The pre-Prohibition cocktail trend that began nearly a decade ago inspired many consumers to experiment with new base spirits in mixed drinks. While gin benefitted the most from the retro cocktail craze, interest in American whiskey also started to pick up.
Enter Mad Men, the AMC hit television show set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s, in which lead characters often enjoy cocktails such as Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. The series, which first aired in 2007, fueled interest in fashion, food and cocktails from the era, and people started to notice whiskey again.
“Mad Men is definitely helping” to drive whiskey sales, says Bobby Fitzgerald, owner of Lincoln Whiskey Kitchen in Schaumburg, Ill. People tend to be intrigued by the drinks showcased in various episodes of the show, he notes.
What whiskeys are most popular? According to Fitzgerald, “Bourbon is American like jazz and baseball—most of the interest is in Bourbon.”
While most bar managers agree that Bourbon leads the field in the American whiskey category, rye is making some serious headway among consumers as well. And when mixed properly, whiskey cocktails that showcase the unique flavors of the spirit are opening up the field to experimental consumers and driving sales for operators.
Diversifying the Field
With more people open to experimentation in the whiskey category, savvy customers are looking for something new to try. So operators should aim to provide plenty of choice.
Lincoln Whiskey Kitchen offers 150 to 165 whiskeys, priced from $5 to $40, on any given night. “If a customer comes in and asks for a specific call, we will try to get it for them,” Fitzgerald says. The venue is part of the three-location, contemporary American concept White Chocolate Grill. Noticing the popularity of whiskey, the team decided to create a unique concept around whiskey. Showcasing their dedication to whiskey is a huge selling point for Lincoln Whiskey Kitchen.
For instance, the restaurant offers whiskey flights, which feature three ¾-oz. pours that revolve around a theme. One theme, “Bottled and Bonded,” refers to first government regulation on the quality of a whiskey. That particular flight features Henry McKenna Single Barrel, Very Old Barton and Old Grand Dad, and is priced at $7.
Lincoln Whiskey Kitchen has even purchased entire barrels of whiskey to offer guests a one-of-a-kind taste. With six varieties in total, these whiskeys are featured in the most popular flight, “LWK Private Barrel Flight,” which is the customer’s pick of three selections for $10.
American whiskey dominates the drink menu at the Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Mass., because it tends to be approachable for customers, says bar manager Sam Gabrielli. “There are some brands that everyone knows in Bourbon, and people will ask about those,” he notes. “But people are definitely open to new suggestions. They say, ‘I like X Bourbon, but what would you recommend?’”
People are drinking a lot more whiskey straight and going for the craft American whiskeys, mostly Bourbon, Gabrielli says. The top whiskey calls at Russell House Tavern are Woodford Reserve ($11) and Maker’s Mark ($9).
Rye is gaining ground, but is definitely a different sell, he says. “When I get someone drinking rye straight, I like to know why they like it. It’s not as sweet as Bourbon—it’s a little earthier.”
Russell House Tavern has also seen the whiskey category continue to expand due to younger people asking for Mad Men-esq cocktails, Gabrielli notes. “More Old Fashioneds are being ordered by young people,” he says; they’re also drinking Manhattans. “A lot of whiskey cocktails stem from those drinks.” It also helps that “there are a lot of nice whiskeys out there to mix,” Gabrielli notes.
New Takes on Classics
While bar managers agree that the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan remain the most popular whiskey cocktails on-premise, many have had success with variations of the classics.
For example, the Russell House Tavern menu features the Whippersnapper ($9), a variation of the Knickerbocker cocktail that’s made with Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon, raspberry simple syrup, triple sec and Angostura bitters and served on the rocks. Another cocktail at Russell House, the Walden St. ($11), is made with Sazerac Rye, Amaro Meletti, Domaine de Canton, lemon juice, honey syrup and orange bitters, and topped with soda water.
It’s fairly easy to turn people over with a whiskey sour or whiskey smash, Gabrielli notes. “You sweeten up the drink, yet allow the whiskey to come through. It changes how people feel about it.”
Fitzgerald agrees. “What we are doing is introducing whiskey with sweet, approachable cocktails. Remember that if someone is trying whiskey who isn’t a whiskey drinker, you are representing all of whiskey to them.”
Lincoln Whiskey Kitchen offers a Frisky-Whiskey cocktail, which is similar to a Cosmopolitan, but made with whiskey instead of vodka. It’s priced at $8 and created with Red Stag Black Cherry Bourbon, sour apple schnapps, lime juice and a splash of cranberry.
Classic cocktails also lead the way at high-end chain Morton’s The Steakhouse. “Whiskey, in our concept, is still very Manhattan-, Martini- and Rob Roy-driven,” says Tylor Field, III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits for Morton’s and Oceanaire Seafood Room. “Half of what we sell is on the rocks or up presentations like a Manhattan.”
Columbia Room, a Washington-based Tennessee cocktail lounge, offers about seven American whiskeys, priced at $14 to $16, says owner/bartender Derek Brown. At the venue’s smaller, sister saloon Passenger, customers can choose from another 20 whiskeys ($8 to $22). Washington is a large Bourbon-drinking town, Brown says, so American whiskey is a frequent call.
Since neither the Columbia Room nor Passenger has cocktail menus, bartenders create cocktails on the fly based on a customer’s preference, Brown says. A popular drink, is the Lion’s Tail ($14 in the Columbia Room), made with Old Weller Antique 107 Bourbon, fresh lime juice, allspice dram, bitters and touch of sugar.
Training the Trainers
Though the category is expanding, thanks in part to the Mad Men affect, and trendy cocktails helping as a gateway, American whiskey is still unknown to many guests. So the onus is on bar and restaurant staff to educate customers about whiskey and the proper way to drink it.
Fitzgerald recalls seeing a group of three customers drinking one of his flights as if they were taking shots in their college days—not the preferred way to enjoy a fine whiskey.
Instead of shooting it, Fitzgerald instructs guests “to take a sip, keep your mouths closed, taste the whiskey on the front of your tongue and let it melt like a snowflake. Then swallow and take a few breaths through your nose.”
“It’s important to teach people how to taste,” he says. “Whiskey is different than tasting wine—oxygen is your enemy.”
Fitzgerald trains his staff on the basics of whiskey, but he finds it a challenge to properly taste them on more than one before a shift because of the spirit’s high alcohol content.
For Morton’s The Steakhouse, it’s also key to let the individual location experiment with some local whiskeys, Field says. For example, “in Louisville, we have more Bourbons on the menu than any other location,” he notes.
Field acknowledges that it is a challenge for Morton’s to bring some of the local varieties national. “We can’t create a national drinks campaign around something only sold in a few locations,” he adds.
Though consumers may have a lot to learn about the American whiskey category, the interest is definitely there. “Right now is a renaissance in American whiskey,” says Brown. “The market is demanding high-end Bourbon and rye. And the diversity is tremendous with all the new craft distillers.” ·
Roll out the barrel-aged
Morton’s The Steakhouse is experimenting with on-premise barrel aging at three Morton’s locations. “We are testing the phenomenon of barrel aging white corn whiskey,” says Tylor Field, III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits for Morton’s and Oceanaire Seafood Room. “[We] use a clear spirit and use bourbon barrels. This allows us to offer a different take on cocktails.”
The Barrel Aged Manhattan ($15) is made with the aged Hudson Corn Whiskey, Fee Brother’s Peach Bitters and Carpano Antica vermouth. Morton’s features eight to 10 American whiskeys, and the top sellers are Maker’s Mark, Gentleman Jack, Jim Beam (which is the well offering) and Pappy Van Winkle (in some locations), priced from $9 to $15, depending on the location.
Derek Brown, owner/bartender at Columbia Room and Passenger, has also experimented with barrel aging. But he’s found that “nothing beats whiskey sitting in the rack house for a couple of years.”