Despite the rise of “clear” spirits and a major fire, bourbon is still selling strong.
One could almost hear the collective gasp among hospitality industry folks and bourbon aficionados alike when news broke that a fire at two Jim Beam warehouses in Woodford County, Kentucky, had destroyed about 45,000 bottles of bourbon.
Luckily, no one was hurt in the fire, which officials believe started with a lightning strike. The blaze continued for five days in early July and even overwhelmed the sprinkler system. It also caused boozy runoff to flow into the Kentucky River, forcing some wildlife out of the water and killing thousands of fish.
In less concerning news, a statement from Jim Beam said that out of the 126 barrel warehouses in Kentucky that hold 3.3 million barrels for the company’s various brands, the whiskey that was destroyed was relatively young from the Jim Beam mash bill. Given its age, the fire will not impact the availability of Jim Beam for consumers.
Still, the incident was just one of a handful of hurdles bourbon faces. Thanks to steep tariffs introduced last year, European exports have slowed. At the same time, Euromonitor forecasted that the category will stay fixed at a 6 percent growth rate through 2022. The coalescence of these challenges led some bartenders, restaurant owners, and others in the industry to question their cocktail menu development and sourcing—at least initially.
As it turns out, however, bourbon remains strong as ever, at least for now.
Daniel Love, lead bartender at the Fontainebleau hotel in tequila-centric Miami says he still sells as much straight bourbon and bourbon cocktails as ever. “We have a lot of tourism here, and that is driving bourbon sales, especially when big groups from other parts of the country come in wanting what they like to drink at home,” Love says.
For the menu at Fontainebleau’s Italian restaurant, Scarpetta, Love puts a new twist on the Manhattan using rye whiskey or bourbon mixed with slightly sweet amaro in place of the sweet vermouth, which is essentially a classic Italian boulevardier cocktail.
Troy Ritchie, manager and bartender at the English Grill restaurant in the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, says the spirit is one of his best-sellers. But even in a geographic hotbed for bourbon, the spirit doesn’t just sell itself.
To maintain strong sales, Ritchie constantly focuses on introducing regulars and newcomers to bourbon by maintaining a collection of a 150 different bottles, as well as hosting all-day tastings for a wide variety of customers. As of late, he’s welcomed a number of women on bachelorette weekends.
“If we only focus on one demographic, we really limit ourselves when it comes to bourbon sales,” Ritchie says. “I think it’s important to put aside those misconceptions about bourbon and help people taste the spirit—both on its own and in cocktails.”
Not unlike a Bordeaux from France, Ritchie encourages his patrons to taste high-quality bourbon by coating the palate with small sips and thinking beyond the typical description of vanilla and cinnamon to discover fruity notes like cherry and citrus or other flavors like leather and tobacco that speak to the terroir and story of each bottle.
Bartenders can thank the classic cocktail explosion for this enhanced exposure to dark spirits, like bourbon, in the mid-2000s when younger drinkers sought out its deep, nuanced flavor as well as its story as an all-American, craft product.
The stats back this up, too. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., American whiskey distilleries grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010. From 2012 to 2017, bourbon sales exploded, growing by more than 50 percent, to $3.3 billion, the council reported.
Lately Bulleit has become the gateway spirit for bourbon-drinking among younger drinkers. Diageo, which bought the brand in 2000, reported that sales of the product last year grew 11.2 percent to 1.2 million cases, making it one of the top-five selling American whiskeys. This follows on the heels of a 32.7 percent growth for the brand in 2015.
When it comes to classic bourbon cocktails, the Old Fashioned remains the top sellers at both the English Grill and Fontainebleau.
“It’s funny, even though a third of our customer traffic comes from Louisville locals, and the Old Fashioned was actually created in Louisville, the tourism crowd is the one pushing this classic bourbon drink,” Ritchie says.
Aside from the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and the Derby-centric mint julep, the Louisville Lip with Four Roses bourbon, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and honey is another favorite at the English Grill. The name is a play off of Muhammad Ali’s infamous moniker given by sportscaster Howard Cosell, who thought the famous boxer talked too much during matches.
Some bartenders are also exploring lighter cocktails using bourbon to attract not-so-typical bourbon drinking demographics. Enter the Japanese-style highball, which has gained some traction as a new trend, perfect for enjoying bourbon, Japanese whiskey, and/or scotch in the summertime or during all-day drinking sessions. Jim Beam, in fact, has capitalized on this trend, having released a canned highball product that combines its whiskey with soda water and grapefruit flavor.
So even with rosé-all-day and a growing tequila craze, bourbon’s still got game. At least for now.