Bourbon and steak such a popular pairing, El Gaucho goes through “tons” of Maker’s Mark and Blanton’s, says Waterbury. He does a brisk business in classic Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, too, the former with Bulleit and orange bitters, the latter in classic style: Peychaud bitters, Angostura bitters, Jim Beam Black, simple syrup, orange twist but no muddled fruit. Both are priced at $14. At the Portland, Ore. American-style bistro, Café Nell, American whiskey is a seasonal choice, more often ordered in fall and winter, says owner and bartender Darren Creely. He says his customers are warming up to the sippable, easy quality of many modern whiskies, though it’s hard to say whether that’s due to the improved quality of whiskies or the evolution of customers’ palates. The classics are all represented on his menu, including the lesser-known Williamsburg, $10, made like a Manhattan but served in an absinthe rinsed glass, and the Mint Julep, $8. The restaurant carries 10 American whiskies, priced from $6 to $10. Creely cites one trend that has pleased American whiskey producers: His staff, mostly in their 20s, are big Bourbon fans, something he also sees more among younger customers who “seem to have skipped right past vodka and found their taste buds more interested in whiskey.” As if the longstanding dream of producers has come true, it could be that the American palate finally has returned to its own whiskey. Perhaps, like the intense interest in local ingredients and traditional American dishes, the taste for our own whiskey once again is in vogue. l Jack Robertiello is a former editor of Cheers and a judge at such events as the San Francisco International Spirits Competition and the International Rum Festival. More of his writing can be found at http://drinksink.blogspot.com.
The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau in Kentucky promotes the Urban Bourbon Trail, which features restaurants that serve at least 50 Bourbons each.
| september 2009
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