11 Buyers, 1 Store, 8000 Wines

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

For the past few years, American whiskey has been the hottest category in the spirits world. As bourbon, rye and other American whiskeys have taken off, new artisanal producers continue to pop up and more established producers introduce line extensions. For instance, West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits distillery, founded in 2009, now makes at least seven different spirits. Jack Daniel’s recently debuted an unaged rye whiskey, and Bulleit came out with a 10-year-old bourbon to join its flagship bourbon and rye. And so it goes.

Rye whiskey has also had an amazing resurgence. People have been buying brands such as Old Overholt at triple the rate that they did just five years ago. Vermont’s WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, introduced in 2010, has been so successful that they’ve followed up with their own line extensions — for instance, they’ve added an 11-year-old, 111-proof spirit to their original 10-year-old, 100-proof rye. Redemption Rye has enough of a following that it was hard to keep our shelves filled this past Christmas.

If we’re talking about hot brands, I can’t not mention Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon. We probably could have sold a thousand bottles if we could get our hands on them. Instead, we were fortunate to get just nine bottles this holiday season — plus two of rye. I even spoke to the New York Post about the cult spirit:

Other stores don’t even bother with a list: Paul Bressler, the spirits buyer at 67 Wine and Spirits on the Upper West Side, used to keep one, but it led to too much frustration, he says.

“You’d have 50 people on a waiting list, then 10 bottles come in, and you have 40 unhappy people,” says Bressler. “Everybody wants it, and nobody will accept the fact that they’re not going to get it.”

“It’s a good bourbon, it’s not a life-changing experience,” says Bressler of 67 Wine and Spirits, who calls the clamor for the coveted hooch “bizarre. People shouldn’t want it that badly.”

For some background, it might help to know what makes a whiskey bourbon and what doesn’t. To put to rest a common misperception, bourbon doesn't have to be made in Kentucky — though the name originally comes from Bourbon County, Kentucky, which was once part of Virginia. Of course, you can only call bourbon Kentucky bourbon if it’s made there, but you can’t call a wine Napa Valley unless it’s made there, either.

Bourbon must be produced in the United States with at least 51 percent distilled corn mash, and also must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It also has to be distilled to less than 160 proof (80% alcohol), and then gets diluted with water down to at most 125 proof for aging. Straight bourbon is then aged for at least two years, with water the only permitted additive. In contrast to other spirits such as Scotch whiskey, no artificial color is allowed; it gains that amber color from the charred barrels.

The rules are similar for rye whiskey, except that 51 percent has to be, well, rye instead of corn. Distillers also have the option to include malted rye, malted barley or wheat in the mash. Maker’s Mark Bourbon, in particular, uses only corn and wheat in their bourbon, and is thus considered a ‘wheated bourbon.’

The sour mash in such spirits as those from Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s or Kentucky’s Michter’s is based on a yeast starter, just like sourdough bread. Using a sour mash starter doesn’t preclude either company from calling their spirits bourbon, but Jack Daniel’s doesn’t use that name because their Tennessee Whiskey is charcoal-filtered —  a process not allowed in bourbon.

Whiskey made from rye is generally drier than whiskey made from corn or wheat, and the sweetness of a bourbon is due to how much rye (or not) is in the blend. Maker’s Mark and other wheated bourbons taste sweeter than high-rye bourbons such as Michter’s or Bulleit, which each use 30 to 40 percent rye in their mash bill.

All of this leads us to the classic whiskey cocktail, the Manhattan. Pre-Prohibition, a Manhattan was always made with rye whiskey, bitters, sweet vermouth and a cherry. After Prohibition, it was usually made with bourbon. These days, it can be made either way — so when you order one, specify which spirit you prefer. A good bartender might be offended, though, if you ask for a Manhattan with both. Don’t shy away from the cherry, either: It wouldn’t be a Manhattan without it.

- Paul Bressler
1.29.2013

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