Hang around the spirit world — alcohol, not ghosts — and you’re bound to hear the expression “bourbon renaissance.”
I heard the phrase several times recently when I attended a special dinner upstairs at Arnaud’s, an event to showcase the release of the restaurant’s recent acquisition: a barrel-strength, whopping 116-proof, 11-year-old, straight bourbon from Kentucky’s celebrated Four Roses distillery.
It was a sports jacket and tie event, and the tables were filled. Al Young, Four Roses’ brand ambassador, spoke about bourbon’s rising popularity. Each guest was sent home with an autographed bottle from Arnaud’s new limited supply. Hand-written labels traced the birth of each bottle, specifying its warehouse, barrel number, shelf and slot.
Barrel programs and bourbon dinners are two signs of the spirit’s ongoing popularity, and Arnaud’s is not the only New Orleans restaurant to host such an event.
“People want something new,” says Ben Gersh, trade marketing manager with Glazer’s Distributors.
He notes that while wine dinners are a foodie staple, bourbon dinners offer a fresh take. And like wine, bourbon’s tremendous range allows for pairings over multiple courses.
“It’s nice to be able to have a bourbon to call our own, so to speak, and we’re thrilled to share it with our guests,” says Katy Casbarian, co-owner of Arnaud’s.
Four Roses’ barrel program offered an opportunity to partner with a respected distillery, she says, and in selecting a barrel, Arnaud’s was looking for a high rye bill and age. The result: a spicy and fruit-forward recipe with hints of honey and caramel.
Many buyers, like Arnaud’s, add a second label, furthering that ownership and hoping to spark a following for their particular bottles.
An increasing number of businesses looking to distinguish themselves have decided that buying barrels make sense and may not cost much more than off-the-shelf cases.
Rouses, Martin’s, Cochon, the Hyatt Regency and the Avenue Pub are among new Orleans establishments participating in barrel programs.
A slow awakening
Polly Watts, owner of the Avenue Pub, says New Orleans has been slow to join the bourbon mania.
“We’re really at the tail end of this,” she says. “But New Orleans tends to follow its own curve.”
Having spent 15 years in Kentucky, Watts has tasted her share of the spirit. Although her bar is known for its craft beer selection, the upstairs portion now centers on bourbon.
Gersh says bourbon’s appeal is worldwide. “It’s not just New Orleans. It’s all over the United States and abroad. Bourbon continues to be the hottest trending category in spirit sales. People are going to Kentucky to do the bourbon trail like they go to Napa.”
Groups fueling sales include young men discovering their grandfather’s bourbon and 20-something women inspired by stylish vintage cocktails of the type seen on the AMC series “Mad Men.”
Watts sees another bourbon trend emerging: neat shots.
“We’re finally discovering that bourbon tastes good on its own,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be mixed in a cocktail.”
From wine to bourbon
In her experience, craft beer lovers also tend to gravitate toward bourbon. However, Watts notes the largest “crossover” section of bourbon drinkers she’s encountered are wine-lovers, who admire bourbon’s range and sophistication. She sees chefs, with their need to innovate, as the driving force behind the recent spate of bourbon dinners.
With the continued rise in bourbon’s popularity also comes a potential pitfall: a bourbon shortage.
As Watts notes, bourbon isn’t like vodka, whose production can be quickly ramped up or down in order to meet demand. Bourbon requires time, aging in virgin charred barrels from generally five to 20 years.
While demand has significantly risen in the last few years, supply has not. Several years ago, Watts says she was quickly able to find several distilleries who could supply her right away. Now she’s on a waiting list for Buffalo Trace.
And smaller businesses who buy one or two barrels now must stand in line behind the larger outfits who can afford to buy in volume, purchasing 10 or even 20 barrels.
“They’re not buying for the same reason I am,” Watts says. “There’s definitely a hoarding element.”
Polly Watts, owner of the Avenue Pub, on selecting bourbons
In general Watts suggests that drinkers new to bourbon think about distillers rather than individual bottles and work within a house’s portfolio. “Personally I tend to lean towards those distillers who bottle their own bourbon,” says Watts. She urges drinkers to add water or ice to the high proof or barrel-strength bottles; otherwise, drinkers won’t be able to distinguish flavors.
Here are some of Watts’ more accessible bourbon favorites
1. Four Roses
2. Buffalo Trace
3. Jim Beam
4. Maker’s Mark
5. Wild Turkey
6. Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, both distilled by Heaven Hill