Brandy Rand

Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer

The State of Whisk(e)y in Massachusetts

I recently interviewed several industry experts about what they’re seeing when it comes to whisk(e)y – who’s drinking and buying what brands, and where they see the category heading. It’s evident by the numbers (American and Irish whiskey are growing strong) that people’s taste profiles are broadening to include more brown spirits. This is especially true when it comes to women.

Check out the article (published in March 2012 issue of MA Beverage Business) as well as a few extra whiskey recipes below!

It wasn’t too long ago that having an extensive whiskey selection was limited to a few specialty bars and stores. Most places simply stocked the standard call brands, because whiskey was not a staple on cocktail menus or “on trend” with mojito and martini obsessed consumers.  What a difference a few years makes. Just ask Frank Weber, who has helmed the bar program for years at the venerable Omni Parker House, home of the whiskey-focused The Last Hurrah. He says the conversation with customers has changed: “There is less and less resistance for people to experiment with brown spirits in general. Now the question is ‘What is Prichard’s Double Barrel? What is Balvenie Caribbean Cask?’

Even in the off-premise, the growth in whiskey aficionados is evidenced by more frequent tastings and a wider variety of SKUs. Julio’s Liquors in Westboro is a destination for whiskey lovers, and owner Ryan Maloney hosts members of his Loch and Key Society for seminars on everything from distillation techniques to lesser known Indian whiskey. Maloney has seen growth across all types of whiskey categories, from high end bourbons to artisanal blended scotch to single malts. “As demand has grown, so has supply shrunk, and our shelves change constantly as some expressions run out and others come back in stock.”

Cocktails and Conversation

The resurgence of classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned and Sazerac has created a segue for those unaccustomed to drinking whiskey. Weber recognizes these as a good entry point for drinkers to develop an initial taste for brown spirits. “Then I can do what I do best  – broaden people’s horizons.”  Sam Treadway, Bar Manager at craft cocktail lounge Backbar in Somerville’s Union Square sees unaged whiskey, small batch bourbon and rye becoming more and more popular when it comes to cocktails. “Whiskey is more flavorful and more interesting than most white spirits. It’s great on its own and fun to make cocktails that highlight and focus on particular notes.” Brands like Rittenhouse Rye, Willet Rye and Four Roses Bourbon are starting to be recognizable call brands for discerning drinkers in the state’s craft cocktail bars.Both Treadway and Weber get regular customers who come to appreciate the nuances across whiskey types and brands. This effort is evident elsewhere, too. The Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar in Boston even has a whiskey club, designed to take regulars through their extensive selection of over 90 whiskies. Along with a “Whiskey of the Week” feature and whiskey flights with tasting notes, the staff focuses on education in an unassuming way.

To meet the growing trade and consumer interest in the often complicated category of whiskey, distributors like Horizon Beverage Company are focusing on training their sales staff on everything from style comparisons from big brands like Jim Bean and Jack Daniels, as well as smaller craft distillers. He also notes a trend in limited edition small batch and single barrel bourbons. Thess to key selling points by brand. “We are getting more requests for whiskey education. Our customers recognize this area is growing,” says Sam Rubenstein, Executive Vice President of Business Development at Horizon. On-premise, he sees a lot of whiskey infusions and barrel-aged cocktails coupled with a wider variety of expressione products require a hand-sell on behalf of the account, but provide a special story to engage customers.

The Luck of the Irish

Jameson’s astounding year-after-year growth has introduced a younger demographic to whiskey by making it “cool and approachable.” They have also promoted versatility in cocktails notes Luis Luna, Beverage Manager for the Glynn Hospitality Group, which owns eight locations across Boston (Clery’s, Dillon’s, Brownstone, Black Rose, Coogan’s, Jose McIntyre’s, Purple Shamrock and Hurricane O’Reilly’s). Though shots of whiskey are still popular, Luna says his customers are becoming more adventurous and willing to try new things. His bartenders love being able to mix whiskey in “these unbelievable concoctions that not too long ago most people would have said: ‘Are you really making me a drink with that?’” Even in these Irish-themed establishments, Luna has had to expand his entire whiskey selection, offering several age statements of Jameson and Bushmills as well as lesser known brands like Michael Collins and John L. Sullivan. And as Weber also points out, Irish whiskey is often the simplest to up sell; even Jameson makes a Vintage Rare that he calls “spectacular”.

Whiskey Innovation

With consumer interest in whiskey at an all-time high since it fell out of favor to vodka in the 197Os, suppliers are quickly innovating to capture new entrants in the category. “Grandfather” brands like Dewar’s Scotch and Canadian Club have focused marketing efforts toward males in their 2Os. Dewar’s has had success with an on-premise blind taste test program called “Dewar’s Decision”, which uses technology in a game show format. “They got consumers to try whiskey in a non-traditional way and now people have responded with new admiration for the category,” explains Luna.

Over at The Last Hurrah, Weber saw strong sales of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection, a line of limited edition and experimental bourbons: Seasoned Oak Finish, Four Grain, Sonoma-Cutrer Finish and Sweet Mash. Just last year, Woodford came out with a limited edition Aged Cask Rye and New Cask Rye. Weber says whiskies like these provide a nice story and the ability to have consumers compare and contrast different whiskies in the same line. With all the new products, he is still cautious about what he carries, focusing on those that are unique and simply taste good. “I love it when one surprises me.”
Perhaps the biggest leap in the whiskey category has been the skyrocketing growth of flavored whiskies, led by Jim Beam’s Red Stag Black Cherry, which accounted for 15% of all Bourbon volume growth in 2O1O according to Nielsen scan data. The past year has seen other brands like Wild Turkey American Honey and Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey fly off the shelves. While whiskey purists may question the proliferation of flavors, Rubenstein thinks these brands bring people in to the category as they are more approachable. “A high tide rises all boats,” he explains, pointing to other innovations like Maker’s 46 (aged in barrels containing French Oak staves) and Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (a proprietary process that pulls out the whiskey trapped in the barrel wood).
Looking Ahead Across the entire whiskey category, it’s clear that Massachusetts consumers are curious and open-minded, willing to try both old and new brands. With something to fit almost every taste, it makes selling easier both on-premise and at retail. Suppliers and distributors are rising to the occasion with trade and consumer education and resources. Maloney calls the whiskey resurgence “a team effort” from bartenders’ rediscovery of the versatility in cocktails, to suppliers’ focus on entry-level products, to retailers’ tasting events. All of these elements point to a category that shows no signs of slowing down in the years to come.

 

Model-T

Created by Sam Treadway, Backbar, Somerville
1.75 oz Jim Beam Black Bourbon
0.75 oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
0.5 oz Yellow Chartreuse
1 dash Angostura bitters
Rinse glass with housemade clove infused rum (St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram works as well). Stir and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Firenze

Created by Sam Treadway, Backbar, Somerville
1.5 oz Bulliet Rye
0.75 oz Campari
0.75 oz Cynar
1 dash Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters
Pour ingredients over a large piece of ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist

Seelbach Cocktail

Eastern Standard, Boston

1 oz Four Roses 100 proof (Jackson Cannon Custom Selection)

½ oz Cointreau

7 dashes Angostura

7 dashes Peychauds

Mount ingredients into a mixing glass, add ice and stir until components are chilled but not over diluted. Strain into a Champagne flute and top with Champagne.  No garnish.

Bourbon Belle
Created by Joy Richard, Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar, Boston

2 oz Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon
½ oz Cinzano Rosso vermouth
½ oz Mathilde Peches
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice & Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with a house brandied cherry.

Secret Elixir 

Created by Joy Richard, Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar, Boston

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, add:

2 oz Sazerac Rye

.5 oz Benedictine

.5 oz Cinzano Sweet Vermouth

.5 oz Royal Combier

Stir & Strain into a chilled cocktail glass

Orange Peel garnish

The Black Rose Apple Toddy

From the Black Rose, Boston

1oz Jameson,

1/2 oz Hiram walker caramel apple liqueur

with hot apple cider

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