•More Fresno bars and restaurants now offer craft brands of whiskey.
•Craft distillers are fueling the popularity. The U.S. has nearly 300 distillers, up from about 5 just 20 years ago.
Once thought of as an “old man’s” drink, whiskey has shed its shabby image and is now one of the hottest new drink trends. Everyone from twenty-somethings to senior citizens are sipping the potent caramel-colored liquor.
Local restaurants and bars are eagerly showing off their prized bottles of whiskey and its related spirits, including the uniquely American-made bourbon.
Bourbon and Taps, 572 E.Olive on Olive Ave. in the Tower District, boasts more than 100 bottles of the stuff and has become a favorite hangout of whiskey drinkers like 23-year-old Garrett Brough of Clovis.
Brough’s interest in whiskey stems from his love of western movies. As a child he watched his cowboy heroes saunter up to a bar, slap some coins on the counter and demand a whiskey.
“Watching all those movies, I thought it was a really cool drink,” Brough says. “And once I got old enough, I wanted to try it.”
Although Brough admits his first few sips were a little rough, he grew to like the flavor and appreciates its complexity. Over time, he got better at picking up the subtleties of the drink, including its oak, vanilla and caramel notes.
He even likes the kick-in-the-teeth brashness of Bookers, a Kentucky-made bourbon that comes in at a high-octane, 63% alcohol level.
“It has a real natural whiskey approach,” Brough says. “It is really strong, but that’s what makes it really good.”
Bourbon and Taps owner Pete Mejia says his customers are always looking for something unique and different. Mejia and bartender Terry Webster are more than happy to guide a first-time whiskey drinker into finding something they like. Webster recommends several brands for newbies, including Corner Creek, Cyrus Noble and Four Roses.
“They tend to have smoother flavor and they do not come off too strong,” Webster says.
And don’t worry if you can’t handle drinking it straight, or “neat” as whiskey drinkers like to say. Webster will mix in a drink, add some water or serve it over large ice cubes.
“We have a lot of people who come in and know exactly what the want and others who are coming in for the first time because they are curious to try it,” Webster says. “And we want to make them happy.”
Author and whiskey expert Lew Bryson says whiskey’s popularity has been fueled by a surge in craft distillers, the growth in the cocktail culture and a whole new batch of drinkers fixated on authenticity. Bryson says the new whiskey drinkers are fascinated by the small-batch whiskey makers, and the exclusivity of some brands of whiskey.
Twenty years ago there were about 5 distillers and now there are nearly 300.
“People love discovering new labels, it is a very powerful thing,” says Bryson, who wrote “Tasting Whiskey.” “And they love telling their friends what they found.”
Bryson says it takes time to fully appreciate whiskey. He sipped it for three weeks straight to get over the “fire in your mouth” feel. Once he got past that, he was able to taste and smell different things.
“The reward is that you find a whiskey whose flavor you like,” he says. “And the more you know, the better it tastes and the better able you are to pick those flavors out.”
The downside is that the prices for top-notch whiskeys are rising. It is not unusual to find bottles that cost in the $100 range.
Dave Fansler, owner of Westwoods BBQ & Spice Co., 8042 N Blackstone Ave. in Fresno, stocks about 40 whiskeys, including some of the more popular such as, Makers Mark, Buffalo Trace, Bookers and Blanton. The popular restaurant is also known for its Old Fashioned, a whiskey-based cocktail using Fansler’s homemade syrup.
“Bourbons are on fire right now,” Fansler says. “And our Old Fashioned is a great way to drink it.”
Bartender Desiree Taylor recommends Rock and Rye Whiskey and Buffalo Trace as good entry-level whiskeys.
“They are a little sweeter and mellower,” says Taylor, who has begun to see more women asking for whiskey and whiskey drinks.
Donna Mott of Fresno is among those who regarded whiskey as an “old man’s drink,” that is until she began sipping a few brands.
“I tasted it and I found I really liked it,” Mott says. “It is the nice sipping drink that has a very calming effect.”
Mott’s favorites are Makers Mark and Knob Creek. She is a big fan of the Old Fashioned at the School House Restaurant and Tavern in Sanger, 1018 S Frankwood Ave, Sanger.
“It is delicious,” she says.