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Healthy Competition is Drastically Changing the Whiskey Scene

As whiskey sales soar, a growing number of bars are getting in on the action.

There's a whiskey arms race unfolding across the United States right now. New whiskey bars are popping up seemingly by the day, and to stand out from the competition, it’s no longer enough to showcase a solid selection with a few hard to find labels. Instead, whiskey bars must continually up the ante. Bars stock their shelves with an ever-increasing number of bottles and attempt to lure in patrons with everything from private barrels, to vintage booze and other exclusives, barrel-aged cocktails, whiskey on tap, and more.

Crisscrossing the country could take you anywhere from The Flatiron Room in Manhattan to the Aero Club in San Diego, each of which hover around the thousand whiskey bottle threshold. Meanwhile, Canon in Seattle and Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. each have double that. But there's now countless stops in between all vying for your whiskey dollar.

The number of new whiskey bars today and the competitive battle they're locked in didn't begin out of nowhere. It's backed up by the simple fact that more people across the United States are drinking more whiskey.

Photo by Canon

Whiskey By the Numbers

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), 19.35 million 9-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in the United States in 2014. That's nearly a 40 percent growth in the past decade, compared to 13.86 million cases sold in 2004.

...whiskey sales in the U.S. have increased from 39.37 million cases to 47.9 million in a decade, representing approximately 21.5 percent overall growth.

Over the same period, while Scotch sales in the United States have decreased roughly 2 percent, from 9.62 million cases in 2004 to 9.43 million in 2014, Irish whiskey sales have increased nearly 500 percent, up to 2.77 million cases, and Canadian whiskey sales have increased approximately 6.5 percent to 16.33 million cases.

Combine all four of those categories and whiskey sales in the U.S. have increased from 39.37 million cases to 47.9 million in a decade, representing approximately 21.5 percent overall growth. That's a whole lot more whiskey being consumed, and at the same time, casual whiskey drinkers perhaps only familiar with Jack, Johnnie, Jim or Jameson have branched out and become more refined in their tastes.

Simply put, Americans have an insatiable thirst for whiskey. There's no sign of a slowdown, either. While longterm forecasts for spirits consumption have always been difficult, and both American and global distillers have taken their lumps the hard way on this principle in the past, over the next five years, an IWSR survey commissioned by Vinexpo projects an 8.8 percent increase in global whiskey sales, and a 19.3 percent increase in global bourbon sales.

Whiskey Bar Proliferation

With any arms race comes proliferation. Consider that in Washington, D.C. alone there are at least 10 bars or restaurants with a reference to whiskey in their name: Barrel, Black Whiskey, Bourbon, Bourbon Steak, Dram & Grain, a separate speakeasy housed within Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Irish Whiskey Public House, Little Miss Whiskey's Golden Dollar, The Rye Bar, Smoke & Barrel, and The Whiskey Room at Rí Rá. Those aren't all of the whiskey bars you'll find in the District, either, with Southern Efficiency, Rebellion, The Dignitary, Boss Shepherd's, Root Cellar and others rounding out the lineup. That's a lot of whiskey for a small city.

Photos clockwise from top left: D.C.'s Jack Rose by Greg Powers, NY's The Flatiron Room, and Seattle's Canon

With competition in every market, one surefire way to stand out from the crowd is to offer prospective customers the largest whiskey stash in town, enticing patrons through the sheer force of numbers.

"The numbers game is amusing," says Tommy Tardie, owner of The Flatiron Room in New York City. "We never wanted to say 'oh we have the largest selection,' we just kind of got ourselves in this situation where you start having a big selection, then people expect you to have everything." When The Flatiron Room opened in 2012, the bar offered several hundred whiskeys. "That was impressive in my mind," Tardie says, laughing at how quickly things have changed. "... now we have over 1,000. It's just the cost of doing business."

While Tardie has found his bar amongst the upper reaches of the national whiskey arms race, that was never his goal. "Regardless of how many whiskeys you have on your shelf, what else is someone really going in for? That's only part of it," he explains. The Flatiron Room also offers educational classes, a bottle keep program which lets customers purchase and keep their own bottles at the bar, nightly live music, food service, and carefully trained staff ready to provide recommendations and insight.

San Diego's Aero Club expanded its whiskey list much in the same way, and has also noticed arms race's evolution. "We started with, I think, 40 or 50 whiskeys," says Chad Berkey, the bar's general manager. "Now, we are really close to 1,000. We've built it up in the last 10 years. We've seen firsthand how it's grown and this trend of everyone starting to get into whiskey more. We've been on the frontlines and it's been a lot of fun."

Berkey emphasizes service and entertainment beyond Aero Club's whiskey list, as well as cocktails. "We want to give a great guest experience," says Berkey. "You can have a bunch of whiskey but if you have bad service, you're going to struggle."

Photo by Canon: Canon owner Jamie Boudreau.

While Texas might like to tout the slogan "Everything is Bigger," when it comes to whiskey lists, Reserve 101 in Houston leads the way with a more modest count of approximately 340 bottles. "We hang our hat on the selection of whiskey," says co-owner Mike Raymond. "But even more importantly, we pride ourselves on the service we provide," he continues, echoing a common theme.

Reserve 101 offers customers a whiskey society membership, which grants access to special tastings and events. They also participate in a variety of private bottlings with different distillers. In some cases, that's to ensure a steady supply of hard to find whiskeys, and in others, it's to offer something more special, such as a first-ever private batch of Scotch.

"We're going to be the first bar in the U.S. that gets to do a private batch with William Grant," reveals Raymond, referencing the parent company of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, and Grant's. His team will take a field trip to Scotland this summer to acquire and blend their unique offering.

At Hard Water in San Francisco, the focus is on the types of whiskeys offered, as opposed to how many bottles are available. "Our goal wasn't to carry the most whiskey, or every whiskey, but to carry a deep selection with verticals across certain selections," comments bar director Erik Adkins. This enables the bar to offer flights and tastings for specific producers across different age statements, for instance.

Hard Water has 315 whiskeys on their list, with another 180 which aren't for sale, and their focus is entirely domestic. "We're purists, we just do aged American whiskey," he says. They also offer roughly 10 private barrels, and an educational approach which is welcoming to newcomers.

For any of the aforementioned bars, competition isn't limited to a local scope. They're vying for national recognition on multiple levels. Customers check off whiskey bars from their bucket lists the way that baseball fans visit stadiums. Whiskey drinkers are traversing the country from Delilah's in Chicago to the Brandy Library in New York, to one of many classic institutions in the bourbon epicenter of Louisville and beyond in search of the best experience, the biggest selection, and the rarest bottles.

"I think it's great to have diversity," says Tardie. "We're in New York City. There are 7 million people and our occupancy is 200. I think there's enough to go around. My take on competition is that wherever there's a Burger King there's a McDonald's. Clustering is good."

The Country's Deepest Whiskey Lists

While there may be dozens of worthy contenders battling to be one of the best whiskey bars in the land, only two could potentially lay claim to a different title, one more firmly at the heart of the whiskey arms race: The Biggest Whiskey List in the United States. The contenders are Seattle's Canon and Washington, D.C.'s Jack Rose. At Canon, proprietor Jamie Boudreau offers a total spirits collection of approximately 3,500 labels, and his intentions are more squarely set on spirits overall than whiskey. "It is our goal to one day say, definitively, that this is the largest collection in the world," he says.

"We are well over 2,000 for all of our whiskeys combined ... probably closer to 2,500." - Canon owner Jamie Boudreau

Boudreau first approximated 2,000 whiskeys in house, but later touts more. "We are well over 2,000 for all of our whiskeys combined," he suggests, before offering that the bar is "probably closer to 2,500."

Meanwhile, on March 25, Jack Rose hosts its "2,015 in 2015" celebration, paying homage to a whiskey list they believe is the "largest whisk(e)y collection in the western hemisphere." Keeping an accurate, up-to-date bottle count is a difficult task. That's why proprietor Bill Thomas is stocking the bar in excess prior to the party to ensure the count will be legit after dealing with inventory losses. Bottles are finished nightly, and in the case of rare whiskeys, some are irreplaceable, or will take time to find again. Meanwhile, new bottles are always rolling in. "We'll probably have closer to 2,050 in house that night," Thomas explains.

It's an east coast-west coast whiskey battle royale for the ultimate bragging rights. So who has the most whiskey in the country? Both men had plenty to say on the subject in separate interviews.

"We wouldn't have the party unless it could be verified. I'm 100 percent confident," says Thomas. "It's just bizarre to me. I didn't think this was in the conversation anymore. I'm shocked," he admitted when told of Canon's current bottle count.

One issue at hand is the massive amount of storage space required for a bottle count in the thousands. "For me, the escalation will end when I run out of room," states Boudreau. "Realistically, that would be the only deterrent." A larger location may be on the horizon at the end of his current lease, in which case Boudreau says he'd push for 4,000 total spirits. "More than 2,300 whiskeys puts us into space issues," notes Thomas. Jack Rose resides is a massive, three-story building, yet Canon is a far smaller 32-seat establishment, and Thomas doesn't see how, logistically, Canon could house thousands of bottles actually accessible to customers for purchase. "Unless a customer can come in and request it, and get it right then, then you don't have it," he affirms. "Does Canon have their bottles stacked in 12-pack cases from floor to ceiling in the basement?"

In addition to the logistical issues, Thomas's confusion stems from previously published stories in which Boudreau differentiated between what was available at Canon for sale at any given time, versus what was kept in his personal collection at home. "I've got another 4,500 bottles at home," Thomas says, "and they don't get counted for Jack Rose."

Boudreau is confident that Canon has more, but is also hesitant to make a definitive claim "I think it's a counting and honor thing. I wouldn't claim to have the most of something unless I really had it ... I believe I have more, but our numbers are close enough that I feel that neither of us can make the claim," says Boudreau. "Realistically, they should be beating me. I'd be embarrassed if I worked at JR and little ol' Canon had more than me."

"If he's got me beat, he's got me beat, and I'd make it my mission," says an enthusiastic Thomas, relishing the competition and the hunt to stay ahead. "If I thought it was on the table, we'd just go for it, and we'd be heading for 3,000 right now. But I invite anybody who says they have more to actually prove it. I'd be on a plane to Seattle next week if he said I could come in and count it, and Jamie could come in here and climb the ladder and count for himself."

Whatever the case may be, legions of new and longtime whiskey enthusiasts will be there to drink it all up.

Images: Three whiskey bottles by Veronica Sequaeira and Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas by Jack Rose


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