The whiskey revival is reverberating across the globe. All categories of the barrel-aged brown spirit have experienced continued growth in the past few years. Japanese whiskey is having its moment. Irish whiskey recently achieved the largest growth of all whiskey categories. American bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are at the forefront of the category.
The biggest players on this global stage will be quite familiar to American drinkers. Jack Daniel’s and its iconic black no. 7 label remains the world wide leader in American whiskey. Not far behind is Jim Beam. While these labels are iconic signposts in American culture, they are not the most exciting whiskeys these producers are making. Behind the support of global sales, the biggest producers are using their expertise and long history of whiskey making to create some of the best drams on the market. You may not realize it, but some of your favorite whiskeys are made by the same producers you may scoff at.
Innovation meets History
American whiskey and craft beer are two categories seeing amazing growth in the American market. This is the result of many factors, but it can be boiled down to the sudden emergence of a discerning American drinker who looks for products that are flavorful and unique. Mass appeal brands are out. Niche products are in.
With beer, craft brewers are the leaders of innovation. Behemoths with global reach like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors maintain the largest market share, but they are behind the curve on producing interesting beers with flavor and imagination. The opposite is true in American whiskey: the storied distillers that compete globally are the same ones making the best whiskey domestically.
Where Craft Distillers Can’t Compete
For whiskey enthusiasts, the smaller production marks of macro-producers are the honeypot of great whiskey. And while there are many craft distillers making wonderful whiskey (Journeyman, MRDC) they cannot compete with the big named producers when it comes to value. Costs are higher for a bottle of craft whiskey, even if it’s of similar quality to a less-expensive product from a big distiller.
Craft whiskey also took a big hit this past year when reports caught the attention of whiskey enthusiasts that that a number of craft whiskeys are actually distilled at the old Seagram’s Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, now a production plant owned by MGD Ingredients. Templeton Rye became the whipping boy for this sourcing practice when it was exposed that their “Iowa Whiskey” was actually produced in Indiana. Sourcing whiskey isn’t necessarily a bad thing, many Scotch whisky producers have been doing it for centuries. And it’s certainly not always done with the same sleight of hand employed through Templeton’s shady marketing. You can find great sourced whiskey from producers like High West and Smooth Ambler, who create great blends and employ innovative barrel aging techniques to produce fantastic results. But the Templeton story has added a level of skepticism to the market.
Craft Value from Big Producers
The big distilleries of Kentucky and Tennessee are in a position where they can promote their long history of distilling, often attached their family name traced through generations of whiskey producers. The marketing of their whiskey as a rustic tradition steeped in family history appeals to the values of the new discerning American drinker that wants to know where and how their whiskey is produced.
Though these are massive brands, the process of producing whiskey still seems like a humble and hands-on experience. It isn’t seen as an automated process. Master Distiller’s like Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey) and Booker Noe (Beam-Suntory) are rock stars in the whiskey world. These master distillers give a human face to the products they are creating.
Premium Whiskey Brands You Should Offer
The following list compiles a handful of whiskeys produced by the largest whiskey distillers in the U.S.. These are not their flagship brands. If your bar or restaurant is looking to expand your whiskey offering, these are must have brands.
Booker’s – Part of Beam-Suntory’s Small Batch Bourbon collection. This could be considered the flagship barrel proof whiskey in the small batch market. It won a double gold medal in 2009 at the San Francisco Spirits Competition.
Jim Beam Bonded – A new entry to the bonded whiskey category. Bonded whiskey refers to whiskey produced under the regulations of the Bottled in Bond act of 1897. Regulations ensure that the whiskey has been aged for at least four years and is bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol). Bonded whiskey is a staple at many cocktail bars, as the higher proofed whiskey holds up when mixed into cocktails.
Russell’s Reserve 10 year 90 proof – A rich and smooth offer from the maker’s of Wild Turkey 101. This is a great whiskey, especially for those who are new to the category. It’s very approachable and comes in at an affordable price point.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed – An uncut barrel proof offering from Wild Turkey. It’s a great uncut whiskey that will showcase the brand in its truest form.
Old Forester – One of the oldest whiskey’s produced in America. The annual release of the special edition Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is one of the best bourbons released each year, and it’s less sought after than many of the Buffalo Trace special releases.
Elijah Craig – Elijah Craig’s base market is their small batch offering. The 12 year age statement was recently dropped, but it is still a fantastic whiskey. The line also has a barrel proof offering, as well as limited release bourbons with 18, 20, 21, and 23 year age statements.
Larceny – This whiskey is made using wheat in it’s mash bill instead of rye. This creates a softer, creamier whiskey in contrast to spicy rye. Fans of Maker’s Mark, the most prominent wheated whiskey, should try this.
Four Roses Single Barrel – Possibly the most prominent single barrel bourbon sold in the U.S. Four Roses is a resurrected brand that has come back to prominence thanks to the whiskey revival. Four Roses Single Barrel is the product of 10 different recipes that result in variations between bottles. The different recipes has created a following of whiskey drinkers who seek out bottles with varying recipes.
Four Roses Small Batch – A smoother blended version of the single barrel offering.