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Something old, something new: whether trading on heritage or taking a hip stance, one thing is certain: this isn't your grandfather's American whiskey.

The major trends in American whiskey today play out daily at Proof on Main, the eclectic eatery opened earlier this year on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville, Ky. Proof's list of more than 40 American whiskies, assembled by general manager Cassandra Hobbic, features venerable nationally-known brands, an increasing number of bourbons with unique mash bills, several small batch and single barrel bottles, along with boutique whiskies and a few exclusive to Proof, making the eatery a magnet for connoisseurs of the quintessential American spirit.

"We have many guests for whom bourbon is seasonal; they say they drink it neat in the winter and with ice in the summer," Hobbic quips. "The broad palate of flavors is available, from the younger Bourbons with fruitier notes to the aged ones with woodier characteristics. There is something for every whiskey lover.

"Even though we're in the heart of Louisville, a lot of people coming into the restaurant aren't whiskey drinkers; maybe they're vodka drinkers, or fans of other lighter spirits," says Hobbic, who, as a whiskey connoisseur herself, considers it her privilege to introduce white spirit drinkers to the category. What's more, she thinks they're ready to embrace it.

"Whiskey is complex. We are in an age when people are looking for quality and, after experimenting with white spirits and cocktails, they're ready to explore complexity."

Bourbon cocktails entice newbies at Proof: the Lucky Lady features Old Rip Van Winkle Bourbon, sweet vermouth, peach nectar and peach bitters while the Barn Blind combines Woodford Reserve Bourbon, apple brandy and Benedictine Liqueur.

"We're also looking at infusions," says Hobbic. "The traditionalists like bourbon unadulterated, but the newcomers want to explore how it works with flavor and fruit."

A similar scenario plays out at Five Star Bar & Grill, a haven for fans of rock 'n roll, upscale bar food, beer and bourbon that opened in Chicago in May. The Kentucky Kiss--featuring Jim Beam, honey and lemon served in a Martini glass--is among the dozen or so cocktails designed to ingratiate non-whiskey drinkers to the spirit. Purists take their pick from the backbar showcasing the entire Jim Beam portfolio, various Jack Daniel's bottlings and new releases such as Jefferson Reserve.

"The big brands and the small batch bourbons do well, but what we're flying through lately is Old Crow," says co-owner Lyle Aker, formerly a manager at The Whiskey Bars in Chicago. "It's our house shot and it really moves with the whiskey drinkers. The cocktails are a good gateway to whiskey for a lot of folks, and they're going over well also."

Such is the dichotomy in American whiskey today. Whiskey neophytes, many having waded into the cocktail culture via Cosmopolitans, Martinis and Mojitos, now come to the bar willing to dabble in something different. What they need, says Hobbic, is some prompting and exposure to whiskey via classic cocktails such as the Manhattan or more novel concoctions. Meanwhile, whiskey purists remain ever true to their favorite brands, but eagerly explore the finer aspects of the spirit highlighted in single barrel, small batch or different mash bills. This duality presents both a challenge and an opportunity for whiskey makers and on-premise operators alike.

NEW DIRECTIONS

While whiskey may be a bit late to the cocktail party that's driven the growth of vodka, rum and tequila, straight American whiskey enjoyed its fourth consecutive year of growth in 2005. According to the Adams Liquor Handbook 2006, straight whiskey grew 2.3 percent to end the year at 14.2 million cases. Blended whiskey, however, continued to decline, losing 1.8 percent of sales last year.

As with other categories, super- and ultra-premiums are driving growth, with brands ranging from Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey to Maker's Mark Bourbon, now marketed by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, and Heaven Hill's entire bourbon portfolio all achieving healthy increases.

While that's positive news, whiskey distillers and marketers are now faced with the challenge of satisfying the purist while simultaneously deciding whether--and how--to court the curious.

"Whiskey makers are steeped in tradition, and tend to move kicking and screaming into change," observes David Commer of Commer Beverage Consulting in Carrollton, Texas. "The biggest difference from 10 years ago is single batch and single barrel whiskies, which was a function of distillers seeking to make loyal drinkers more loyal; they were fishing in the same pond. Today, many realize they have to expand the pond and we're seeing alternative uses for whiskey and innovations like flavors."

One such innovator is Phillips Distilling, which brought Belvedere and Chopin vodkas to market in 1995 and UV Vodka in 2002. In April 2005 the company quietly introduced the first flavored whiskeys to the U.S. market with the launch of Phillips Union Whiskey. The original is a blend of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whisky, while Phillips Union Cherry involves Royal Ann cherries and the Phillips Union Vanilla is flavored with vanilla orchids from Madagascar. Packaged in squat but sleek, sloped shouldered bottles with contemporary label graphics, the whiskies are touted as highly mixable.

"The leading whiskey brands have all the assets of heritage and tradition, which is the opposite of what's driving young adult consumers to vodka. Our premise was to create a 'vodka-drinker's whiskey,' which we felt would attract a different consumer to the category," explains Dean Phillips, president of Minneapolis-based Phillips Distilling.

TARGETING FEMALE DRINKERS

The brand appears to be attracting younger consumers and women. "Our target is not the Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam or Canadian Club drinker. We're going after the vodka drinker. We hoped to appeal to women, and we're finding a disproportionate number of female consumers who had never tasted whiskey are mixing it in Cosmos or with pineapple juice," says Phillips.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The marketing campaign for Phillips Union is gaining steam; on-premise promotions with taglines such as "Are You Whiskey Curious?" are prompting inquiries, while recipes for cocktails such as The Bohemian, made with Phillips Union Vanilla Whiskey and pineapple juice, are posted on the brand's web site. The Pineapple Upside Down cocktail, made with Phillips Union Vanilla, appeared on the summer drink menu at House of Blues locations. Now a 30,000 case brand, Phillips anticipates 35 percent growth in 2006.

Woodford Reserve is also advocating the mixability of American whiskey and courting female consumers. A Journey with Bourbon, published last year, includes recipes for dishes prepared with bourbon and bourbon cocktails. Its infusion program, also launched last year, is now supported with a "calendar" that offers guidelines for infusing Woodford Reserve and a series of 12 recipes.

"This is a great way to get non-whiskey drinkers to start drinking bourbon cocktails," says Courtney Sandora, a spokesperson for Brown-Forman's Heritage Brands and Woodford Reserve.

Not all whiskey makers are rushing into such activities, nor are all whiskey drinkers embracing the newfangled uses of their dearest spirit. "Many are watching to see how these things fall out, and the traditional whiskey drinker may well thumb their nose at these moves. But, if new people come to the category, that's good for everyone," notes Commer.

NEW RELEASES

Options abound for today's American whiskey purist, however. Brown-Forman is gearing up for the second release of its Woodford Reserve Four Grain Bourbon later this fall; the mash bill involves corn, rye, wheat and barley. Heaven Hill offers Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, said to be the first and only vintage-dated single barrel bourbon, as well as Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, launched last fall and comprised of 51 percent soft winter wheat. The distiller's Rittenhouse Rye enjoys the afterglow of being named North American Whiskey of the Year at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. A Single Barrel 21-Year-Old bottling of Rittenhouse will be released this month.

Bulleit Bourbon, with its high-rye mash bill and six years in charred white oak barrels, reached national distribution earlier this year thanks to the strength of parent company Diageo. Buffalo Trace Distillery's award-winning portfolio of Buffalo Trace, George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare Single Barrel, W.L. Weller and Elmer T. Lee whiskies, are appearing on more back bars, wooing bartenders and consumers alike.

Line extensions such as Wild Turkey Rare Breed and its Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel, from Pernod Ricard, charm connoisseurs, while rye-rich, 100-proof Old Forester Signature Bourbon, marketed by Brown-Forman, harkens back to the early days of whiskey making.

Meanwhile, smaller brands including award-winning Virginia Gentleman 90 Proof Small Batch Bourbon from A. Smith Bowman Distillery and McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt--distilled by Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Ore. from peat malted barley and aged in old Sherry and French oak and then Oregon oak barrels--are garnering greater attention among aficionados. Clear Creek doubled production of McCarthy's again this year to meet increasing demand.

The first release in 2002 of Charbay Whiskey, made from European barley, double-distilled and bottled at full barrel strength, was only 80 cases. The brand appears on reserve lists at Brennan's of Houston and the upscale Truluck's in Austin, Texas, and is available by request at several hot spots, according to Lara Karakasevic, director of marketing. A second release scheduled for Father's Day 2007 will consist of 400 cases; each 750 ml bottle carrying an estimated retail price of $150.

BRANDS IN BALANCE

The major distillers continue their quest to balance the heritage of their brands with the need to remain relevant to today's consumer. The Jack Daniel's Grill menu at T.G.I. Friday's debuted in 1997 and continues to be popular, while the Ultimate Lynchburg Lemonade--a combination of Jack Daniel's, Finlandia Vodka, triple sec and lemon-lime soda--consistently ranks among the top-selling cocktails at the 555-unit casual chain.

T.G.I. Friday's and now House of Blues are among the few casual dining concepts featuring American whiskey.

"When you look at the top mixed drinks, whiskey doesn't really factor into any of them. In fact, the Manhattan barely makes our top 25 cocktails list," observes Mike Ginley of the market research firm Next Level Marketing in Westport, Conn., which tracks drink menu trends among casual concepts. "American whiskey is more likely found in high-end restaurants or hotels. But there is an opportunity in American whiskey in the broader market.

"Consumers today are interested in new drink experiences and quality, so if you were to inject some excitement by focusing on a new twist on the Manhattan, that would get attention," Ginley advises. "If you added maybe a splash of flavored syrup to a Whiskey Sour, that would appeal to the key 21 to 29 year old on the flavor front while leveraging whiskey's strengths."

Targeted promotions and sponsorships also lend a hip air to a spirit steeped in heritage. With their respective sponsorships, Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam, the top two American whiskey brands, are involved with the highly visible and fast-growing NASCAR circuit. Music tours, such as the "Darryl & Dickel Tour"--country music star Darryl Worley's 2006-2007 tour sponsored by George Dickel Tennessee Whisky--also ensure whiskey's relevance to today's consumer.

With their broad portfolios, the major American whiskey distillers are also intent on leading consumers on the timeless whiskey journey. "It's a gradual path," says Brian Addison, brand director for Jim Beam and Jim Beam Black at Beam Global, who asserts that approximately 60 percent of Jim Beam Bourbon is mixed with Coca-Cola. "Coca-Cola is still the leading way to drink it. As you move upward in price, it's neat, on the rocks or with water, which really opens up the flavor."

That coincides with the natural progression from the base brand to the extensions. "You don't go from a mass brand to Knob Creek on the rocks," says Sam Seiller, brand director for Maker's Mark, Knob Creek and the small batch bourbon collection at Beam. "You have to make a journey to a Knob Creek."

Today's whiskey makers stand ready to help consumers make that journey, and operators who court both seasoned American whiskey drinkers and curious cocktail drinkers stand to benefit.

Photography by Ronnie Tsai
LEADING BRANDS OF STRAIGHT WHISKEY
(Thousands of 9-Liter Cases)

 2005 04/05
Brand Supplier % Chg

Jack Daniel's Brown-Forman Beverages 4,513 6.5%

Jim Beam Beam Global Wine & Spirits 3,202 0.1%

Evan Williams Heaven Hill Distilleries 950 2.2%

Early Times Brown-Forman Beverages 758 -4.7%

Maker's Mark Beam Global Wine & Spirits 605 11.0%

Wild Turkey Pernod Ricard USA 541 2.3%

Ten High Constellation Brands 524 -2.8%

Ancient Age/AAA Sazerac 385 -1.3%

Old Crow Beam Global Wine & Spirits 384 -8.6%

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heaven Hill Distilleries 255 4.1%

SOURCE: ADAMS BEVERAGE GROUP


RELATED ARTICLE: JUST THE FACTS: AMERICAN WHISKEY

Whiskey has long been distilled in the U.S, and its role in events leading up to the American Revolution is well known. Those events also influenced the development of American whiskey. As distillers sought to outrun the tax collectors, for example, they headed west and settled in areas where quality water and grain supplies were plentiful. The first distiller in Kentucky was Elijah Craig, who settled in Bourbon County and used corn, which was more readily available than traditional rye, to create corn mash. Bourbon remains the name associated with corn mash whiskies. More on American whiskey:

* American whiskey is barreled at 105 to 110 proof, considerably lower than other spirits, but the proof level increases during aging.

* Aging takes place in charred oak barrels.

* Whiskey is distilled using either sweet or sour mash yeasting process. Sweet mash involves fresh yeast only; sour mash involves corn and rye with the addition of lactic bacteria.

* Mashbill is the grain recipe used to make whiskey.

* Straight whiskey is distilled from a mash containing a minimum 51 percent grain at no higher than 160 proof and aged in new charred oak barrels for at least 2 years; the addition of water reduces it to no lower than 80 proof. Bourbon, Tennessee, rye, corn and wheat are styles of straight whiskey. No coloring or flavoring can be added to straight whiskey.

* Whiskey distilled from 51 percent or more corn is bourbon; 51 percent or more rye grain is rye; 51 percent wheat is straight wheat whiskey; 51 percent barley or rye malt is straight malt whiskey. Whiskey distilled from 80 percent corn and aged in uncharred oak barrels or reused charred oak is straight corn whiskey.

* Tennessee whiskey is distilled in Tennessee from a fermented mash containing 51 percent or more of any grain and treated with sugar maple wood charcoal.

* Blended whiskey is produced by blending select straight whiskies with grain spirits or light whiskey. Twenty percent of the blend must be straight whiskey.

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Author:Crecca, Donna Hood
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Date:Sep 1, 2006
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