Like all spirits, whiskey has a long and storied past.
The word is a twist on the Gaelic “uisge,” itself the result of a twisted etymological journey from Latin phrase aqua vitae, or water of life.
The earliest record we have of it is in the first few years of the 15th century, in Ireland, in the death record of a chieftain.
I could go on — the Old Bushmills Distillery, the Whiskey Rebellion, Prohibition — but it’s whiskey’s future that has people talking.
After years of languishing behind vodka and tequila sales, whiskey sales, particularly bourbon, have climbed in recent years.
The reasons for whiskey’s popular growth are manifold.
“You’re seeing now a return to local on all levels, whether it’s beer and more micro-breweries or food, but you’re also seeing the same thing with whiskey and other alcohols,” said Julie Riggle, who manages the Bleu Cafe and Bleu Pub in Downtown Valdosta.
“Things are much more home-grown now. You’re not finding the mass-produced things.”
What started as people being more interested in eating organic foods has evolved over the years. Now it’s not uncommon for people to want to know when a product was made or harvested, how the company behaves, and where a product comes from.
And as interest has grown in eating — and drinking — closer to home, new whiskey distillers have appeared seemingly everywhere.
“The variety of bourbon and whiskeys is soaring right now. We don’t just carry Jack, Jim and Jameson.”
Riggle points to changes in popular culture.
“Ten years ago, it was the vodkas, flavored vodkas with cosmos, ‘Sex and the City’ drinks. Whiskey comes with the popularity of beards and mustaches.”
Rising demand for whiskey has led some bars to reconsider their approach to it.
Ashley Street Station proudly bills itself as a dive bar, but upon making its recent move from the old Ashley Street location to the new place on Baytree Road, owner Bryan Gay delved deeper into their spirits selection, eschewing most of the larger-market whiskeys and vodkas for smaller batch stuff.
“We had kind of become known as the place to go for different, interesting beers. We wanted to take the same approach with whiskey.”
Now, the Station carries 26 different whiskeys, a mix of higher-shelf offerings from big-name companies like Jim Beam’s Knob Creek, smaller batch like Breaking and Entering or Town Branch, and a few top-shelf options like Johnnie Walker Blue.
The only thing stopping Gay from carrying more varieties is a lack of free shelf space. With whiskey’s rising popularity comes rising demand, and with a lot of the new popularity focused on newer, smaller batch offerings, it can be difficult to find bottles after a new whiskey gets hot.
“As soon as one becomes popular, we notice the supply quickly dwindles,” said Randy DeCoudres with Friends Grille and Bar. “Then we have to go out and find another one.”
As an example, take Elmer T. Lee, a bourbon that recently built a strong following.
“Now, you probably can’t find one in the whole state of Georgia.”
That leads DeCoudres and Justin Stephens, bartender/front of house manager, to constantly stock new bourbons like Angel’s Envy, Jefferson 15-Year and Blanton.
Bourbon’s new popularity isn’t limited to bars and restaurants.
Trip Singletary with local spirits store The Warehouse has seen the bourbon market increase year by year, something he partially attributes to younger customers.
“The younger ones seem like they’re more willing to move around and try new things,” said Singletary.
Social media and the Internet also play a role. Last year, when Maker’s Mark announced it was going to lower alcohol content due to increasing demand and stretched supplies, the Internet backlash led the company to reverse the decision; in past years, a company dropping the alcohol content wouldn’t have aroused much attention.
Perhaps learning from Maker’s Mark’s mistake, when Buffalo Trace Distillery announced last year a shortage of its Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, there was no mention of trying to stretch supplies. It would just be on the shelves until it wasn’t.
Stretched demand won’t end anytime soon, at least as individual brands are concerned. Whiskey has to be aged for years before it’s packaged and shipped, which means distilleries have to project years in advance possible demand. While they are enough new distilleries opening to keep whiskey supplies steady, you may have to double your favorite single barrels.
Bourbon’s new popularity also isn’t limited to the United States.
“Worldwide demand has shown the same phenomenon. There are so many more consumers as China and India’s middle classes come into it,” Singletary said.
As to the reasons why acclaim for bourbon in particular and whiskey in general have risen from the days when Appletinis reigned supreme at your local bar, it could be a cultural shift. It could be beards or it could simply have to do with taste.
“Ten years ago, people wanted to cover up the taste of alcohol,” said Riggle. “Now, they’re drinking cocktails where you can actually taste the bourbon.”
“It’s just a part of the Southern culture,” said DeCoudres. “For us, I think it’s going to be here for quite some time. A bourbon and Coke or bourbon and ginger is a beverage, but when you pour a glass of $12-15 bourbon, you take your time, sip that thing. It took somebody a long time, a lot of hard work, a lot of people to make that happen.”
Like all spirits, whiskey has a long and storied past.
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