Slow down, relax; take the time to savor. A growing trend in the hospitality business is promoting just that—the whiskey/bourbon bar experience.
The reviving interest in fine whiskey is a simple concept—enjoying “a drink that’s actually better when you drink it slow,” says Nidal J. Hamzey, restaurant manager at The Dignitary, featuring 30 bourbons, in the Marriott Marquis Washington, DC.
To pull it off requires the right ambience, a variety of the right product, an interested clientele, and staff and management with a strong knowledge of whiskey (spelled without an “e” if it is Canadian or Scottish, with an “e” if it is American or Irish), rye, and bourbon.
It’s a great way to revitalize a bar and attract locals, says Dave Whitton, beverage manager at Bar 1200 at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. Whitton has seen it work at several bars where he has curated the whiskey collection.
“We do unique things with our cocktails to highlight the flavors in our high quality whiskeys, like offering a punch recipe created by Benjamin Franklin,” that attracts hotel patrons and locals alike, says Brian Bevilacqua, bourbon and spirits master at Bank & Bourbon in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.
What’s necessary to open a successful whiskey/bourbon bar or offer a special section of whiskeys in your existing bar? Let’s break it down by component requirements.
Knowledge: First and foremost, know if your market is open to new experiences and tastes. That means doing thorough market research.
Once interest is established, experts advise hiring or consulting an experienced whiskey curator or master. You have to offer options, Hamzey says. “Everyone knows Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, and Makers Mark”; it’s the whiskey master’s job to expand patrons’ knowledge and get them to try something new.
Experienced curators know the market, including what “allocated” whiskeys (more on that under “Product”) to buy and what unique flavors will blend best to make unforgettable cocktails. They can also help you offer unusual services, such as the Private Locker Barrel Aging Program and small-group tasting room courses offered at Bank & Bourbon, both under Bevilacqua’s tutelage.
Expert knowledge includes being able to help neophytes enjoy the product. At Bar 1200, instructing patrons in how to “nose” the delicate balance of a bourbon by whisking it in your open mouth and letting it hit the inside of your cheeks, “called the Kentucky chew,” enhances the experience, Whitton explains.
One key to success is an approachable, knowledgeable service staff. “Without staff who knows their whiskey, many of your bottles will never get opened,” Whitton has seen.
Experienced staff also knows how to build cocktails that “enhance the liquor, bringing out its profile, not disguising it,” Whitton says, “using different oils, great sweet vermouths, citrusy flavors; whatever fits the whiskey.”
Product: Of course, product reigns at a whiskey/bourbon bar. “The goal is to offer a great variety,” Hamzey says, which can translate into unforgettable cocktails.
“You need an allocated line of spirits,” says Whitton, describing them as exclusive small-batch whiskeys. “Some makers only create 100 bottles a year. You want to be able to offer some to your patrons.
“If you have 70 different whiskeys on the shelf but the person behind the bar doesn’t know the flavors—say for example someone asks for a leathery flavor—you’ll have those whiskeys on the shelf for years and no one will know the pleasure of them,” Whitton emphasizes.
And what kinds of cocktails are the best to offer? Bar 1200 keeps it simple by specializing in four types: old-fashioned, Manhattans, julep/smash, and sours, while still offering a full range of cocktails.
Bank & Bourbon stocks certain whiskeys to enhance patron’s education. “Have samples from used barrels, from charred barrels, and from non-charred to show how different processes can change the taste,” Bevilacqua advises.
Atmosphere: By their very nature, whiskey bars invite patrons to sit and sip, therefore warm, inviting, and comfortable are essential.
Bank & Bourbon in Philadelphia features exposed pipes and wooden beams on the ceiling, rugs on wood floors, and tufted leather banquette seating. Bar 1200 in Los Angeles uplights its stock giving the entire room a warm, golden glow. The Dignitary has wood floors, a variety of leather chairs arranged in cozy conversation-inducing clusters, and brick walls hung with padded, tufted red leather screens.
However, Hamzey suggests, while “the atmosphere of a whiskey bar is dark with low-lighting, soft music, dark woods, and rich leather, the bartenders are the most important part of the bar; they have to speak to all of our products.” •
Interesting facts: A 2013 survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association did not specifically ask whether a hotel bar featured whiskeys, but revealed 73 percent of hotels with more than 130 rooms offer full-service bars. One barometer of the popularity of this growing phenomenon is the number of articles in the last two years rating the best whiskey bars in the country—many of which are in hotels.
Photo credit: Whiskey Drinks via Bigstock