Whiskey business: Locals keeping up with global demand for aged grain spirits

Greg Benish buys whiskey for The Whiskey Jar. Photo: RammelkampFoto. Greg Benish buys whiskey for The Whiskey Jar. Photo: RammelkampFoto.

A “global whiskey renaissance”—that’s what the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States is calling the trend in spirits over the last five years. Domestic and international demand for whiskey—bourbon in particular—has forced some of the largest producers to warn consumers of impending shortages, as demand is significantly outpacing supply. U.S. Whiskey exports topped 1 billion for the first time in 2013. What’s behind this whiskey boom? Wasn’t vodka king just a few years ago? Surely Don Draper can’t be single-handedly responsible for a global boom in whiskey…..

Economists don’t doubt that consumption habits of popular screen characters can drive changes in consumer behavior, and Don Draper and his whiskey-swilling co-workers drink a hell of a lot of whiskey. TV shows like AMC’s “Mad Men” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” hit the air right when consumers grew fatigued with endless varieties of artificially flavored vodka, and began looking to explore a historical class of spirits. Cocktail craftsmen in the U.S. and abroad are running with this, introducing customers to classic whiskey cocktails, original creations, and rare, unusual, or just plain delicious whiskeys. Here in town, The Whiskey Jar is our local emporium for aged grain spirits, and it’s been at the tip of the spear of the community’s thirst for all things whiskey. Not being an expert on the topic myself, I thought I’d catch up with the Whiskey Jar’s whiskey buyer and enthusiast Greg Benish to learn a thing or two about trends, the challenges of finding rare bottles and the difference between rye and bourbon.

C-VILLE: How are whiskeys different from each other?

Greg Benish: I like to think of whiskey as a formula with three main variables: water, grain and barrel-aging. This formula gives rise to endless permutations, and it’s this mutability that allows folks like me to vocationally spend hours tasting and reading and comparing them to each other. Quality of water is crucial, as it varies widely in pH and mineral content from region to region. For example, limestone bedrock in Kentucky (historic home of bourbon) makes the water calcium-rich and hard. This means a unique interaction of water with the yeast and with enzymes in the grains than, say, with water used from Virginia. Grain is the foundation of whiskey. The four main whiskey grains are corn, rye, wheat and barley. The rules are simple: If your mash contains at least 51 percent corn, it’s a bourbon; 51 percent rye, you have rye whiskey. If you’re working with 100 percent malted barley, and you’re in Scotland, you have a Scotch. The barrels are made of oak, and are how distillers mellow the rough edges of the raw spirit. American oak, French oak, former wine casks, sherry casks, rum barrels or port barrels can all be used to age or finish a whiskey.

Have you seen a change in the whiskeys consumers are looking for on your shelves?   

Yes, just judging by availability I can tell that education is increasing. I’m actually competing with the locals to get rare and interesting spirits. They fly off the shelves at the local ABC stores. I notice more and more customers know what they are talking about—they ask me for specific things, and appreciate seeing rare stuff on my shelves. It’s great, and it makes me step up my game to make sure I can still be a source of information. I don’t want anyone coming in and the selection not being reflected in the knowledge of the bartender. I think people are intrigued.  They want something other than craft beer. There are true artisans are out there producing excellent spirits, and really putting effort into their craft. It’s nice to see the public respond positively.

Was there a single whiskey that got you into this class of spirits?

I got into whiskey because of Scotch. I think Scotch is the most wonderfully complex spirit out there. Just tasting the difference between four Speyside 12-year single malts is an eye-opening example of how much variance can be present in a single style. Edradour 10-year (a single malt Scotch from the Highlands region of Scotland) sealed my love for whiskey.

Are there any value or must-have whiskeys that you’d recommend for C-VILLE readers’ home bars?

For rye, I would go for Templeton Rye. It is light and sweet and very mild—definitely a crowd-pleaser. For something a little nicer, check out Rendezvous Rye from Utah’s High West, the master chefs of the American whiskey world. Rendezvous is a blend of a 6-year and 16-year rye whiskey.

For Scotch, I’d recommend one of my favorite Highlands, Edradour 10-Year. The nose is flowery and light, while the body descends into a nutty, apricot quality with just a hint of smoke and sherry on the finish.

For bourbon, there are many interesting offerings out there. For something affordable and easily obtainable, Elijah Craig 12-year is great. It is ridiculously complex for the price, with tastes of maple syrup and caramel. If you can find it, get Rock Hill Farms from the Buffalo Trace distillery. It’s one of the most exceptionally balanced bourbons I have ever tried. I think of it as a smoother, more refined Blanton’s.