Through a combination of the growing craft spirits category, savvy marketing, the cocktail culture sweeping the nation’s nightlife scene, and a rise in interest from Millennials and women, bourbon is one of the fastest-growing categories in the alcohol beverage world.
Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says bourbon and Tennessee whiskey exports topped $1 billion in 2015 for the third straight year.
By understanding the history of this truly American product, as well as ensuring your restaurant and bar staff are educated about bourbon’s production, operators can increase beverage sales with simple marketing creativity. If you promote a wide list of brands, guests can enjoy the almost endless flavors emitting from simple interaction with alcohol, wood, time and careful handling.
No one knows exactly where, and when, the first bourbon distiller was, but it’s known it began being distilled around the 1780s in Kentucky. Early tinkerers discovered charring their wooden barrels aged the liquor and mellowed their fiery corn whiskey.
Eventually, specific rules were set defining what makes bourbon bourbon. By law, it can only be produced in the United States, needs to be made with at least 51% corn, must be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into barrel at 125 proof or less, and contain no additives. Must be aged in charred new oak barrels.
If distillers go another layer down, to call it a “straight bourbon,” it must age at least two years in a barrel. If aged less than four years, it has to have an “age statement” on the bottle. Single-barrel bourbons were introduced in 1984, spawning a number of high-end options.
Like most whiskey, bourbons are blends of whiskeys of different ages, creating consistent blends. Single-barrels, are just that — bourbon poured straight into bottles from a single barrel, capturing the unique characteristics of each one.
Bourbon has ridden a roller coaster of popularity and unpopularity in the past century. During World War II, many distilleries were commandeered and forced to produce industrial-grade alcohol for the military, nearly stopping an industry already ravaged by Prohibition. As the post-war era began a new age of prosperity, bourbon soon became the star of the masses and “whiskey ‘n soda“ became the nation’s preferred drink.
“The 1950s were the golden age of the Kentucky bourbon industry,” historian Michael R. Veach writes in his book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
But it would not last. In the 1960-’70s changing tastes hit bourbon hard with “white spirits,” like vodka and unaged rum, becoming popular. Whiskey became seen as a bygone drink of older generations. By the 1980s, the bourbon industry, once considered untouchable, slumped so badly many large distilleries closed their doors.
Jump to the 21st century. Bourbon’s “tasty” history, driven by clever marketers and small-scale craft distillers, once again enraptured Americans and the rest of the world.
This upwelling means a growing demand and a need for education and creativity to ensure you’re maximizing profit from this white-hot category. Fine-dining operations, in particular, are seeing cult brands such as Pappy Van Winkle, which can sell for thousands of dollars a bottle, being asked for as a new generational status symbol. Move over First Growth Bordeaux, and make way for Kentucky gold.
Many think bourbon must be produced in Kentucky, but that’s not so. It can be created anywhere in the U.S. However, Kentucky is the ancestral home of bourbon and, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the state produces more than 95% of the world’s bourbon, 5.3 million barrels maturing in Kentucky.
The hospitality industry is helping the “bourbon boom” with creative programs. Marriott Hotels, for instance, recently rolled out The Marriott Bourbon Program at more than 250 hotels nationwide. This program trains bar staff on the history of the spirit and offers tips on storytelling to guests. It also offers Marriott signature cocktails and bourbon flights, and often hosts “Bourbon Battles” to test the skills of its mixologists versus local bartenders.
Guests at the Hyatt Regency in Lexington, Ky., can mix their own bourbon drinks as they are divided into teams and taken through a lesson on the history of bourbon. Then they’re trained on some basic principles of making drinks and are let loose with their creativity.
At fine-dining restaurants around the country, beverage managers are beefing up the number of brands they offer.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., sommelier Michelle Richards of St. John’s Restaurant offers 40 bourbons. She finds that most guests begin their meal in the bar area with bourbon, which gives her staff a chance to flex their hospitality skills as the guests are often very engaged and eager to learn the stories behind the bottles.
In New York City, assistant general manager Fred Jones of Riverpark restaurant also has nearly 40 bourbons available. He finds that bourbon is not just for the cold winter months, and not just for before or after dinner; if his team uses seasonal ingredients in the creation of their bourbon cocktails, guests not only drink them year-round, but also throughout their meal.
Given the high profitability of cocktails, that gives bourbon great potential as a moneymaker for restaurants and bars.
Credit to David Flaherty, Marketing Director, Washington State Wine Commission
J Hal Hodgson is a 50+year veteran of the hospitality industry. He is Creative Partner at San Diego-based The Marketing Deli which consults with restaurants in operations, menu engineering and marketing.