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Get into the Brown Spirit

Get into the Brown Spirit

With such diversity, how well do you know your whiskey?

Whether you spell it whisky or whiskey, one thing is for sure: There is no shortage of options when it comes to the distilled brown spirit. While people have been drinking it for centuries, whiskey regained popularity in the last decade and really opened up the space to a new generation of drinkers. But how much do you really know about the category — and how much difference really exists?

First, you have whisky (without the ‘e’) — spirits generally coming from Scotland, Canada and Japan. Then you have whiskey, which comes from Ireland and America. No matter how its spelled, they’re all spirits distilled from fermented grains like malted barley, wheat, corn and rye. You have Scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, bourbon, rye, Tennessee whiskey, Japanese whiskey and more. And those are just the top of the list since within the categories you have large variation, too.

“You have to look at the grains,” said Julian Cox, beverage director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. “Corn is sweet; rye is spicy and dry. The spirits take on a lot of those characteristics. With Scotch, there’s so much variance within that category. With Irish, it’s more like tequila: soft, light and often distilled three times so it’s easier to drink.”

Another thing that sets American whiskies apart is the use of new, burnt charred barrels for aging, Cox said. That adds to why many American whiskies take on such a dark color after being distilled and aged. Scotch, which can age for much longer than some American whiskies, doesn’t take on the dark color because the barrels in which Scotch ages isn’t charred. And if you plan to make cocktails with brown spirits, grab a bottle from America, according to Matt Tocco, beverage director for Nashville’s Strategic Hospitality.

“American whiskey lends itself more to cocktails,” Tocco said. “I find myself more attracted to American whiskey, especially rye with that spice to punch through other flavors.”

Tocco said one way to help introduce a variety of whiskies to your patrons is to do side-by-side tastings. That’s great for doing trainings with your staff; you can offer flights for your customers.

“If we’re doing a training, I like to grab a few bottles,” Tocco said. “Scotch is the best way to explain the differences and you can talk about them from a terroir or regional aspect. With American whiskey, you can compare bourbon to rye, which has spicier characteristics of pie spice and pepper that’s compared to sweeter, rounder qualities of bourbon.”

“I find myself more attracted to American Whiskey, especially rye with that spice to punch through other flavors.”
- Matt Tocco

Within the Scotch category, they’ll come from five distinct areas of Scotland — Islay, Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and Campbeltown — each with different characteristics, some with more peat, which adds a smokier taste, than others. And whether Japanese whisky comes from the north or the far south will also impart different styles. In bourbon and rye, you can have small batch, single barrel, cask strength, high-proof rye and more.

In the last 10 years, bourbon itself has really taken off, but that has led so many people down the general whisk(e)y road seeking to discover more and more flavors and variety. So really, at the end of the day, you want to have a variety of whiskies at your restaurant or bar because your patrons have a variety of tastes.

“To pigeonhole your beverage program into only doing bourbon, you’re doing a disservice to your clients and to yourself,” said Matthew Poli, beverage director at Nasvhille’s the Catbird Seat. “There’s really so much out there.”

Seeking out and stocking that variety can not only get people in the door to drink, it can also help get people to stay and drink longer. Or return — and in the process help create a good word-of-mouth reputation for your program. “Having a good selection and having a bartender knowledgeable about that makes a guest more comfortable to stay there and try more things,” said Juyoung Kang, lead bartender at The Dorsey at the Venetian in Las Vegas. “It can become a go-to place and they’ll bring their friends to have the same experience. It becomes a trust thing that’s important to a guest when they’re going to spend their money there.”

When setting up or adding to your program, you don’t have to have 100 types of whisk(e)y or even 50, but have diversity within the category and then get some special bottles for people who are more serious about drinking the brown stuff.

“It’s interesting to see how this brown spirits thing has blossomed and the category is exploding everywhere,” Cox said. “There’s a tough time keeping up with the demand.”

Which is why you need to stay on top of things and make sure your bars are fully stocked and your customers are always happy.

“Having a good selection and having a bartender knowledgable about that makes a guest more comfortable to stay there and try more things.”
- Juyoung Kang


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