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American Whiskey Is Conspicuously Absent at Many Top Bars. What Gives?

February 07, 2024

Story: Jordan Michelman

art: Lily Qian


American Whiskey Is Conspicuously Absent at Many Top Bars. What Gives?

February 07, 2024

Story: Jordan Michelman

art: Lily Qian

In the age of the postmodern cocktail, some bartenders are leaving behind the category that played a leading role in the renaissance.

Close my eyes and I can still picture it: It was the summer of 2010, and I was drinking whiskey in Brooklyn. The bartenders’ suspenders were snappy, our Chucks were tied tight, but not too tight, and the Edison bulbs glowed just so, beckoning an eternal aesthetic twilight across the barrooms of Williamsburg. 

American whiskey was the unrivaled star of it all, from bourbon picklebacks at the Bushwick Country Club to the heaving backbar at the Hotel Delmano, lousy with rye and ennui. I danced yrself clean over a plastic cup Old-Fashioned at the Union Pool, then narrowly avoided getting mugged for my iPhone 4 walking back to the Lorimer L stop. 

(OK, Grandpa, let’s get you to bed.)

It goes without saying that times have changed. Bourbon’s zeitgeist capture of the millennial drinking ascendency reached a crescendo moment somewhere around the second Obama term, roughly around the time it became necessary to replace all those fussy lightbulbs. Market forces are at least partially to blame, but so too are changing tastes. Prices increased, scarcity took hold, and a roaring secondary market has driven American whiskey into a niche cult of appreciation, fervent and faithful but very much outside of the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, new modes of drinking captured the popular boozesphere, from natural wine to arcane distillates to upscale Martini revivals to zero-waste locavore cocktail labs to the hypermodern mezcalería. Everything stopped looking like an imagined version of Brooklyn or Copenhagen and started looking like an imagined version of Miami—moody shadows and blue-pink lighting, Monstera plants and Deco sconces, clubby soundtracks and maximalist $25 cocktails. Call it a vibe shift, call it the Sartrean arc of a trend, that never-ending daisy chain of sociocultural phenomenology in which things thus dubbed “cool” have said coolness revoked. In 2010, I could not imagine anything cooler than drinking hip, rare bourbon in a neo-speakeasy. Today, the modern top-tier bar looks very different, from the World’s 50 Best to Punch’s own top new bars of 2023.

“We’ve kind of moved on from centering our programs around American whiskey,” says Mike Capoferri, a Los Angeles–based bar consultant and founder of Thunderbolt, a lauded cocktail bar in Echo Park. “Whiskey is just not really on the cutting edge anymore, especially for bars. I don’t think the hype is quite what it used to be.” Capoferri sees multiple reasons for the shift, citing price increases, competitive allocations and the cyclical nature of drinks trends. In his view, American whiskey today is still a roaring niche among some consumers—“40-something white dudes who all want the rare shit”—driven in part by social media and online communities like Reddit. But many other sorts of bargoers have had their heads turned over the past decade by competing nodes of drinks culture, creating a microcycle of boom and bust that mirrors the popular decline of edgy craft beer. “Pretty much all bourbon just tastes like bourbon,” he tells me, “and there’s not a lot of nuance. It’s not like wine or agave, where there’s this massive spectrum of flavors. It all tastes like fucking oak, you know what I mean?” 

I found much of this point of view mirrored in my conversation with Ryan Chetiyawardana, the influential drinks professional behind Mr. Lyan, a cocktail consultancy with bars in London, Amsterdam and Washington, D.C. 

A troika of price increases, scarcity and the shifting interests of a drinking public have created a three-pronged pinch on American whiskey’s cultural dominance behind the bar.

“I think there’s almost a sense of inevitability about it all,” he tells me, speaking of the shift. “American whiskey had such a meteoric rise over the last two decades, because there was a bigger shift in a mass sense towards drinking classic cocktails. The drinks that captured people’s minds first through popular culture were the Manhattan and the Sazerac, which only naturally led to a massive explosion of people showcasing American whiskey.” As the drinks we drink in the first place change, so too do the spirits given pride of place, with revivalist moments for the Negroni, the Martini and the Espresso Martini all offering a vivid case in point.

Scarcity plays a part as well; Chetiyawardana’s experience is informed by his work in Europe and the U.K., where even workaday American whiskey brands like Jack Daniels can be heavily allocated. Beyond the impact on pounds and pence bottom line, there’s also a psychological effect. “Some of the shift you’re describing comes from bartenders,” he says. “The truth is we don’t love it when our favorite things become commonplace. Before long you start hearing, ‘Oh, the recipe has changed, it’s no longer as good as it used to be’—and when that’s coupled with the fact that people premiumized their brands, and you saw a real leap up in the ultrarare-whiskey world, it begins being pushed into a different status.” In his view, a troika of price increases, scarcity and the shifting interests of a drinking public have created a three-pronged pinch on American whiskey’s cultural dominance behind the bar. “And when some of these whiskeys went ultraluxe,” adds Chetiyawardana, “you forget about the average bartender. And that opens the door. Before long you begin thinking how to sidestep American whiskey, learning how to get the same flavors with a world whiskey, or stealing the space in the bartender’s mind entirely with other craft spirits that provide a sense of connection.”

Tommy Klus sees it too. At his bar, Portland, Oregon’s Scotch Lodge, more than 500 bottles of rare brown liquor are available to order by the ounce, including exceedingly difficult-to-obtain bourbons from cult names like Pappy, Weller and George T. Stagg. “People are still coming in for it,” Klus tells me, “but there’s a lot of preciousness in the category. It’s overmarketed and overpriced, and consumers are pushing back.” American whiskey appears sparingly on his cocktail menu, and even then, you’ll find it blended with chai spice or coconut vermouth. Meanwhile, drinkers at Scotch Lodge can explore what Klus calls “the golden renaissance of world whiskey,” with challenging and exciting spirits from Taiwan, New Zealand, South Africa, Midlands England, Ireland, India, Canada and beyond vying for mindshare and drinkspace. “How many $500 American whiskey bottles do you really need?” he asks, only sort of rhetorically. “When does it stop being worth it? Who still really cares?” 

My guess is that you’re shaking your head by now—some up and down, others side to side. The truth is, this conversation around American whiskey’s role in 2024 provokes a surprisingly strong reaction; everyone who loves bars and cocktails has an opinion on the current state of American whiskey, and not all of these opinions align. I think it’s important to note that while it’s demonstrably true that American whiskey has lost cultural primacy in the world of great bars, the shit-hot aftermarket for rare bottles has never been more fervent, with dedicated online clubs like Bourbon Lore and The Bourbon Concierge sourcing unfindable bottles for well-heeled collectors, and a Reddit community of bourbon drinkers sporting more than 250,000 members. There are hundreds of bourbon influencers across social media platforms, a dizzying drinkosphere of variable relevance. And there are some very good new bourbons and whiskeys being made, compelling releases from distilleries like Matchbook, Far North and Westward Whiskey, quite capable of achieving escape velocity from the Pappy hegemony. 

American whiskey is still immensely popular, vibe shift be damned.

At least one of the bartenders I reached out to for this story told me he thought the premise was, in as many words, bullshit. Richard Boccato helms a bar called Dutch Kills (among other projects), which resides in a neighborhood of the same name in Queens. The bar opened in 2009 with the late Sasha Petraske as co-founder (Boccato worked in the golden era of Milk & Honey), with a focus on classic cocktails and hand-cut ice. Among a certain kind of drinker or bartender, this place needs no introduction; it’s one of the most influential cocktail bars of the American 21st century, inured from the whims and fathoms of popular drinks trends and very much free to march to its own malted beat. Here in 2024, as it has for the past 15 years, Dutch Kills serves quite a lot of American whiskey. 

“I sell whiskey every day,” Boccato tells me, “and there is whiskey on every menu of every cocktail bar I preside. Your premise—that American whiskey is no longer what it once was—is myopic, and frankly, a little bit silly.” 

I’m glad some bartenders focus on other distillates, and that’s great, but at the same time we should never paint with broad brushstrokes, because really, we should be interested in enjoying all of it.

Mr. Boccato was onto something.

“Things fall out of fashion,” he continued. “The Edison bulbs and so forth, they have fallen out of favor. But to give any validity to the notion of one spirit being somehow less or more important than another... it takes away from what our job is as bartenders. I’m glad some bartenders focus on other distillates, and that’s great, but at the same time we should never paint with broad brushstrokes, because really, we should be interested in enjoying all of it.”

Later in our conversation, Boccato expressed similar concerns to pretty much everyone I spoke with regarding price hikes in whiskey over the past decade, which may be the true bottom line to this story: As many whiskeys have become cost-prohibitive, quite a lot of bars—even very trendy bars with financial means in upmarket cities—have moved away from featuring American whiskeys in favor of other, more accessible, less expensive spirits. This is an interesting conclusion, and quite different from the one I set out to discover in reporting this piece: less Sartrean arc of a trend, more Keynesian aggregate economic demand.

But it’s what he said next that keeps looping in my head.

At the end of our call, Mr. Boccato recommended I seek out a favorite bar of his called On The Rocks in Hell’s Kitchen the next time I’m in New York, “a very small, very dark place,” he calls it, “that has not been decorated by a high-class designer with a degree from Pratt.” And damn if that wasn’t all really exciting and interesting to me: a semisecret little place, the sort of thing you have to know to know, home to a ton of rare whiskey, for me to look forward to the next time I’m in New York City.

Some deep, echoing part of my elder millennial inner mind felt compellingly engaged. Call it Millennial Retro, or the rebirth of Indie Sleaze, but drinks trends stay still for no person or generation. In fact, for trends to arc properly, they must be mercilessly efficient, brutal and unfeeling. The kind of bar Richard Boccato recommended I seek out—heaps of whiskey, real jukebox, dodgy neighborhood—sounds immensely appealing to me at this very moment. It also sounds a lot like the sorts of places you might have been drinking at 10 or 15 years ago, about whose exact location and provenance one may be obliged to speak easily (shh!). And come to think of it... aren’t the myriad nouveau bars that sort of look like a commercial for the television series Euphoria (2019), all purple lights and droopy plants and seven-ingredient nootropic riff-a-riffs feeling rather... dated by now? Must we pop another pét-nat, or can we simply pét-not? Uncoolness waits for no one. 

Sometimes the arc of a trend looks more like a sine wave, pushing and pulling itself back and forth across decades, generations. I set out to find why American whiskey was dead, and found reports of American whiskey’s death to be greatly exaggerated. It’s been here all along, waiting for us to come back, singing that same sweet bourbonic rhapsody, ready to mix and blend or sip and pontificate, here to build new classics and celebrate greatest hits, or whatever counts as the greatest hits of my cursed generation. We didn’t always get it right, but damned if we didn’t drink pretty well. When I’m with you, I have fun...

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Tagged: culture, trends