Climbing the whiskey ladder

As sales of brown spirits soar, so does the way they’re merchandised.

"We’ve been collecting whiskeys since 1977; now, finally, we are part of a trend,” says Mick McHugh, proprietor of F.X. McRory’s Whiskey Bar in Seattle. He is referring to bars that have curated large collections of brown spirits into “whiskey libraries,” often using wheeled ladders to access top-shelf bottles. Several have opened recently in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., attracting attention for the way they’re collecting and displaying the goods. They’ve got nothing on McHugh; his first restaurant, Jake O’Shaughnessy’s, scored a Guinness Record for its list of 700 spirits back in the 1980s. Today, his F.X. McRory’s Whiskey Bar boasts more than double that number.

A whiskey renaissance is fueling revenue growth,” says Peter Cressy, CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Sales volumes for the category were up 6.2 percent in 2013 over 2012, according to DISCUS, and super-premium whiskeys jumped 12 percent. Interest in retro cocktails is one reason; classics such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned have broadened the appeal of brown spirits to women and millennials. Price is another factor, particularly with American products. A patron  can sample two or three bourbons for the same price as one glass of Scotch.

A hallmark of these whiskey concepts is an impressive display. “Our backbar grabs a lot of attention. When guests see it, they pull out their cellphones,” says Mike Mills, beverage director at Butcher and The Rye, a new restaurant in Pittsburgh with 450-plus bottles on a 22-foot-tall  display. F.X. McRory’s, housed in a historic warehouse with a backbar that soars 22 feet high by 110 feet wide, gets a similar reaction. “Guests see the bartenders climb the ladder, and that starts the ball rolling, generating me-too sales,” says McHugh.

Having a wide range of beverage choices is much in demand by consumers, Chicago research firm Technomic reports. But “there’s also an advantage to having exclusivity on whiskeys,” says Dave Ouderkirk, co-owner of Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge in Syracuse, N.Y., whose “spirits wall” displays over 1,000 bottles, mostly whiskey. “It brings customers to us.” Both he and McHugh say that rarities attract younger drinkers, as do locally produced spirits and whiskey-based cocktails. “Some highly prized spirits sell out within days,” adds McHugh.

Whiskey bars are a magnet for spirits geeks looking for rarities. Al’s offers a number of local microdistilled whiskeys, small-batch bourbons and Japanese malt whiskeys. Prices for 1¼-ounce pours start at $5.50 and range up to $125 for a 30-year-old Scotch whisky. “We sell a lot in the $25 to $35 range,” says Ouderkirk.

“Our sweet spot is $10 to $15 an ounce,” says Mills. Butcher and The Rye offers all whiskeys in 1- or 2-ounce pours, starting at $5 and rising to $250 for an ounce of 30-year sour mash. “People will pay for whiskey that rare,” he says.

A growing audience is customers who want to learn. To get them started, each of these operators offers whiskeys for around $5, a reasonable entry point for newbies. The bartenders hand-sell, guiding the uninitiated. In addition, beverage director Mills is developing whiskey-education seminars. And Al’s has a “secret bar”—an armoire in the front window where distillers hold tastings and talk about their products.

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