How did whiskey come from behind to end up on every tongue?

Whiskey wins out

Jul 15, 2015 at 1:00 am
How did whiskey come from behind to end up on every tongue?

A decade ago, in these parts, whiskey was often kept down near the back of the liquor cabinet, maybe for a visit from Uncle Ned or something. Women were drinking rita-tinis, vodka crans, and cloyingly sweet concoctions from menus cluttered with trademark symbols. Men were just beginning to discover craft beer.

But the vanguard of drinking — the younger set — were already rediscovering the old-man bars where a shot of Jameson or Jim or Jack with a pint chaser were the norm. Things were shifting below the surface. And few were prepared when the trickle of a renewed interest in whiskey turned into a full-force phenomenon (for instance, the booze is one half of MT's badass Pig & Whiskey event July 17-19 in Ferndale.)

The "manly" drink is increasingly embraced by the ladies too, benefiting from the luster of period television series and the rise of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture. These days, you don't even have to like the taste of whiskey — distillers will repackage it for you, adding any flavor you like, or just another flavor to mask the original.

"It kind of came hand in hand with the attention that people were paying to actually making spirits," David Landrum, co-founder of Detroit's Two James Distillery, says of the trend. "I think it started with the bars and the bartenders that were looking back at the classics, and really understanding the art of bartending. The whiskey makers and the spirit revolution, I think, we really have to attribute to those guys."

Landrum founded Two James with partner Peter Bailey in 2010 after working as a bartender and sommelier. His interest took hold back in 2000, when he became a craft spirit fan. "Once I got into that, it was kind of a natural progression in trying to understand gin and what botanicals do, and what the different grains do to a spirit, and how wheat's different from rye and corn," he says. "I really started to geek out over the whole process."

Landrum chalks up the whiskey revival to an overall increased appreciation by the younger generation in how things are made. "I think our generation is more interested in craft products, and that goes for everything — clothing, jewelry, food," he says. "People want to know where everything came from and how you did it. I think we're a lot more educated in that aspect than our parents were. I think we demand a lot more now."

The numbers don't lie. According to Fortune magazine, "A decade ago, the American whiskey industry was flat on its back, having suffered decades of weak sales and underinvestment." But, just since 2009, domestic sales of U.S.-distilled whiskey have gone up by 40 percent. Worldwide sales of American-made whiskey went from $376 million in 2002 to more than $1 billion in 2013, and grew another 7 percent in 2014. Last year, bourbon alone represented more than $8 billion in sales. Ultimately, it represents good news for American drinking. A decade ago, drinking seemed to be mostly about mixing alcohol with corn syrup and serving it in an "up" glass to move more product. These days, drinkers have come to expect their drinks to bite back a bit, and will accept that bite thanks to the deft mixing of a bartender who knows how to keep things in balance.

We used to ask what's the best drink to pair with food, but in the spirit of the drink's newfound popularity: What's the best food to pair with whiskey? Pork ribs, of course.

If you're sensing a theme here, you'd be right. See you out there this weekend.