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Spirit of America: sales of straight whiskey and bourbon continue to climb.

A bold American spirit rules this country: Whiskey is on the tip of everyone's tongue, connoisseurs and novices alike. The heritage, mystique and above all, the taste of American whiskey has captured palates here and around the world.

Appeal is widespread. Whiskey geeks vie for tastes of tightly allocated, coveted superpremium expressions. New-wave mixology points up the brown spirit's versatility and approachable riffs on the classic cocktails bring newbies into the fold.

The charge of the American whiskey brigade is lead by savvy operators whose innovative operational and promotional techniques are tapping brown spirits.

As they have for the past few years, American straights, which include bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, are growing faster than the overall whiskey category. Consumption of straights increased 6.4% last year, to 18.8 million nine-liter cases, according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group, the research arm of Cheers' parent company. Meanwhile, single malt Scotch consumption was up 3.7%, and total whiskey increased 2% in 2014.

GEEKING OUT

"The whiskey geek is now a 'thing.' An ever-increasing number of guests are well informed and go chasing after rare bottlings," says David Vaughn, sommelier/beverage director of Baltaire, which recently opened in Los Angeles.

Whiskey takes a central role at the bar of this contemporary steakhouse. Baltaire carries over 50 types of American whiskeys, ranging in price from $10 to more than $200 for a 2-oz. pour of cultish Pappy Van Winkle 23-year.

Vaughn creates interest in rare bottlings through social media channels. "The cult stuff and limited releases can generate a lot of excitement with our guests, but going through the hoops to get them has become a huge pain," he says.

"We've seen more guests become enthusiasts, whiskey geeks," says Dan Matuszek, founder/CEO of Brix, which operates Grane Whiskey Dispensary and Craft Cocktails in Omaha, NE. The modern-day speakeasy boasts 500 whiskeys behind the bar, with library ladders to reach the top shelf The cult and limited-release expressions bring a lot of attention to American whiskey, says Matuszek, which has contributed to the category's growth.

BROADENING DEMOGRAPHICS

It's not just those connoisseurs who are draining those bottles. American whiskey has broad appeal and is picking up new converts daily.

The demographic is changing. Younger legal-age drinkers are taking to granddad's bourbon and rye, in cocktails, on the rocks, or sipping. More women are becoming fans as well.

"The demographic for whiskey is all over the place these days," says Vaughn. "More women drink whiskey now than I have ever noticed in the past."

Indeed, "the bread and butter for whiskey is the 22- to 40-year-old male, but we're seeing more women ordering it, too," says Kevin Danilo, co-owner of Batch Gastropub in Miami. "The younger end of that spectrum is the Whiskey & Cola crowd; the older end is the Old Fashioned drinkers." Batch carries over a dozen American whiskeys, priced $8.50 to $15 for a 114-oz. pour.

"One of the things we have noticed is that women who come in with their husbands or in a group, they are interested in trying brown spirits, because they have heard so much about them," says Himanshu Sahni, director of marketing at Le Malt-Brown Spirits & Wine Lounge, a fine-dining restaurant in Colonia, NJ.

Le Malt boasts more than 750 brown spirits from all over the world; the bottles are displayed in dramatically lighted showcases around the restaurant. As its name suggests, Le Malt's collection is Scotch-heavy, but the number of bourbons is growing, due to guest requests.

THE COCKTAIL APPROACH

One big factor in whiskey's broadening appeal, operators say, is cocktails that are more approachable. "We are trying to convert people to the dark side of the spirits category. We get them hooked on some cocktails-like a Julep, with an eye towards expanding their horizons. Before you know it, you have a whiskey lover on your hands," says Beau Williams, co-owner (with wife Keely Edgington) of Julep Cocktail Club in Kansas City.

Julep has more than 400 bottles of whiskeys on its backbar. Prices range up to $65 for 2 oz. of Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece.

"The lion's share of whiskey sales is in cocktails; people love the classics like Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and spins on those, and of course, Mint Juleps are a big deal," says Williams.

For sippers, during weekday Happy Hours, all whiskeys at Julep are 25% off "It's an incentive to try some better whiskeys," he notes.

"More approachable, less spirit-forward cocktails work with the younger demographic," says Danilo at Batch. Complementary flavors of fruit and spice that don't mask the whiskey can make a light and refreshing drink for summer; whiskey is not just for the winter months, he says.

During its Whiskey Wednesday promotions, Batch prices premium well (Jim Beam) Whiskey & Colas at $5 and other cocktails from $6 to $7; all Old Fashioned variations are $10.

"Cocktails broaden our market of whiskey drinkers. These drinks appeal to someone who is not yet a bourbon drinker, and start to reel them in," says Gary Callicoat, president of the Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, a 19-unit casual-dining chain based in Columbus, OH. That includes riffs on classics such as a pecan-infused Manhattan and a Luxardo-Cherry Old Fashioned.

The Bourbon Mule is a variation of the Moscow, featured on Mule Mondays. On Whiskey Wednesdays, Rusty Bucket guests can choose any American whiskey for $6. "We get a lot of traction on the promotion, to sample through those whiskeys" says Callicoat.

Cocktails at Le Malt are individually crafted tableside at custom-made, retro-styled carts, according to general manager/mixologist Richard Tandoc. One of the bestsellers is the Boardwalk Empire ($14), a twist on the Manhattan, made with bacon-infused Maker's Mark Bourbon and garnished with a crispy slice on top.

When a customer orders a whiskey at Le Malt, it is brought to the table, presented, and poured into Glencairn whisky glassware. "Rocks" are slow-melting large spheres of ice; Manhattans and Old Fashioned are garnished with an edible orchid encased in ice.

BUY THE BARREL

As a river of whiskey flows through America's bars and restaurants, it's not enoughjust to offer a few labels and cocktails. Operators have to think outside the box to catch the interest of consumers and create a point of differentiation.

The Rusty Bucket chain buys its signature whiskey by the barrel. Callicoat has set up a private-selection barrel program at Woodford Reserve with master distiller Chris Morris, blending from up to eight different barrels into a single vatting.

"Each one of those private-selection barrels is different and unique," Callicoat says. "Once the barrel is empty and you've drained the last bottle, that's it-you can never recreate it." So far, the chain has run through 11 barrels and is blending yet another this fall.

The bottles have the Rusty Bucket logo etched in the glass and the label is cobranded as Woodford Reserve Gary's Personal Selection, Batch No. X. For each barrel release, about three times a year, the bar designs a signature cocktail to complement that unique flavor profile. At press time, it was Gary's Lemonade, made with Gary's bourbon, shaken with fresh-squeezed lemon juice, orgeat, soda water, simple syrup, and house-made grenadine.

Also in the works at Rusty Bucket is to formulate a contracted craft beer to mature in those used barrels as Gary's Private Selection Barrel Bourbon Ale. That project, Callicoat says, "should be super interesting."

TAPPING QUALITY AND QUANTITY

"Our methodology behind the bar is quality and quantity. That's a niche in the market nobody has taken advantage of," explains Danilo at the aptly named Batch Gastropub. Virtually all of the cocktails are pre-prepped in large batches, then either barrel-aged in custom casks or dispensed at tables from self-serve taps.

"By employing kitchen techniques, we can serve higher-quality product in a faster timeframe, and also cut some costs and pass those savings along to our customers," Danilo says. "So we are able to deliver craft cocktails to our guests in 30 seconds instead of five minutes."

The company had 50 five-liter barrels crafted for the restaurant, which it uses for maturing cocktails and dispensing house-made sodas. The restaurant's logo features that distinctive barrel as do glassware, T-shirts and other promotional items. "The logo is recognizable, unique and represents our concept," says Danilo.

Also unique at Batch are seven tables with built-in taps each dispensing two beers, a cocktail and a spirit. The glycol long-draw systems run on a tablet computer that meters consumption to a tenth of an ounce, knows how many people are seated at the table and when it's Happy Hour time.

Offerings change on a regular basis; a spiced cider and whiskey cocktail was one of the recent bestsellers on draft. "Miami is a bottle-service driven area, and these taps are a way of offering that consumption on demand service in a nicer way," explains Danilo.

LOCKING UP INTEREST

Julep has an active Locker program. Memberships are $1,500 per year; every other month, the bar selects a bottle of spirits according to individual customers' taste preferences and drops it into his or her locker. Whenever they visit, members and their guests can enjoy bottles from their lockers.

"It's a more sophisticated version of bottle service," says Williams. Members also receive advance notice and preferential treatment at tastings and other events, plus a Festivus holiday party.

Presentation of sipping whiskeys for all guests at Julep is splashy: Neat pours are served in Glencairn whisky glasses, with eyedroppers to add just the right amount of branch water.

Flights are a way to show off rare or unusual bottles. Julep's Sugar and Spice flight ($12) highlights three rye whiskeys. "It's a subcategory that people are getting turned on by in a big way," Williams says about rye. (Indeed, rye has skyrocketed 536% in volume during the past five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.)

Julep plans new flights for the fall, including more high-end options as well as a selection of non-distiller producer bottlings. "NDPs are a hot topic," says Williams. Some people snub their noses at brands that don't produce their own juice he notes, "but that doesn't mean it can't be damn tasty."

Overall, operators are upbeat about the future of American whiskey. Matuszek, for one, doesn't think that whiskey has even come close to reaching its full potential.

The trend will continue "as mainstream consumers become more interested in higher-end products and that interest filters out of the major metropolitan areas and into suburban markets," predicts Vaughn at Baltaire.

It also helps that the moonshine segment of the category is a bridge for some white-spirits drinkers to test whiskey, according to some experts. For certain, it's an exciting time to be into whiskey, says Williams. "I hope people continue to give whiskey a shot, because it's one of the most enjoyable spirits out there. It doesn't take the nerdiest kid on the block to fall in love with this stuff."

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer.

RELATED ARTICLE: Self-service spirits at Grane Whiskey dispensary.

At Grane Whiskey Dispensary and Craft Cocktails, guests can help themselves to the whiskey of their choice via custom-designed spirits dispensers. "Half of our whiskey is dispensed and half is poured at the bar," says Dan Matuszek, founder/CEO of Grane's Omaha, NE-based parent company Brix. "We were the first to add a technology overlay to a whiskey and cocktail bar."

He worked with an Italian company to develop and test the seven-bottle automatic spirits dispensers similar to wine-dispensing systems. Using preloaded cards, Grane guests can taste in 1/2-, 1- and 1 1/2-oz. pours.

Five machines, holding seven bottles each, accommodate 35 whiskeys; two of the dispenser are dedicated to American whiskeys. Tasting notes are posted above each whiskey. And Grane's website will add more content so that guests can page through the whiskey selections on their smartphones. Additionally, some dispensers are built into a retail wall, so customers can purchase bottles they like through an off-sale package license. "It is a cool way for people to sample whiskeys at their own pace," says Matuszek.

On the cocktail side, Grane's number-one selling drink, a Rye Old Fashioned, is batched daily and dispensed through a spare beer tap. "That helps with service times. When tickets roll in on a busy night, we can get that drink out in 15 seconds," says Matuszek.

Brix has plans to expand the Grane concept into airport channels, casinos and urban areas.--THS

RELATED ARTICLE: Whiskey geek speak.

American whiskey is a spirit produced in the U.S., distilled from a fermented mash of cereal grains. There are a number of expressions and variants now on the market. Here's your cheat sheet to terms and definitions.

ARTISANAL/CRAFT STYLES

Like their craft beer cousins, micro-distillers are an iconoclastic bunch. Some hew to traditional styles, while others are wildly experimental. One thing is sure, craft distilling is booming. There are more than 500 microdistilleries licensed in the U.S. They don't all produce whiskey, of course.

BOURBON

Declared America's Native Spirit by a resolution of Congress in 1964, bourbon has been distilled here since the early 19th century. Although it can be produced in any state in the union, a full 95% is made in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distilling Association. Strict regulations govern bourbon production: the mash bill must contain a minimum of 51% corn (and lesser percentages of wheat, rye or malted barley); it must be aged in new charred oak barrels at 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. After two years in barrel, the term "straight" may be added to the label.

CORN/MOONSHINE

Corn whiskey is distilled from a mash of at least 80% corn. It is the legal cousin to moonshine, that notorious illicit spirit. Both are usually clear, unaged spirits. Commercial "moonshine" plays on that "white lightning" image; it's often sold in mason jars.

FLAVORED

Whiskey blended with added flavors has been around for a while, but now this category has sparked to red hot, throwing off a flurry of flavors--spicy cinnamon, cherry, honey, apple and maple. Purists may not touch the stuff, but proponents say it draws new consumers into the whiskey category. Mixologists often conjure up their own in-house infusions.

NON-DISTILLER PRODUCER (NPD)

You won't see this designation on any label--and that's the point. These whiskey companies don't make their own, but rather purchase stocks of whiskeys to bottle and sell under their own brand name. The practice is not an indication of quality; some well-regarded whiskeys are from NPDs.

RYE

Made from a mash with a minimum of 51% rye, this whiskey's grain bill usually contains corn, wheat or malted barley. Maturation is traditionally in charred oak barrels, and the taste is similar to bourbon, but spicier and less sweet. There has been a resurgence of interest in rye whiskey during the past few years. Many mixologists find that substituting rye for bourbon in classics makes for an interesting cocktail.

SMALL BATCH/SINGLE BARREL

These labels are applied to reserve, high-end releases. Small batch is a master distiller's blend of the best barrels in the rickhouse, made in limited quantities; when it's gone, it's gone. Single-barrel releases are bottled from one select cask; often, the whiskey is not cut with water before bottling, called "cask strength."

TENNESSEE

Made in Tennessee, naturally, this oak-barrel aged whiskey is technically a bourbon, but producers don't claim that on their labels. It also undergoes a charcoal-filtering process before bottling. Rye and corn whiskeys are also made in the state.--THS
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Author:Strenk, Thomas Henry
Publication:Cheers
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Sep 1, 2015
Words:2596
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