Before There Was Bourbon There Was Rye: America’s Beloved Whiskey Is Back In Demand

Posted on | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Wine and spirits delivery drivers in Iowa recently found themselves at the head of an unlikely procession, being intently trailed by multiple vehicles during their deliveries. A few drivers even called the police, although there was no real cause for alarm, according to Scott Bush, the man who could be held responsible for the situation. Bush is the founder and president of Templeton Rye, a relatively new entrant in the tiny 100,000-case American rye category that is inspiring incredible passion among drinkers in the hip lounges of Manhattan, the classic cocktail haunts of New Orleans and yes, even in Iowa, where demand for this local rye whiskey, conjured from the shadows of Prohibition, is 100 times what the distillery can produce.

Rye whiskey is still tiny—representing less than 1% American whiskey production, which is dominated by bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. A handful of distillers, including Heaven Hill, can be credited with carrying the mantle of rye whiskey through its darkest days. By maintaining heritage brands like Rittenhouse Rye and Pikesville Rye, whose names hearken back to rye’s pre-bourbon roots in Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively, Heaven Hill kept alive this vestige of America’s earliest distillers. Wild Turkey and Jim Beam also continued to produce their own labels of rye whiskey, both similar footnotes for these Kentucky bourbon behemoths.

“Once Prohibition and the war happened, and the smaller distilleries went under, the bourbon companies said, ‘Okay we’ll make the rye,’” explains Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s director of corporate communications. “Rye continued mostly as shot-and-a-beer stuff. It was really in a slow, moribund sort of state, but as a family-owned company, we were able to maintain a few small brands as a service to our customers and distributors.”

By the 1990s, interest in classic cocktails started to emerge, and bourbon began to play catch-up to Scotch in terms of innovation, courting a new class of American whiskey enthusiasts, while a few influential writers, like Jim Murray in Classic Bourbon, Tennessee & Rye Whiskey, had the prescience to spotlight rye as the next big spirit. Kass says it was a “perfect storm” brewing for the long-forgotten category. Now, DISCUS predicts that new brands from distilleries, large and small, will fuel growth of rye between 30 and 40%.

Of course, the greatest issue is that you can’t simply produce aged rye whiskey with the speed of so much vodka. “We had a couple reactions. The initial was to start making more. For years we were literally mashing rye one or two days each year. Now, it’s one or two days each month. Obviously, we can’t age it any quicker, but we are at least creating the stocks,” says Kass. Heaven Hill was also inspired to search its vast warehouses for forgotten barrels of older ryes, which yielded a few treasures destined to become the single barrel releases of Rittenhouse Rye at 21-, 23- and 25-Years-Old. With careful management of existing stocks, Heaven Hill is now placing priority on supplying its reasonably priced flagship, Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond—a mainstay of luminary cocktail bars like New York’s Pegu Club.

Wild Turkey offers both its namesake rye and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year Old, both of which have become scarce in recent months. “The current surge in popularity around rye was very surprising to everyone in the industry. If you would have said 10 years ago that rye would see such a rebound, they would have laughed you out of the distillery,” explains Andrea Conzonato, chief marketing officer, Skyy Spirits. “The supply of rye for the entire industry is incredibly tight right now, and the popularity of Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve has resulted in them being on allocation in our key markets. Those constraints should clear up, however, this year.”

According to Conzonato the new rye drinker behind the boom is very different from the traditional rye consumer, usually a 25-39-year-old urbanite who enjoys cocktails and fine spirits. Conzonato explains that dedicated bourbon drinkers, while they may not be easily lured to other bourbons, will experiment with a rye whiskey. At the same time, he credits mixologists with spearheading much of the interest: “Bartenders are driving this revival because they are looking for spirits with more flavor. Also, the return to classic cocktails has played a very strong hand in the return of rye. I think most of the innovation in whiskey cocktails right now is coming from rye, rather than bourbon.”

Tom Bulleit would agree. Known for his namesake bourbon, containing one of the highest percentages of rye on the market today, Bulleit has now unveiled a rye as an extension to the portfolio. “The launch of Bulleit Rye answers requests that bartenders and mixologists have made to me over the years. Many bartenders are reintroducing rye into their recreations of classic cocktails, and in my travels across the country, many have asked me personally to produce a rye whiskey they could count on,” says Bulleit. “It was really important, however, we create a rye that was a quality product, and one that reflected the spirit and heritage of the Bulleit brand.”

At destination whiskey retailer Park Avenue Liquor in Manhattan, Jonathan Goldstein, VP, says he does nothing to promote rye in-store because he is already struggling to meet demand: “Tuthilltown Spirits from New York is allocated. Sazerac 18 is very hard to keep in stock. We get only a small amount of Templeton. These little brands try to fill in the gaps, but they are small, sometimes start-ups, so they can only produce so much. What is equally impressive is that the entry-level price point remains very low for the guys who have been into rye for a long time.”

In legal terms a rye whiskey must be made from a minimum of 51% rye, much the way bourbon must be at least 51% corn. In general, rye offers more dry, peppery spice as compared to bourbon’s caramel, vanilla and corn sweetness. However, as the category resurfaces, a broader range of styles and prices is becoming apparent among ryes. The most traditional ryes, like Rittenhouse, Jim Beam and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year-Old, are usually aged four to six years and under $20. These are especially good choices for classic cocktails like a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Sazerac.

Older reserve ryes are better suited to sipping, calling to bourbon and single-malt enthusiasts on the back bar. Rittenhouse 25 and the sought-after Sazerac 18 are current examples. “I think we were at the forefront when we launched Sazerac 18 about 10 years ago. It has set the standard, but we make it only one week a year,” points out Kris Comstock, brand manager, Buffalo Trace Distillery. “We have been increasing production, but with 18 years of aging that puts us at 2030. So, for now, I have to divvy it up state by state.” The standard Sazerac Rye, which averages six to seven years of aging, was an effort to increase availability with a younger product.

While reports suggest reserves of older rye stocks are drying up, many craft distillers are still surprising the market with excellent rye whiskey gems. Tuthilltown Spirits crafts Manhattan Rye and Government Warning Rye, New York’s first whiskies since Prohibition, in the Hudson Valley. In Utah, High West offers Rendezvous Rye Whiskey, a blend of 6-year-old,16-year-old and 21-year-old ryes. WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, a 10-year-old 100% rye whiskey of Canadian origin bottled by WhistlePig Farm Distillery in Vermont, is another example. And, if you can catch the delivery guy, there is, of course, Templeton. “The reason there are not many small whiskey companies with high volume is that it takes a lot of time and money to get there,” says Templeton’s Bush. “Our product sits in the barrel for at least four years, and while we thought we were being aggressive, we did not make nearly enough, and have to make due since we cannot go back in time.”

Yet, each rye whiskey on the shelf represents an opportunity for a whiskey lover to go back in time, to an era before bourbon, when rye ruled the day.

Culinary Goes Mainstream

Posted on | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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~ As bartenders become more enthusiastic about mastering culinary techniques, chefs themselves are taking on a larger role ~

Just three bits of recent news from high-profile restaurateurs may have finally settled whether there’s a place in the bar for the once-quirky idea of culinary cocktails:
In Chicago, chef Grant Achatz of Alinea opened cocktail bar Aviary to include both classics and gelatinous, frozen, powdered or otherwise manipulated takes on cocktails, like a gin and tonic made with tapioca malto-dextrin.

Washington, D.C. chef Jose Andres, now nearing Mario Batali-level public consciousness, has hired a corporate mixologist to oversee the cocktails at his highest profile operations.
R.J. Cooper, another D.C. chef, formerly of Vidalia, will soon open Rogue 24, exclusively offering 24-course tasting menus paired with beverages, primarily cocktails.

As the cocktail revolution continues its apparently inexorable move through the restaurant world, most of the attention gets paid these days to the pre-Prohibition revivalists, the return of obscure ingredients and the search for lost recipes. At the same time, though, there’s a growing number of professional bartenders, mainly those involved in the fine dining scene, who have increasingly found the space between kitchen and bar to be porous. In some cases, it doesn’t exist at all.

Savory Cocktails have certainly become mainstays at the bar. In New York City, the Hurricane Club unrolled an ambitious Tiki-driven menu of tropical-themed drinks, created by James Beard award-winning pastry chef Richard Leach, who has tasked his kitchen staff to produce grenadine, syrups and other ingredients as a regular part of their routine.

There are many branches of the contemporary cocktail craze—speakeasy classics, punch service, locavorian libations, molecular mixology—but culinary cocktails may be the most intriguing, as talented bartenders develop drinks to complement or even integrate the food menu. The drinks are more likely to include ingredients that demand classic kitchen techniques—poaching, roasting, infusing, reducing—and to have a savory component. Yogurt, root vegetables, squash and savory herbs like fennel and hyssop play a big part. Bartenders including Jackson Cannon of Boston’s Eastern Standard;Todd Thrasher of PX and Gina Chersevani of PS7 in the Washington, D.C. area; and Vincenzo Marianella of LA’s Copa d’Oro are just a few of the practitioners of a movement merging food and cocktails.

“The cocktail revival is at stage three; we’re connected with our kitchens and it is understood as an extension and reflection of another line in the restaurant,” says Cannon. “I look at culinary cocktails in two ways: either they require foodstuff ingredients not commonly found on the bar, or a technique more prevalent in the kitchen.” A good example might be fresh tomatoes, he says. To extract tomato water for a drink, simple squeezing or pressing at the bar isn’t sufficient or practical. Dripping out the essential water or other methods requires a kitchen and culinary skills.

Adam Seger, now cocktail consultant for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago (Nacional 27, Osteria Via Stato and others), says that especially at chef-driven restaurants, the kitchen and the bar are melding: “I’m seeing more and more chefs getting involved with their cocktail lists, which opens up everything from pastry mise en place to synergies on the daily kitchen prep list.” At a recent charity event for which he designed a cocktail, he was surprised when the chef wanted a taste before it was served. “I was impressed that we’ve come that far,” he notes.

Even the supplier side is aware of the trend: Achatz recently completed a five-city tour showcasing the qualities of vodka with food for Absolut, pairing a drink of apple spheres floating in Absolut Kurant, Absolut Citron and pommeau de Normandie with an autumn lobster stew, among other dishes. At the end of 2010, Tabasco hired NYC bartender Jim Kearns to use varieties of the hot sauce in three cocktails, including the spicy “Cinna-Blast” (bourbon, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Buffalo Trace White Dog, cinnamon bark syrup, Tabasco Green Jalapeño Pepper sauce). Flor de Caña last fall invited three bartenders to celebrate National Sandwich Day with cocktails including the BLT, PB&J and Cheeseburger.

Fat washing, used to infuse the flavors of cured meat into spirits, has been an attention getter for a few years, though the idea of speakeasy bartenders undertaking potentially hazardous experiments has limited the appeal. Still, Seger and others have been able to establish drinks like his “Baconcello” (Granny Smith and bacon-infused vodka with maple syrup and fresh lemon) and “Ham and Cheese”(Iberico ham-infused Spanish brandy, lime juice and honey syrup, garnished with a Manchego cheese wheel).

Market-driven bars are an important component in the trend. At places like Copa D’Oro, customers are invited to choose from an array of fresh ingredients on the bar in which to build a customized drink. Owner Marianella has also established an extensive, regularly changing drink menu, and is working on what he calls gastro-cocktails, using truffled onion jam, yogurt, Cremona mustard and mozzarella burrata cream among other ingredients.

Conspicuous at Copa among the fresh fruits is a rainbow of herbs and vegetables: basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, habanero peppers, wasabi, ginger, bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots. Pick your spirit by price, select a few fresh ingredients and Copa D’oro’s bartenders make the ‘bespoke drink’ á la minute.

“It’s the most popular part of our menu,” says Marianella, and many of the drinks are being made with the most savory of ingredients available. He developed his culinary curiosity at the Palace restaurant in Los Angeles, where he’d hang around the kitchen observing the chef. One of his popular cocktails, the “Sour Kraut,” came about when, responding to a request for something different, he spotted orange marmalade and Dijon mustard on the shelf and took the leap.

Seger (who has created his own bitter apértif, called Hum) says many bartenders are establishing their own gardens to select from in season; on the Nacional 27 roof last summer he grew kaffir lime, seven types of basil, five types of mint, heirloom cucumbers, rosemary, lemon thyme, hyssop and more. “I’ve found that when you have fresh herbs on the bar like Thai basil or rosemary, people have this uncanny interest in them; when you’re making a drink that’s finished with slapping a sprig of herbs, the ‘wow’ factor gets great mileage from guests,” he notes.

Who orders these drinks? According to Seger, “The people who take the bait the quickest on a section of drinks like that are the cocktail aficionados who end up enjoying them less than people outside the revivalist drinking establishment.” His “Salsify Gimlet,” for instance, is “a pretty radical drink, but its audience is probably those who haven’t already examined the balance of Chartreuse and Punt e Mes in a Greenpoint.”

Given that pastry and bar are the closest in terms of culinary styles, it was fitting that The Hurricane Club owners sought out the long-time pastry chef at New York’s Park Avenue Café.

“The Hurricane Club has lots of tropical fruit and spices—ginger, allspice, coconut and papaya, all ingredients that pastry chefs work with all the time—it wasn’t that far-fetched for me,” says Leach. Balanced finished products are just as important in pastry as in mixology, he says, and he’s surprised bar-kitchen collaboration has taken so long to emerge. “It shouldn’t be anything new but surprisingly, it is. Even with infusions, it’s odd to me that people weren’t doing it long before. Infusing a flavor into ingredients is done in the kitchen all the time—it’s very basic and it’s surpising that the bars haven’t picked up on this long ago.”

With a big space to fill and serve—The Hurricane Club’s six bartenders serve up to 500 customers nightly from a menu of 35 drinks—there’s lots of prep coming from the kitchen; fresh sugarcane juice, housemade grenadine, orgeat and other ingredients.

As seasonality plays a bigger part on food and drink menus, bartenders have to adapt from the easy, summer fruits to those demanding more processing, like quince, persimmon and squash. Last fall, Cannon slow-poached quince in sugar, salt, bay leaf, black peppercorn and green cardamom before pureeing the flesh and adding gin, lemon juice and Champagne. “It’s a fairly straightforward drink but to get there, the quince needs attention first,” he says. Some cocktails benefit from the awareness of ingredients; Cannon serves his Bloody Caesar with fresh-muddled clams, just as Walter Chell first served them in 1969.

For some bartenders, the overtly culinary cocktails don’t hold appeal, though techniques do. “The word ‘culinary’ is something we shy away from,” says head bartender Al Sotock of Philadelphia’s pre-Prohibition style Franklin Investment and Mortgage. While he doesn’t squeeze carrot juice at the bar, syrups and other preservation methods from the early 20th century are important in recreating pre-Prohibition drinks. And he makes ingredients like a tomato and sage-infused vermouth to get around a no-vodka or olive brine policy to still provide for those seeking a savory, Dirty Vodka martini-like drink.

“You don’t have to be making rosewater-kumquat syrups to know culinary techniques and apply them to what you do,” says Sotock. “Even the way lemon juice degrades, that’s food science and that’s applicable to every level of bartending.” And he points out that many bartenders, intrigued with food scientist Harold McGee’s work, keep a copy of his landmark On Food and Cooking near by.

Much of the recent culinary trend has been driven by tasting menus. At Washington, D.C’s Vidalia earlier this year, Cooper served smoked conger eel with seaweed gelee and grapefruit aioli to follow a solidified piña colada palate cleanser, and paired it with sommelier Ed Jenks’ “Green Oaxacan” (mezcal, simple syrup and pressed honeydew melon).

Chersevani and chef Peter Smith at PS 7 routinely team up for a seven-course cocktail tasting menu. She credits her work with Smith as guiding her evolution, and PS7’s frequently changing bar menu shows it—late last year, she served such drinks as “Old Time Beets” (Bluecoat gin, beets, vanilla reduction and orange bitters) and “Gnome’s Water” (Hendrick’s gin, cucumber water, lemon and lavender syrup).

The growth of tasting menus, the desire of chefs to get more involved at the bar and the demand for those that already exist convince her that the next wave of bar chefs will be exactly that: people graduating from culinary school who prepare dishes and drinks behind the bar. “I think the twist in the bar chef is that they are becoming chefs, and now chefs are coming out from behind the scenes and really getting involved,” she says.

Of course, in some ways that’s already happened: while Cannon got the beverage program at Island Creek Oyster Bar next door up and running last fall, he turned the reins at Eastern Standard over to bar manager Kevin Martin, a Culinary Institute of America honors grad.

In Chicago, the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild has already addressed the changing landscape: their second group of about 20 bartenders finished an advanced cooking course at a culinary school, learning better knife skills and other basics. “The training is bearing fruit and you can see it affecting cocktail lists around town, more seasonality and better mise en place on the bar and on cocktail lists.”

Bar design limits how far into the culinary American bartenders can go, but on a recent trip to Russia, Seger encountered the City Space bar, where the set-up included numerous refrigerated drawers and well-designed cutting areas. Given that kind of stage, who knows what these liquid culinarians could come up with?

Life on the Shelf: Beverage Experts Tap Into 12 Things Retailers And Restaurateurs Can Do To Ensure Their Beverages Stay Fresh

Posted on | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Whether you run a retail store or a restaurant, you don’t expect to have big spoilage or shelf-life problems with your beverage alcohol. After all, we want wine to age, don’t we? And spirits have so much alcohol, they are practically indestructible, right?

Yet a couple of weeks ago, I went into a popular restaurant bar for a Manhattan before meeting friends for lunch, and the place was buzzing with fruit flies, a couple of which went skinny dipping in my cocktail. “We’ve had them for a couple of weeks,” the bartender sighed, having answered the question too many times before. “We can’t seem to get rid of them.”

And not too long before that I was in a wine store—not one that I would patronize regularly—and saw almost-popped corks and sticky wine stains in a bin of fairly pricey Burgundy.

The fact is that you can have serious problems with how you buy, store and display your wine, beer and spirits—if you don’t take prudent precautions and use proper management techniques. This can cause you to alienate your customers by selling them neglected bottles and can cause you inventory losses by having to throw out stock. And don’t expect to find a sympathetic ear if you ask the distributor to pay for your mistakes.

“It happens all the time,” says Bruce Neyers, national sales manager for Kermit Lynch and owner of Neyers Winery in Napa Valley, of retailers who want to return products they abuse. “Earlier this year I was in Washington DC and visited a store that wanted me to replace three bottles of Raveneau Chablis—worth about $150 each—because they were leaking on to the label,” he recalls. “They were stored standing up in a room that must have been 80 degrees or more during the course of the day in the winter!”

How can this happen?

“The usual issues apply,” says consultant, writer and Master of Wine Doug Frost. “Temperatures above 70 degrees, temperature variance, direct natural and indoor light, vibrations and such.” And that just tops the charts.

Frost and other beverage experts helped us put together a list of a dozen things that restaurant, bar and retail managers need to do to avoid wine, spirits and beer product losses.

Perform Background Checks Before You Buy The Goods

“Surprisingly, one of the questions retail buyers seldom ask is, ‘What’s the provenance of the product?’” says Brian Larky, owner of Dalla Terra imports. “You need to know where it’s been, and how it’s been treated. For me, the proper handling of quality wines is essential.”

John A. Ryan, an award-winning sommelier and a former wine importer who has just opened Ryan’s Wine & Spirits in Wilmington, DE, says, “Once it’s in the local distributor’s warehouse, I feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, I just sent back my first two cases of badly treated wine.”

Be especially wary of going-out-of-business and other fire sales. A good rule of thumb is to buy cautiously until a new distributor has a track record with you. Finally, check out all shipments, even sampling bottles, before paying the bill.

Guard Against Hot—And Cold—Flashes

Eastern retailers love to swap stories about how their wine got cooked traveling from the West Coast across Kansas in the summer or frozen in the Rockies during blizzards. As a result, some insist their wine be shipped in “reefers”—refrigerated trucks and containers.

But the same thing can happen on the retailers’ loading docks, in their back-room storehouses or even on the store shelves. Reflecting on Neyers’ story, Larky says, “We [distributors] can only control the process up to delivery to the restaurant or the shop.”

Moore Brothers, a small Eastern retail chain headquartered in New Jersey, goes so far in protecting product that it keeps its storage rooms and its sales area at a chilly 56 degrees 24/7/365. Regular customers know to bring a sweater while shopping. Moore Brothers’ competitors may think the constant cool is more marketing hype than necessity, but the point is made to chilly customers that temperature counts.

In addition to keeping both the front and back of stores at reasonable temperatures, it’s also important to guard against just-delivered product sitting in the heat or cold for long periods before being moved into storage. Restaurants that close on certain days can be especially vulnerable if they shut off the AC while they’re gone.

Don’t Be Blinded By The Light

Sunlight can kill a bottle of wine both by heat and by UV rays that break down the wine’s structure.

“I tell all my store wine managers to have UV protection in their windows,” says Doug Due, director of wine and beer for Grocery Outlet, a chain of more than 130 stores in six Western states.

While dark-colored green or brown bottles—most common with red wines—do provide some protection, clearer bottles used for many white wines are particularly at risk to UV damage. However, the darker bottles intensify heat absorbed from direct sunlight, and constant daily fluctuations of even a few degrees can be damaging.

Watch For The Last Bottle Standing

We all know that it’s important to keep a cork wet to prevent it from shrinking, thus letting wine out and air in. But we also know that few retail stores—or restaurant wine cellars—have enough room to put all bottles on their sides, whether in storage or on display.

Standing up wines with screwcaps is a no-brainer, but what of those with corks?

The question is how long they are left standing, and here is where experts advise shelf rotation. Popular items that need to be re-stocked regularly can be a problem. If, for example, you stock six-deep, the temptation is to replace the four that have been sold without bringing the two unsold ones to the front.

Noah Rothbaum, editor-in-chief of and author of the book, The Business of Spirits, brings up a seldom-discussed question regarding spirits or fortified wines that are finished with cork. “High alcohol can eat away at the cork, so store [those] bottles standing up,” he warns. “And while spirits are hardier than wines, it doesn’t make sense to store them too close to the kitchen because of the heat.”

Always Card Your Beer—And Sometimes Your Spirits

A few years ago, Budweiser was asking consumers to check the “born on” dates on cans and bottles that revealed when the brew was made. The company even went so far as to pull beer from retail shelves after 110 days to ensure their necks didn’t get age wrinkles or its cans get bottom-heavy. Now it gives most of its beers up to 180 days.

Partly this is because beer today is less likely to get stale at the retailers because of higher bottle fills for less oxygen, and better-engineered UV protection than in the days when there were a lot more clear bottles to better show the brewer’s art—but at a price.

The urban beer rumors even have it that clear-bottled Corona was served with a lime to neutralize skunky flavors when it lingered too long. Whether the rumor is false or not, the lime juice can serve that purpose.

Beware Of Cream Rising To The Top

“Most people who are concerned about shelf life of spirits always ask about Baileys and the cream-based liqueurs,” says Anthony Caporale, über consultant and originator of Art of the Drink TV.  “But Baileys came up with a product that is stable, even at room temperatures.”

According to its website, “Baileys is the only cream liqueur that guarantees its taste for two years from the day it was made, opened or unopened, stored in the fridge or not when stored away from direct sunlight at a temperature range of 0-25 degrees centigrade.”

But, as Rothbaum points out, while cream-based bottles may not actually spoil, “The problem is that some will separate if they stay on the shelf too long,” giving them a less-than-appealing presence.

Turn Back The Invasion Of The Fruit Flies

Caporale warns of things that can go wrong when bar products—mixers and garnishes, too—are not properly stored or replaced between shifts, and when bar tools aren’t properly cleaned.

“Pour spouts have to be kept clean, and I recommend using screens in them to prevent fruit flies” which are naturally attracted to all sweet and sticky beverages and bar fruits, he points out.

Caporale recommends any cut fruit that carries over between shift needs to be wrapped and refrigerated or tossed, carbonated beverages re-capped, volatile mixers refrigerated and all bar tools cleaned and stored.

Remember: Few Things Are Good ‘Til The Last Drop

Oxygen is the enemy of opened bottles, especially wine poured by the glass in restaurants or used in multi-day consumer tastings in retail stores.

Caporale gives these rules of thumb for open-bottle life: three to five days for sweet wines, red wine should be served the same day “or quality will be hurt,” and white wine “can go through to the next day if it’s kept at 40 degrees.” Oxidized wine is a sure turnoff and may keep consumers from coming back. As far as vermouth is concerned, Rothbaum suggests buying smaller bottles for preserving freshness.

Watch Out For Delicate Or Time-Sensitive Wines

Retailers should be ready to rotate some wines to the closeout bin relatively quickly. Beaujolais Nouveau, for example, only has a few months before it turns drab in the bottles and in the consumers’ minds.

And while how to treat the growing “natural” wines category is still hotly debated, all use little or no sulfur and will thus have shorter lives. “I believe those trace amounts of sulfur are crucial to the stability of wine,” Frost says. This does not mean that natural wines aren’t worthy products, but simply ones that may need to be more closely monitored.

Appearances Count

As one PR agent who worked years at her family’s wine shop told me, “What I worried most about was keeping the shelves clean of dust. Customers were wary of stock that looked old.”

The same is true with labels that have faded—which many quite easily do—by repeated exposure to sunlight.

Gear Up For Inspections

At Grocery Outlet, Due charges his wine stewards with keeping tabs on their shelves daily. “They are responsible for checking in advance on a walk-through to examine if there are any pushed corks or leakage,” he says. And, if particular products are slow to move, he recommends biting the bullet by discounting the items and using their shelf space for something that may move more quickly.

Warn A Customer, Save A Return

On a final note, Due points out that no matter how well you source or maintain product, it can all go out the window if the buyer blows it. “Can you imagine how many wines—even expensive wines—are cooked in the car trunk while the buyer is shopping or doing something else?” As these bottles may come back to you for credit or replacement, you may lose a customer, even if it’s his or her fault. “It makes sense to gently warn them of the dangers—especially on hot days,” Due says.

Although much can go wrong on the shelf, whether in a retail shop or a restaurant, most of them can be avoided by thinking ahead.

Two executives who live a little higher up on the retail beverage chain warn against product paranoia. Norman Bonchick, head of Van Gogh Vodka, says the worst claims he gets is of a cracked or broken bottle during shipping. And David Milligan, president of the American arm of Joanne, the negociant that imports dozens of different Bordeaux labels and vintages, says, “I’m honestly not aware of any issues. When I asked a major retailer, he said his latest problem was customers who tried to use a corkscrew on a screwcap.”

Irish Eyes Are Smiling: No Longer Just a St. Patrick’s Day Phenomenon, Irish Whiskey Thrives Year-Round

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Last winter, after a long night, bartenders and industry insiders were seduced by the pickle back, a shot of Jameson followed by a chaser of pickle juice. As more and more customers stumbled upon the surprisingly delightful combination, the briny ritual lost its mysterious allure shortly after. Yet those months of buzz certainly helped propel the powerhouse Irish whiskey brand along.

Wayne Hartunian, Pernod Ricard USA’s VP Whiskey, feels the pickle back craze was a purely organic dynamic “driven by passionate bartenders” that has “proven to be more than a short-term trend.” While attention-getting at first, Hartunian believes that once people tried Jameson they tended to like it. “It is a challenge to try to identify its influence on sales, but clearly the continued and growing advocacy of bartenders for the Jameson brand continues to be a key success driver,” he says.

Jameson may have had the good fortune of being front and center in the bartender-generated pickle back, yet over the past year other Irish whiskey brands have found the limelight, too. It looks like Ireland’s beloved spirit is continuing to shed its St. Patrick’s Day-only rep.

Grabbing the Pot O’ Gold
In 2009, Irish whiskey was the clear category winner among all whiskeys. Granted, it’s only a tiny percentage of the overall whiskey category in volume—roughly 2.5% according to figures from The Distilled Spirits Council —but Irish volume increased by 10.2% over 2008. (By comparison, the total whiskey category declined by .7%). As it relates to gross revenues, in 2009, the Irish whiskey category was up over 12%, all of which was attributed to the high-end premium segment. Total Irish sales were approximately $200 million in 2009, amounting to 3.7% of the $5.34 billion total whiskey category.

Brand Power
One of the brands instantly equated with Irish whiskey is Bushmills—and rightfully so. “Bushmills is all about bringing people together—it’s an easy-to-mix, flexible, friendly whiskey—so it blends well with the current at-home entertainment trend,” says Yvonne Briese, Bushmills’ director of marketing. “Whiskey is as popular as ever, and the premium segment continues to garner steady sales.”

For Abaigeal Hendron, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey’s brand manager, the transformation of the spirit from “St. Patrick’s Day drink to a year-round favorite,” is because of “both continued investment in the brand (and category) as well as ongoing promotion.” Early this year, Michael Collins, part of the Sidney Frank Importing Company Portfolio, did just that with the nationwide release of its 10-Year-Old Single Malt, and an updated package with a bold new label for its blended version.

Other recent products to hit the shelf and keep the category going strong include the first bottling of Knappogue Castle’s 12-year-old Single Malt, also sporting a new label for the brand. Over the past 18 months, Tullamore Dew introduced its 10-Year-Old Single Malt and 10-Year-Old Reserve to its whiskey line-up, too. And, Jameson isn’t the only Irish whiskey brand that keeps Pernod Ricard USA busy. The portfolio also includes Midleton Very Rare, Powers, Paddy and Redbreast. Last fall, Redbreast introduced its 15-Year-Old Pot Still Irish Whiskey to the U.S—the only traditional Irish pot still whiskey available today—that is triple distilled and made with malted and unmalted barley. It is matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of old Spanish Oloroso sherry casks and fresh American bourbon barrels.

Meanwhile, beyond the pickle back, Jameson received tremendous news: it surpassed the one million case milestone in the U.S. for the first time (rolling 12 months). “Not only that, but it is the fastest growing premium spirits brand and the growth rate is actually accelerating even faster,” notes Hartunian. “With the scale that Jameson has now achieved, it is not only growing at a very strong pace in large cities like in New York, but it is also one of the top contributors among all brands to the growth of the entire spirits industry.”

Irish Whiskey 101
Irish whiskey may sometimes get overshadowed by scotch, but Kenneth Reilly, category marketing director at William Grant & Sons, points out that pre-Prohibition, Irish whiskey was actually the more popular brown spirit. It is this sense of history that Reilly feels is essential to tapping into the growth of Tullamore Dew, a newcomer to the William Grant portfolio. “Irish whiskey is a segment that has stood the test of time,” Reilly notes. “Tullamore Dew is 181-years-old.” With education of the category and brand as a priority, Tullamore Dew is actively looking at new packaging that can help increase the visibility of this rich heritage.

A program that has helped bring Bushmills into the spotlight is “Since Way Back,” in which the brand celebrated and captured the close friendship and camaraderie between individuals and social circles through exclusive films and a series of events. “This mirrors the focus of Bushmills, and its dedication to shape its community. Bushmills is a heritage brand telling the story of its past, while bringing a new chapter to life—a new generation was targeted through this campaign that introduced 400 years of brand legacy being passed on. The program garnered a lot of positive attention and the public was very receptive to learning more about Bushmills Irish Whiskey,” explains Briese.

“Ireland has a long history when it comes to whiskey. We talk about the country’s story and then discuss Michael Collins’ unique attributes,” notes Hendron, who uses the opportunity to point out they are handcrafted in small batches at the last independent Irish-owned distillery; have revived the tradition of double distilling; and are the only ones to use peated malt whiskey in their new 10-Year-Old. She continues, “We aggressively promoted Michael Collins to the media in months other than just March. For example, we highlighted the versatility of the category with cocktails created by top mixologists across the country. Additionally, we focused on key whiskey moments during the year such as National Whiskey Sour Day (August 25).”

The Gateway Brown Spirit
Reilly says that Tullamore Dew’s approachable taste makes it a nice gateway opportunity for those looking to cross over to brown spirits: “Our demographic is the younger consumer, the 24-25 confident male and female. They are looking for brands that mirror their own personality and values, and enjoy Irish whiskey because they can have it any way they want: a shot, mixed with ginger ale or in an ornate cocktail. Our broad range allows consumers to enjoy and take a journey.” Capitalizing upon William Grant’s solid roster of brand ambassadors, Reilly is looking forward to the rise of a Tullamore Dew brand ambassador who will be able to merge the brand’s past with modern interpretations of cocktails.

Hartunian on the other hand, continues to see the rise in popularity of a classic Jameson & Ginger Ale. “Besides being a great tasting product, consumers like it because it doesn’t mask the flavor of Jameson,” he says. “The highest volume Jameson on-premise account in the world is based in the U.S. (McCarthy’s, an Irish pub in San Luis Obispo, CA), and they have built a very successful business around making the Jameson & Ginger Ale drink the primary year-round promotional focus.”

Reilly says there is a natural affinity among consumers to seek traditional Irish beverages when in Irish pubs. This sense of conviviality and unpretentiousness found in pubs will be the theme of a new campaign in the works for Tullamore Dew.

Pernod Ricard’s Hartunian sees bartenders at these pubs and neighborhood joints reaching for Powers more often, too, and Jameson’s brand recognition might have something to do with that: “The growth of Powers is purely organic. There are several bars that are recognizing the very strong growth of the Irish whiskey category, and building upon their successful Jameson business with Powers.”

In The Mix
An energetic mixology scene means bartenders are looking at serving Irish whiskey in more ways than neat. At Louis 649 in New York City, bartender Joshua Wortman says he is seeing more demand for Irish whiskey at the bar. “It’s a sleeper category. The flavors generally speaking are softer than bourbons and scotch,” notes Wortman, who once competed to be an apprentice to the Bushmills master distiller. “I would love to have some cocktails with it on the menu, especially now that we’re playing around with ingredients like Chartreuse and amaros that tend to work well with Irish whiskey.”

Nearby, at Death & Company, bartenders make drinks like the “Northender” pairing Irish whiskey with muddled cucumber and Averna. “At Bushmills, we have a group of 15 Masters of Whiskey across the country that have all been trained by master distiller Colum Egan at the Bushmills Irish Whiskey distillery,” shares Briese. “Part of their job is to discuss the brand with bartenders. Additionally, ‘cocktail culture’ is still a big trend, and we’re thrilled that many bartenders are creating interesting cocktails using Irish whiskey. With five marques available in the U.S., there is a lot of variety for mixologists to choose from in the Bushmills family.”

Michael Collins has also dreamed up an array of classic and modern cocktails, including a Michael Collins Manhattan and a “Frisky Whiskey” with Bärenjäger honey liqueur and Angostura Bitters. Likewise, Kellan has made its Irish whiskey more approachable with cocktail creations including the “Bomb the Castle” with stout and Irish cream liqueur and the “Black and Green” with sweet vermouth.

With the arrival of boutique Irish whiskey brands like John L. Sullivan made at the renowned Cooley Distillery, aged four to 10 years in single-use bourbon barrels from Kentucky with a whimsical label bearing the image of its namesake, the last Bare-Knuckle Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World, the category is continually infused with new passion. Wild Geese, the high-end brand currently available in Ireland, will launch in the states in 2011, bringing a more sophisticated twist to the category. Still, it’s nice to know that tradition has not been broken, and that St. Patrick’s Day will always be a time to up the sales of Irish whiskey. “It’s a segment that’s come into its own, but we still see a great rise in volume over the holiday,” says Reilly. “Along with Guinness, Irish whiskey owns St. Patrick’s Day.”

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