The bourbon cowboys

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With American whiskeys out-performing the home-grown market in terms of growth, Ben McFarland says its time to look across the Pond.Having run the...

With American whiskeys out-performing the home-grown market in terms of growth, Ben McFarland says its time to look across the Pond.

Having run the rule over scotch in the last issue, Raising Spirits is this week turning its attentions across the Atlantic to the kind of whiskey spelt with an "e".

American whiskey may play second fiddle to scotch in terms of sheer volume sales, but it's outperforming a stagnant homegrown sector with annual growth of more than 11 per cent.

Spearheading this growth is the runaway market leader Jack Daniel's.

JD has recently had the cheek to overtake both Bell's and The Famous Grouse to become the UK's number one whisky brand and only Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum and Gordon's gin are bigger in the on-trade.

As far as American whiskeys are concerned, though, Jack Daniel's is an anomaly in more ways than one. Firstly, JD is present in more than 80 per cent of pubs while lesser known American whiskeys are scandalously absent from the back-bar. Secondly, JD is a Tennessee whiskey while the vast majority of US drams are bourbons.

"JD is a great drink to have with cola but it's very limited in its range," said bourbon aficionado Mark Ridgwell of spirit network Taste & Flavour. "Bourbon is the whiskey drink to mix and it's ideal for new spirit drinkers looking for something sweet. Like rum, bourbon opens up many doors and is more accessible than other spirits."

Bourbon has shed its redneck image and it has, for some time now, been hailed as the next big thing among cutting edge bartenders.

The Manhattan, Sazerac and Old Fashioned are all bourbon-based cocktails and drowning the rich flavours of bourbon in cola rarely does it justice. It can be drunk neat, on the rocks, with a drop of water or long with ginger ale.

Tom Innes, editor of Flavour magazine, the leading title for bar professionals, said: "Bourbon is the most accessible style of whiskey in that it's sweeter and more mixable than scotch, and that means it's the spirit of choice for lots of bartenders.

"What has yet to happen is for them to get their customers into bourbon in the same way - sales are growing from a fairly low base and most customers don't think beyond Jack Daniel's, neither knowing nor caring that it isn't technically bourbon.

"All the big companies have a bourbon in their portfolio but, with the exception of Bacardi Brown-Forman (BBF) which has Woodford Reserve, they don't seem to be investing a great deal in them to increase sales."

BBF has put its money where its mouth is and in 1996 invested around $10m into the Labrot & Graham distillery, the oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky.

Woodford Reserve is one of several so-called boutique bourbons looking to be in the right place at the right time when, and if, the category takes off.

"If an outlet has a premium selection of brands then we'd encourage them to stock Woodford as part of that," said Jason Wills, senior trade marketing manager for BBF.

At Woodford's former stable, Diageo, Bulleit is the sole bourbon but it seems a long way down the brand pecking order having not even been included in the company's "Special Reserve" selection - a range of super premium brands designed specifically for spirit-led outlets.

Balance Spirits - which performs a similar role at Allied Domecq - boasts the well-respected Maker's Mark, a small batch bourbon packaged in an iconic bottle, while Buffalo Trace, distributed by Inspirit Brands, is also making headway in the right circles.

But despite these small brand gains and incessant talk about its popularity, sales of bourbon (excluding Jack Daniel's) in the on-trade are flagging.

Mark Ridgwell (pictured)​ points the finger at the big brands such as Pernod Ricard's Wild Turkey and Maxxium UK's Jim Beam. "Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace are all doing their bit," he said. "But it needs to have some big investment as Jack Daniel's has the market to itself. It's not fair to blame the publican as they're not being given any encouragement by the big companies."

Permission need not be granted, however, for licensees and pub-goers to buy into the American dram.

Why is Jack Daniel's different?

Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon, it's a Tennessee whiskey. Unlike bourbons, Jack Daniel's is "charcoal-mellowed" which means it is filtered, drop by drop, through 10ft tall columns of sugar-maple charcoal prior to ageing in the barrel. The process, called the Lincoln County Process, is said to give the liquid two-thirds of its flavour and distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from other American whiskeys.

What is bourbon?

For a drink to be labelled a bourbon it must follow very strict laws governing how it is made. These include:

  • the main grain, corn, must represent at least 51 per cent of the mash
  • bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels after which nothing except water can be added
  • at bottling, nothing can be added to enhance flavour, colour or sweetness
  • although bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County in Kentucky it can be made anywhere in the United States.

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