Life in a Post-Bourbon World: Predicting the Next Big Thing in Booze

It’s no secret that bourbon has been the It Spirit for a good few years now. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how pretty much no one saw it coming. One needs to only look at the vast amount of supply shortages today to see just how unprepared most of the market was. Here’s a fun exercise. Go into your local store and ask them if they have any Weller, Eagle Rare, or even Very Old Barton. Their thousand yard stare, coupled with the nervous tick in the corner of their eye will tell you all you need to know about the current state of things.

Reports and predictions of the “bourbon bubble” bursting have so far been premature. It seems that—at least for now—for every one person who tires of the hunt, there are ten more ready and willing to take their place in line for the latest limited release. I’m not here to predict when that will end, because it’s already proven to be a pointless exercise. However, what can be a fun prediction is guessing what will follow bourbon as the almighty “next big thing.” So let’s take a look at a few spirits, and the reasons why they will — or won’t — usurp bourbon’s place at the top of the hype pedestal. For each of these four, we’re also including the all-important “Van Winkle Factor” — wherein we ask whether there is a singular product which will drive said hype train and become the bane of existence to liquor store employees everywhere.

1. Rum

For years now, rum has been talked about over and over again as being the next big spirit.

Why it Will Succeed:

Rum has a lot of crossover appeal to the bourbon fan. Many rums share a lot of the same flavor components with bourbon — vanilla, caramel, and good old-fashioned barrel spice — though with a slightly softer and sweeter side rum has the potential to appeal to an even broader audience. I have myself, and have heard many others refer to it as “summertime whiskey,” a product which delivers a lot of the same flavor notes but without the warming heat of whiskey. It’s easy and delicious. Plus, the rebirth of tiki drinks and island culture has pushed the importance of specific rum types into the minds of consumers everywhere.

Why it Won’t:

First and foremost, rum has an issue with age statements. Countries like Jamaica and Barbados require an age statement consistent with what most U.S. consumers understand, the age on the label is representative of the youngest spirit in the blend. But rum comes from so many places beyond those two countries, and in those countries age stating is much more vague. Two brands that represent this better than most are Ron Zacapa and Zaya. Ron Zacapa uses a solera aging system which puts a vague average of “23” on their entry level bottle. Zaya recently changed their bottles from saying “12 years” to now indicating that it is now a blend of 12 aged rums. It’s a clever switch of phrasing that makes marketing departments proud but makes many consumers roll their eyes. Also, and here is the obvious, rum has been talked about as the next big thing for quite a while and hasn’t really taken off. Maybe rum’s popularity as it is now is just where it is going to be. Maybe we have already reached peak rum and we are just fooling ourselves that it is going to keep growing.

Van Winkle Effect:

Does rum have that one big bottle? The one which people will wait in line for, the one which will inspire countless Instagram posts with jealous responses? It just might. The Caroni Rum Distillery has been closed or 15 years. Bottles still pop up from time to time from independent bottlers. This may be more of a correlation to a bottle of A.H. Hirsch than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but bottles of this rum seem to pop up and disappear quite quickly.

2. Mezcal

Why It Will Succeed:

Tequila’s funky, and smoky, compadre has been king of the mixology world for a couple years now. Not since the concept of “pre-Prohibition” have we seen such an obvious inspiration for so many new bars. In one Chicago neighborhood alone, I can count at least three new mezcal specific bars that have opened up in the last year. Yet it persists. A few weeks ago my social media feed was full of one friend’s picture of a mezcal flight, another drinking a mezcal old fashioned, and another commenting on the addition of a new bar a block from their apartment. All of this is without mentioning that mezcal has sotol and raicilla, new Mexican spirits, to bolster its rise in the same way that rye whiskey did for bourbon.

Why It Won’t:

The barrier of entry to mezcal knowledge is quite difficult for even the more advanced drinker. The variation on types of plants mezcal can use and the 8 different regions where they can all come from can create a dizzying combination of recipes and styles. While this is a wonderful thing for adventurous drinkers, it limits the amount of direct bottle to bottle comparison and debate over what is the best, which was a key component to the rise of bourbon. While mezcal may be the current king of the cocktail world, that hasn’t quite yet translated over into bottle sales.

Van Winkle Effect:

Del Maguey’s Single Village series seems to be the obvious choice here. They were among the first to push mezcal as something more than just the thing with the worm or scorpion in the bottom of the bottle. Also they fully embraced the extra funk that is the pechuga style of hanging a chicken carcass in the still for some extra gameyness. To be honest though, mezcal is the current and future king of the cocktail world, but it will have a hard time transitioning into actual off-premise consumer sales.

3. Armagnac

Why It Will Succeed:

There is an old adage which states that all old punk singers become country singers. In the same way, all old whiskey drinkers become Armagnac drinkers. It turns out that while Cognac has been all the rage, it has had a southern neighbor which has offered more value for the money all along. While both Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, the big difference lies in the use of the Baco and Colombard grapes. Baco is a big deal in terms of difference, it is a grape variety which can only be grown in the Armagnac region and can only be used for distillation. Also, Cognac opts for double distillation while Armagnac goes for single. Just think of Armagnac as Cognac’s rustic cousin. Only in this regard “rustic” means that bottles can be packed with complex and wonderful flavor.

Why It Won’t:

It certainly doesn’t help that the average consumer still has a hard time understanding what Armagnac is. Couple that with the fact that the TV. show Chopped recently referred to Armagnac as an “apple brandy” and you get the idea of the hill this delightful spirit needs to climb.

Van Winkle Effect:

There are stores you can walk into where you can buy a Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac which was distilled in 1865. Those types of stocks are extremely rare and should instantly spark the attention of any collector. Outside of that you have producers like Chateau de Laubade and Darroze, which have lots to offer that will happily turn heads.

4. Irish Whiskey

Why It Will Succeed:

Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world over the last few years — mainly because its sales started off so small. What has been a predominantly homogenized category is currently exploding with new offerings. Look no further than the style of single pot still Irish whiskey for a style of whiskey that is unique to the country that started it all. As well, there is no shortage of Jameson drinkers that are looking for something more premium and more unique. For ages all of your Irish whiskey came from one of four distilleries: Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills, and Kilbeggan. Since 2014 there are now 32 running and proposed distilleries in Ireland.

Why It Won’t:

Irish whiskey has a slight image problem. There are many consumers who have for very long looked at it as predominantly for shots. To many whiskey drinkers it can be seen as plain and boring. The heavy influx of new distilleries and producers putting out new and varying products is already starting to combat these attitudes, but it remains more a question of when change will take place.

Van Winkle Effect:

One need look no further than the relative disappearance from shelves of the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve to see how stocks of older Irish whiskey are becoming squeezed. Releases like the Redbreast Lustau Edition and the Midleton Barry Crocket Edition are helping keep the hype chatter up.

In Conclusion:

Here is the thing with bourbon. Seemingly every major bourbon distillery is expanding in some form, be it actual distilling space or simply just more warehouses to store more barrels. According to some reports, companies like Beam-Suntory are filling almost 500,000 barrels a year, which to us means only one important thing, the big producers don’t see an immediate end in Bourbon’s expansion. In fact they are looking forward to numbers that only continue to grow. And as younger distilleries across the country are able to start bringing new and more mature products to the market the demand will be there.

So yes, maybe it is poor form to say that the next big thing after bourbon is bourbon. But I’m OK with that. Because if it’s something else it will probably be mezcal, or rum, or Armagnac, or Irish whiskey.

On Toasts and Irish Whiskey for St. Patrick’s Day

Life gives us precious few moments for a proper toast anymore. St. Patrick’s Day remains as one of the few times when you stop and hold a room’s attention long enough to actually raise one. Or rather, what I wonder is often the case in my experience, enough time for your friends and family to at least pretend to be giving you their full attention.

There are very few rules to a good toast, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Brevity is your best friend. Three or four lines is ideal. It’s important to remember that wedding toasts are usually speeches, so don’t go by those rules. In the bar, each extra word has a direct negative correlation on how your toast will be received.

Tone is the second most important aspect of a great toast. Joyful sincerity is the target. The best toasts quickly reflect and uplift. It should be something everyone can latch onto. Short, simple, and earnest.

If you can’t come up with the words on your own, it’s fine to take a good quote and cannibalize it for your own purposes. Luckily for us, the Irish have a long history of being good with words.

It’s also important to note that the best accessory for a toast is a good rocks glass. While it feels great to raise a beer to the person doing the toasting, the temptation to use a pint glass as a microphone is strong — but whiskey is always best. While you can toast with any beverage, remember it is bad luck to toast with an empty glass — but it is the best luck to toast with whiskey, particularly Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ready to make a memorable toast? This evening, try on some of these… each paired with the perfect glass of Irish whiskey.

Powers John’s Lane

He was not sure what idea he wished to express but the thought that a poetic moment had touched upon him took life within him like an infant home. He stepped onward bravely.

James Joyce said he sought to capture the entirety of Dublin in his writing so that if the city ever disappeared it could be rebuilt from his books. Single pot still whiskey and its mix of malted and unmalted barley is the one style unique to Ireland. If every other Irish whiskey were to disappear from the face of the earth, Powers John’s Lane, with its incredible mix of nuttiness, malted chocolate, and delicate floral touches would stand well as its last remaining representative. The fact that it also has an inspiring finish which seems to push the limits of time itself certainly doesn’t hurt.

Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Madeira Finish

The only way to atone for being occasionally a little overdressed is by being always, absolutely over-educated.

Oscar Wilde is the undisputed king of the bon mot. Pretty much everything he ever said and wrote can be easily turned into a wonderful quote. This one works beautifully with the Tyrconnell Madeira Finish. Irish whiskey tends to begin its life in such a light and delicate state that too much barrel trickery can easily overwhelm and overdress a beautiful drink. Thankfully those behind this whiskey are smart enough to know right where that edge of perfection is. This whiskey jumps right off the palate with some bright citrus and then softens to a nutty and sweet finish. It is impeccably balanced and also happens to be one of my all time favorites.

Teeling Single Grain

Better pass boldly into that other world, in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

We return to the inspiration of James Joyce. For those ready to embrace and celebrate forward momentum, one whiskey that answers that call is this single grain offering from Teeling. While grain whiskey may be looked upon by stubborn single malt purists stuck in the world of 1980s advertising as the component of blended whiskey that ruins single malts, us open minded imbibers can rejoice. Teeling is one of a few companies (See also: Compass Box and Girvan) doing wonderful things with this overlooked style. Raise a glass to the impassioned and be thankful they keep giving you wonderful things to drink.

Green Spot

As long as I have a want, I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.

George Bernard Shaw was never one to shy away from an opinion. What used to be scarce and highly sought after outside of Ireland is thankfully now regularly available. Green Spot is another single pot still whiskey which is helping to carry the torch for that wonderful and particularly Irish style. It is rich and dense with notes of roasted caramel, chocolate, and a hint of citrus. It also doesn’t hurt that the whiskey comes with a lovely story of a family purchasing unaged distillate from Jameson and aging it in a varying range of sherry barrels from their wine import business. It’s a perfect whiskey to honor those who embrace the idea of always reaching for more.

Redbreast 12 Years Old

May the road always rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back, May you be in heaven an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.

A personal combination of a couple of classic Irish toasts. In honor of the classics you can do no wrong with the Redbreast 12 year old. A delicate mix of tropical fruit, vanilla, and cinnamon, this Irish whiskey is often the first one many people see as truly special. It’s a classic for a reason and a perfect companion for a classic toast. If it’s available, do yourself a favor and spend the extra money on the cask strength version. It’s one of the best whiskeys on the market.

So there you have it.  Embrace the toast and make the most of it. If all else fails just raise your glass, thank your friends and family for being there, and wish them all the best in the future. Just remember to end it all with a hearty sláinte.

5 Scotch Whiskies for Celebrating Burns Night

January 25th is Burns Night: a yearly celebration of the life and words of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Traditionally it is celebrated with a supper full of haggis, speeches, the occasional bagpipe, and of course, Scotch. While any Scotch will work, here’s a look at five whiskies you can use to toast the birthday of Robert Burns, drawing inspiration from his own words.

The golden Hours on angel wings
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Royal Brackla 12 Year Old

The majority of this distillery’s production ends up in the Dewars line of blends. For much of the time single malts were hard to come by and expensive through independent bottlers. Thankfully this was released as part of The Last Great Malts series. A lovely and accessible, golden-hued highland malt. Notes of poached orchard fruits and soft, sweet, malted chocolate lead into a finish of heather honey and gentle spice. An incredibly accessible and complex whiskey, a great choice for everyone at the table.

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire.

Kilchoman Impex Cask Evolution 01/2016

The youngest distillery on the beloved island of Islay is also the first new one since 1881. Part of the Impex Cask Evolution series, this release was aged in an Oloroso Sherry hogshead which gives the whiskey a wonderfully red hue. At only 5 years old, this whiskey uses its youth as an advantage. It is big and bold with smokey citrus at the forefront. A little bit of water will bring out some more fruit and spice flavors, but this one really is at its best when left big and fiery.

I’ll toast you in my hindmost gillie,
Tho’ owre the sea!

Old Pulteney 17 Years Old

Searching for the perfect dram to toast those who have moved away? This malt is richly lush and dense. Oak and butterscotch lead the way and then open up to some light brown spice and almond. The finish seems to stick around forever with the slightest touch of caramel, brine, and a very faint but present smokiness. The perfect dram for a wistful toast along the seaside.

Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!

Compass Box The Peat Monster

If you are going to steel yourself to face the devil, you may as well have a monster at your side. John Glaser’s Compass Box turns out so many coveted and fantastic limited releases that sometimes it’s easy to forget just how good the standard line is. The Peat Monster is a near perfect showing of balanced complexity. Earthy smoke and brine lead the charge with touches of savory herbs and a slightly medicinal, oaky touch. The finish brings in a lingering sweetness which has become a bit of a Compass Box trademark. A cacophony of flavors which somehow meld together in a bold and extremely drinkable manner.

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow—
Let us do or die!

Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old

Whether in moments on revolution or celebration, sometimes it is important to remove all caution and just go. The Bunnahabhain Distillery produces one of the milder single malts on Islay. While they forgo some of the intensity of their neighbors, they excel in balance. First impression of this beauty is all leather and spice. Tannic cinnamon and clove mingle with a hint of fig and other stewed fruits. The finish is tremendously long.  So long in fact, you will be discovering new and lingering flavors well into an encore performance of Auld Lang Syne.