Surge in American whiskey sales has more of us sipping mint juleps

06/30/2014 3:22 PM

07/01/2014 8:08 PM

American whiskey once suffered a stodgy image, seen as a timeworn drink that lacked the pizzazz of even single malt Scotch.

Imagine the industry’s surprise, then, when demand for bourbon, rye and other homegrown whiskeys roared back in recent years.

Domestic sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey surged to 18 million cases worth $2.4 billion in 2013, a 35 percent jump from a decade earlier, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. That doesn’t even include exports: They topped $1 billion for the first time last year.

“I don’t think anybody can say they saw this coming,” says Clay Risen, author of “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye.” “(Distillers) didn’t expect demand to shoot up this quickly.”

Growth is a good thing, but it has reportedly put some distillers in a bind. To be called “straight” whiskey, a spirit must be made from at least 51 percent of its primary grain and aged in new oak barrels for no less than two years. Many whiskeys spend years longer in oak before being bottled. It has been hard for some to keep up, and much has been made of a looming whiskey shortage.

Last year, Buffalo Trace Distillery, owner of Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and other bourbons, warned of possible temporary supply shortages. Maker’s Mark also attempted to stretch existing stocks by lowering the proof of its namesake bourbon, a decision it quickly reversed when consumers protested.

Kansas City bartenders acknowledge some favorites are getting harder to find, but at the same time, craft upstarts and established distilleries are bringing more whiskeys to market. In 2013 alone, whiskey makers introduced 129 new straight whiskeys, according to the spirits council. Some are exactly what you’d expect from a bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, but others are most definitely not.

Producers from California to Maine and Milwaukee to Waco, Texas, are playing with proportions and experimenting with grains like wheat, oats and millet. There are malted Scotch-style whiskeys, whiskeys finished in sherry casks or French oak, and blended, very young and high-proof whiskeys.

Is Kansas City excited about all the new options? Yes, says Beau Williams, who together with his wife, Keely Edgington, owns the whiskey-focused Julep Cocktail Club in Westport.

“Kansas City is definitely a whiskey town,” Williams says.

America is certainly a whiskey nation. Rum might have been the Colonial spirit, but whiskey bypassed it by the early 19th century. Most was rye-based, because that’s what grew best in Maryland, Pennsylvania and their neighbors. Settlers pushing west of the Appalachian Mountains discovered that corn flourished there, so that’s what went into their stills.

What happened next is a tale of war, technological innovation, Prohibition and repeal, more war, vodka’s advance and politics, always politics. Risen gives a full account, adeptly leading readers through whiskey’s dark days to its resurgence in the new millennium and providing tasting notes on more than 200 expressions.

Why did whiskey suddenly regain its appeal? It’s a combination of factors, Risen says. It’s partly generational — Grandpa drank whiskey, so Dad didn’t, but I can. Part of it’s cultural — Don Draper’s affinity for the brown stuff (albeit usually Canadian) didn’t hurt. Gender also makes a difference — more women than ever are taking to whiskey. Price, too — American whiskey can be a relative bargain, compared to ultra-premium vodkas and sought-after Scotches.

And then there are the cocktails. Consumers remain fascinated with classic drinks and their modern incarnations, and whiskey is an original ingredient.

“Whiskey has to be a part of that,” Risen says. “Old recipes have whiskey and a retro, nostalgic quality to them.”

Even though whiskey might not be your go-to summer spirit, quite a few standbys fit right in. There’s the whiskey sour (whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup), the whiskey fizz (same thing, but topped with lemon-lime soda) and the old fashioned (whiskey, sugar cube and bitters with or without fruit and/or club soda).

You can stick with tradition or update your standards with fruit, herbs or even vegetables, says Bridget Albert, author of “Market-Fresh Mixology,” which was recently re-released in paperback.

“Whiskey plays well with the deep, rich, sweet flavors Mother Nature gives us,” Albert says.

Muddle strawberries or blackberries for a fruity sour, or juice fresh beets to add earthy flavor and vivid color. The julep’s mint can be supplanted by lemon verbena or other herbs or soft stone fruits like peaches.

All you need is a whiskey you like, a tasty recipe, garden goodness from your own patch or the farmers market and a willingness to experiment.

“Play with your cocktails,” Albert says. The worst thing that can happen is you make a bad one and have to start over.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sipping whiskey neat or over ice at a place like Harry’s Country Club, a River Market fixture known for its lengthy whiskey list. Or, pick a Rittenhouse Rye-Rampant IPA combo or Four Roses-Rolling Rock duo from the boilermaker list at Martini Corner’s Barrel 31.

They’re called quick fixes at Julep, but the idea is the same — a shot of whiskey and a beer, like Four Roses Bourbon and Boulevard’s Tank 7. It’s all about what makes customers happy, Williams says.

“At the end of the day, you should drink whatever you want.”

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Star’s Food section and she writes a monthly cocktail and spirits column.

Julep and Hawthorne Strainers

The julep is more than a drink — it’s a cocktail strainer that, together with the Hawthorne strainer, no bar should be without.

It wasn’t always so. When bartenders began mixing with ice in the mid-19th century, they didn’t strain at all. Then a kitchen tool used for sifting sugar over berries was adapted to the task, and by the 1860s a bar version was being manufactured, according to the soon-to-be-updated guide to classic cocktails “Imbibe!”

The strainer got its name from a brief period when it was used to hold back the ice in mint juleps as drinkers sipped, but the advent of straws put an end to that. Still, the julep strainer endured. Improvements have been made, but the basic design remains: a short-handled, wide spoon with a concave bowl that fits neatly on top of a mixing glass.

Rows of small holes hold back the ice, making it the perfect tool for straining a stirred drink. But when shaking? Not so much. Shaken drinks usually include juice, fruit, herbs or egg whites; all that crashing about with ice results in plenty of small bits that need to be removed before serving.

A Connecticut man solved the problem in 1889 by threading a spring around the edge of a strainer; the Manning-Bowman Co. later put out a version with tiny holes around the edge spelling “Hawthorne,” hence the name, according to “Imbibe!”

Today’s Hawthorne strainer is a slotted plate with a tightly coiled spring following the underneath edge; the spring helps it fit snugly into a mixing tin while straining ice and solids. Still, even that’s not good enough for some bartenders.

“A shaken cocktail should have a pristine, uniform texture and no further dilution from tiny shards of ice,” Jeffrey Morgenthaler writes in “The Bar Book.” “So I double-strain all my shaken cocktails.”

It’s easy, he says. Just hold a shaker tin with a Hawthorne strainer in your dominant hand. In your other hand, hold a small, fine-mesh strainer. Then pour from the shaker tin, through the fine-mesh strainer into the serving glass.

“You may be surprised to see how much gets past the Hawthorne,” Morgenthaler writes.

A whiskey glossary

As definitions go, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) description of whiskey is pretty broad: it must be distilled from grain at less than 190 proof, bottled at 80 proof or higher and have, as the TTB puts it, the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey. Here are a few other terms to help you narrow things down.

Blended whiskey: Contains at least 20 percent straight whiskey or whiskeys, along with neutral grain or other spirits.

Bourbon: Distilled in the U.S. from between 51 percent and 80 percent corn (the remainder is usually wheat or rye, plus a small amount of malted barley) to no more than 160 proof and stored at no more than 125 proof in new charred oak containers.

Corn whiskey: Whiskey made with a minimum of 80 percent corn.

Kentucky straight bourbon: A straight bourbon whiskey produced in Kentucky.

Single barrel whiskey: Whiskey drawn from a single barrel.

Small batch whiskey: A combination of whiskeys from selected barrels that have matured in a specific style.

Straight whiskey: Made with at least 51 percent of its specified grain (rye for rye whiskey, corn for bourbon, etc.) and aged in new oak barrels for no less than two years.

Tennessee whiskey: Similar to bourbon, but it’s charcoal filtered before being put in barrels. It must be made in Tennessee.

Wheated bourbon: Bourbon that has been distilled with corn and wheat instead of the usual corn-rye recipe.

A note on age statements from “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye” by Clay Risen: Any bourbon or rye under 2 years old has to have its age listed on the label. Those between 2 and 4 years old can be called “straight” whiskey but still must note the age. If it’s more than 4 years old, it can simply be called “straight” without any age statement. Unlike wine, whiskey does not continue aging once it has been bottled.

Five whiskeys to try

With hundreds of American-made whiskeys on the market, it’s hard to know which to try. You can always go with the locals — bourbon or rye from Dark Horse Distillery, Crown Valley’s Missouri Moonshine Malt Whiskey, Pinckney Bend Distillery’s Rested American Whiskey or any of a host of others made in Kansas and Missouri (for more, see Recent Eats’ list of American whiskey distilleries and brands at recenteats.blogspot.com).

In the meantime, here are five recommendations from spirits writers and bartenders:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon: Clay Risen describes this as “dangerously drinkable” and recommends buying it if you can find it.

Four Roses Bourbon: This distiller uses two mash bills (grain recipes) and five yeast strains to create a range of products, from the mixable Yellow Label to small batch and single barrel versions. All are delicious.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey: This West Virginia upstart earns high marks for its sweet-yet-spicy character.

Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey: Classic rye flavor and robust character makes it a favorite among Kansas City bartenders.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve Kentucky Straight Whiskey: This venerable brand is a good example of a wheated whiskey.

Julep’s Traditional Mint Julep

Mint juleps are the ultimate in warm-weather whiskey sipping — sweet, strong and icy. They’re trickier to make than you’d think, though. Beau Williams of Julep Cocktail Club in Westport settled on his technique after watching a YouTube video of legendary New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian (go to nola.com and search for “mint julep”), who muddles mint and then builds the drink in layers in a silver julep cup.

Still, like every bartender, Williams added his own twist. Instead of muddling mint, he uses a mint-infused simple syrup so the flavor “remains soft and fragrant and doesn’t get all toothpaste-y,” Williams says.

His other advice: be liberal with the crushed ice, use a whiskey that’s at least 90 proof and be generous with the mint garnish.

“Then stick the straw right next to it, so every time you take a sip, you get a face full of mint,” says Williams, whose menu features traditional (bourbon), vintage (Cognac) and modern (rum) juleps. “The aroma is where it’s at.”

Makes 1 drink

3/4 ounce mint syrup (recipe follows)

Crushed ice, about 2 cups (see note)

2 ounces Buffalo Trace or other straight bourbon

1 large bunch fresh mint, for mint syrup and for garnish

Pour 1/2 ounce mint syrup in the bottom of a metal julep cup or 10- to 12-ounce glass. Fill with crushed ice, mounding it into a snow cone shape on top. Pour bourbon over ice, and then follow with the remaining 1/4 ounce mint syrup. Garnish with three or four mint springs (“The sexy parts on top,” Williams says). Place a straw next to the mint and serve.

For mint syrup: Combine 1 cup granulated sugar with 1 cup water in a saucepan. Heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, cool and then refrigerate. Once the syrup is chilled, add a handful of fresh mint. Macerate for about 30 minutes, or until mint leaves begin to wilt. Strain syrup into a clean jar, discarding mint, seal and refrigerate until use.

For crushed ice: Place large ice cubes in a Lewis bag (a canvas bag used by bartenders for this purpose, available at cocktailkingdom.com) or wrap in a clean kitchen towel and crush using a wooden mallet, heavy frying pan or similar object.

Per drink: 169 calories, no fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 3 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 0 percent of calories from fat.

Peach Julep

Bridget Albert loves adding seasonal flavors to classic cocktails like the mint julep. Although Derby Day is long past, her version from “Market-Fresh Mixology” is good all summer long.

Makes 1 drink

10-15 mint leaves

1 ounce brown sugar syrup (recipe follows)

3 fresh peach slices

2 ounces Kentucky straight bourbon

Crushed ice

Mint sprig, for garnish

To a rocks glass, add mint, brown sugar syrup and peaches. Muddle until well combined. Add whiskey. Fill glass with crushed ice. Stir. Garnish with a mint sprig.

For brown sugar syrup: Combine 1 cup brown sugar and 1 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, until sugar is dissolved. Stir occasionally. Let cool. Store in the refrigerator.

Per drink: 198 calories, trace fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 1 percent of calories from fat.

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