Behind the Bar

The Scotch Bar Surge

Today's imbibers are specifically seeking out the good stuff, and that's creating opportunities for bars focusing on delivering that quality, whether in the form of massive bottle lists or quality Scotch-focused cocktails.
Bourbon, rye, and Japanese whiskey get all the hype, but Scotch bars are also on the rise. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Bourbon, rye, and Japanese whiskey get all the hype, but Scotch bars are also on the rise. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

One of the popular storylines about whiskey's huge surge over the past decade has been that American whiskeys such as bourbon and rye have flourished at home to the detriment of Scotch. And not only that, but American thirst for Irish whiskey and other non-Scotch world whiskeys, such as those from Japan and beyond, were all cutting into the Scotch market.

"We’ve seen a huge increase in three types: bourbon by leaps and bounds, Irish, and Japanese," says Bill Thomas, proprietor of Washington D.C.'s Jack Rose Dining Saloon and its 2,700-deep whiskey collection, with Scotch comprising just over half the lineup. "That being said, just because they’re increasing doesn’t mean Scotch is decreasing, it’s just growing at a smaller percentage."

D.C.'s Jack Rose Dining Saloon is 1 of 13 partner bars with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Photo by Greg Powers. D.C.'s Jack Rose Dining Saloon is 1 of 13 partner bars with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Photo by Greg Powers.

To Thomas's point, the numbers warrant a closer look. According to the latest figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), overall Scotch sales in the U.S. have indeed been growing, just rather slowly, increasing 5% in the past 15 years from 9.1 million cases in 2002 to 9.6 million cases in 2016.

Yet, let's keep looking. In that same time, single malt Scotch has increased 182.8% while blended Scotch has fallen 11.1%. Looking at the equation via price segment, "value" Scotch has plummeted 43.9% and "premium" Scotch has fallen 12.4%, while "high end premium" has risen 63% and "super premium" has skyrocketed 613.4%.

And not to kill any readers with numbers fatigue here, but if that super premium Scotch segment was a standalone category with over 1.1 million cases sold, it would still be larger than all of everyone's favorite "so hot right now" rye whiskey and its meteoric 778.5% growth in eight years up to 774,800 cases.

It's not that people are drinking any less Scotch then, it's just that people are specifically seeking out the good stuff, and that's creating opportunities for bars focusing on delivering that quality to consumers, whether in the form of massive bottle lists or quality Scotch-focused cocktails.

In San Diego, a new steakhouse and Scotch bar has come to town with Born & Raised. The "whiskey and steak" concept has had long-lasting appeal for good reason, but that doesn't mean it has to be confined to the stuffy steakhouses of yore. Born & Raised executes the idea in a beautiful two-story space, with framed photos of rappers on the walls, and a gorgeous open air rooftop which matches the steak and Scotch duo with San Diego's strength — its amazing weather.

At San Diego's Born & Raised, 300 types of Scotch are available, along with tableside cocktails. Photo by Jake Emen. At San Diego's Born & Raised, 300 types of Scotch are available, along with tableside cocktails. Photo by Jake Emen.

The Scotch lineup includes over 300 selections, and an accessible approach spearheaded by tableside cocktails. For instance, order a Rob Roy prepared tableside while choosing from a dozen different Scotch whiskies, an ideal solution for those looking to dabble and experiment.

Up the coast in San Francisco, Cold Drinks has more than 150 Scotch whiskies at its bar, and along the same lines, they make the spirit a focal point in cocktails as well. Each cocktail on the menu includes Scotch, whether as the star ingredient or a bit player, in a range of inventive formats.

In Scottsdale, The Scotch Library at The Westin Kierland is dedicated solely to its namesake, with more than 200 bottles in the collection. The lineup is highlighted by super rare releases such as Glenfiddich 50 year old, Balvenie 50 year, and The Macallan 62; customers can also build their own flights and ask for assistance from knowledgeable staff.

In Scottsdale, The Scotch Library is known for stocking super rare releases. In Scottsdale, The Scotch Library is known for stocking super rare releases.

Beyond selection and accessibility, having well-trained bartenders who can inform, educate, and advise is another way to engage a customer in trying something new. "I believe whisky tastes better if you know a little about what you're drinking," says Tommy Tardie, owner and operator of Manhattan's The Flatiron Room and Fine & Rare.

"So for us, education is key," Tardie says. "We try to impart knowledge with each glass we serve. Explaining where that heavily peated flavor comes from can give a whole new appreciation for their drink. Putting a name to some of the aromatics coming off the glass can make the whole experience more enjoyable."

At The Flatiron Room, there are well over 1,000 whiskies in the collection, with roughly two thirds being Scotch. Fine & Rare has roughly 600 whiskies with the same breakdown consisting of between 65 and 70% Scotch.

Tardie also sees Scotch's diversity as key to increased interest. "Scotch has such a broad flavor profile that it appeals to many diverse palates," he says. "Light or bold, sweet or savory, peated or floral...with so many aromatics and distinct flavors, there literally is something for everyone."

A clubby, intimate setting make NYC's Fine & Rare an excellent venue to sip Scotch. Photo by Jake Emen. A clubby, intimate setting make NYC's Fine & Rare an excellent venue to sip Scotch. Photo by Jake Emen.

Such diversity in flavor profile is highlighted with releases from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. The independent bottler focuses on single barrel cask strength releases, and rather than showcasing distillery names, they unveil each bottle with a descriptive title, a color-coded flavor profile, and a numbering code matching it to its distillery for those who want all the details.

The SMWS currently has 13 partner bars in the U.S., including Jack Rose, which unsurprisingly has the largest collection. "We've got just over 200 bottles of SMWS on the shelves but I expect that collection to grow dramatically — by at least 50% — by March," Thomas says. "People see the large quantity of similarly labeled green bottles at the left corner of our back bar, which opens up the dialogue to introduce them to the Society. When people are looking for interesting Scotches that they don't have access to, we often turn to the Society as a fantastic introduction."

Clearly there's no shortage of great Scotch to be had, along with great bars offering a proper chance to partake. And we should all be raising our glass with a sláinte to that.

Jake Emen is a spirits, travel, and food writer who's been published in USA Today, GQ, Vice Munchies, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. Follow him on the socials at @ManTalkFood.

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