Not long ago, the world of whiskey was about as changeable and trend-conscious as an elderly deacon.
Hoity-toity scotch drinkers had a lifelong affiliation with their beloved brand of single malt. Barflies with a taste for Irish whiskey ordered Bushmills or Jameson.
Bourbon was for Southerners. Rye was for Canadians. Asians drank Suntory. Connoisseurs were a small and exclusive breed.
Times have changed, and the new philosophy that has revolutionized food, beer and wine – let’s called it gourmet-ization – has swept through whiskey’s formerly staid ranks. Cock your ear at a well-stocked whiskey bar and you'll hear average Joes batting around terms such as “angel’s share,” “mash bill” and “cask strength.”
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“Consumers are ever more interested in different types and tastes in whiskey. Diversity, in a word,” said Sazerac Co. President and CEO Mark Brown in Eater’s analysis of 2016 whiskey trends.
The ascendancy of bourbon and, more recently, rye and Irish whiskey is part of the swing away from “smooth” whiskey that disappears into a mixed drink in favor of something with a more complex and pronounced flavor profile, an important component of the modern cocktail. Even single-malt scotches are used in mixed drinks now – an act which would have been considered sacrilege to a previous generation of scotch drinkers, who hesitated to sully their wee dram of heaven with anything more than a single skimpy ice cube.
“I have 21-year-olds coming in who have never tasted whiskey before and they’re curious about it,” said Andrew Aoun, beverage manager at Macallans Public House, a new bar in Brea, Calif., that currently offers 213 brands of whiskey. “They want to branch out.” They’re willing to try it neat, with ice, or in a cocktail, Aoun said. “And they’re asking intelligent questions.”
At Pizzeria Ortica near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., wine and beverage director Joel Caruso sees a lot more adventurousness in his clientele, too. They like the rule benders of the whiskey world, he said.
“There is a great whiskey finished in Madeira casks called Tyrconnell. It’s quite lovely on its own, but (it’s) magical with a drop of water in it. As the water blooms, the salinity comes to the forefront of your palate.” The cult Irish whiskey, rated among the world’s 20 best by review aggregator Proof66.com, is a hit with Caruso’s regulars.
The trend reached a turning point in 2014, when whiskey passed vodka in total dollar value of U.S. sales.
“After years of growth in the United States, vodka is slowing down,” Quartz magazine reported that year. “For the first time since the clear spirit took the sales crown in 2007, whiskey is projected to pass it this year, and widen the gap for years to come. It doesn’t appear to be a passing trend, but a serious and long-term shift in American consumer preferences.”
Certainly the backbone of the movement has been bourbon, which has been trending for more than a decade. But two other whiskeys have been posting even better numbers.
Rye consumption in the U.S. has risen 536 percent in just five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Canadian rye, long a sleepy member of the whiskey family, is finding American fans. Bulleit, Knob Creek, Angel’s Envy, Templeton and other distillers big and small now offer uniquely American expressions of rye.
But the biggest success story concerns Irish whiskey. Sales in this country grew by nearly 23 percent in 2012 and 18 percent in 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Euromonitor International predicts that Americans will spend about $2.5 billion on Irish whiskey by 2019, a fivefold increase over 2008. Smaller brands such as Green Spot, Redbreast and Teeling are rapidly gaining market share here.
“These are very, very good days for Irish whiskey,” said Ken Reilly, a marketing director with William Grant & Sons, the company that represents Tullamore whiskey, in a MarketWatch article.
Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times – scotch typically goes through that process just twice – and it is usually blended, not from one distillery as single malt is. The result is a smoother, sweeter taste, making Irish whiskey anathema to die-hard fans of scotch but palatable to many less doctrinaire drinkers. Irish whiskey has always appealed to those who generally aren’t fond of scotch’s strong taste profile.
“It’s always been the most approachable style of whiskey out there. It’s neutral, a bit sweet,” Aoun said. It’s those qualities that make it popular with women, in Aoun’s opinion.
Even those who traditionally shunned Irish whiskey are noticing its improving quality and growing more appreciative of its character.
“I have never been a fan of Irish whiskey until recently as I have been trying more and more pronounced whiskeys,” Caruso said. “Being a (scotch) purist, I tended to shy away from them. Now I like Irish whiskey for its (agreeability). I like scotch for its ability to speak loudly.”
IMPROVEMENT IN QUALITY DRIVES TREND
Aoun thinks one of the reasons for the increasing popularity of many types of whiskey is that it’s much better made than it was a generation ago. “For example, there’s a lot of depth and complexity now to rye, even at the low end.” Aoun cited George Dickel as an example of that trend. He thinks such reasonably priced and well made whiskeys act as a powerful gateway for first-timers.
Caruso said that in his restaurant, whiskey long ago transcended its demographic confines as the drink of older, tradition-bound men with a certain level of disposable income.
“Our bar (sees people of) all ages. We have a huge female demographic too; women are drinking a lot more whiskey. They’re going for rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey – everything except scotch.”
The next frontier is Asia, and it has already been breached, Aoun said.
“We’re seeing a surge (of interest) in Taiwanese whiskeys. Kavalan is one. It costs almost $100 a bottle, but it’s ridiculously well balanced, with the precision you get from that part of the world. And Japanese whiskey has completely taken off. We’re constantly out of stock. They weren’t prepared for the skyrocketing markets.”
One sure sign that the whiskey trend has legs: serious investors are getting involved. The Platinum Whisky Investment Fund, the world’s first investment fund devoted exclusively to the brown spirit, reports that the top-valued whiskeys have appreciated in value anywhere from 130 percent to 230 percent from 2011-13.
Want to buy in? All you need is a passionate interest in whiskey – and at least $250,000.