Do Brown Spirit Accessories Signal Peak Whiskey?

Whiskey is on the rise, and with it, so are whiskey accessories. What does this gadgetry say about the whiskey drinking set and where it's headed? Drew Lazor explores.

It’s a conversation starter.

For the dinner party set, this is a go-to phrase when justifying non-essential kitchen purchases. Buyers’ remorse about that Borneo bamboo ripening rack? Twinge of regret over your self-cleaning Scandinavian juice fountain? Totally worthy splurges, if they’re inspiring some spirited chatter at cocktail hour.

The twee-est of all home entertaining sub-categories is, of course, wine accessories, the realm of funky openers, erudite argon gas pumps and decanters shaped like weapons from The Chronicles of Riddick. Though basic tools have been around forever—Spain’s Vivanco Museum of the Culture of Wine displays corkscrews dating back to the 1700s—a more SkyMall, Sharper Image-esque mentality has gained momentum since the turn of the 21st century, and contemporary accessories have taken a turn for the baroque.

Even in cases when utility is eclipsed by novelty, these tools say as much about the drinkers as the wine that’s being drunk, serving as status symbols, or at least totems of oenophilic worth. For equipment producers, it’s a win-win: If the wine lovers are already dedicating a solid budget to the wine itself, why wouldn’t they pony up for all the showy enhancements?

The 2013 introduction and emphatic embrace of the Coravin, the Excalibur of wine gadgets, signaled the latest sea change. “There has been an arc of sophistication, and also it seems like the threshold of what people are willing to spend has gone up,” says Joe Salamone, a buyer for Crush Wine & Spirits in New York City. And this upswing is not confined to wine.

Accessory manufacturers are now lusting after whiskey fans, especially those still wet behind the ears. It has plenty to do with product sales, and even more to do with who is making those purchases.

Quite simply, the whiskey is trending up, especially stateside. International Wine & Spirit Research found that Americans consumed 24 million cases of domestic whiskey in 2013, close to 30 percent more than they downed a decade prior; internationally, IWSR predicts brown booze will usurp vodka sales rankings in three years’ time. Categorically, every type of brown booze, from bourbon to cognac, ended 2014 in the black.

In terms of a serious game-changer, the whiskey gadget industry hasn’t quite experienced its Coravin moment yet, but it’s seems a new type of brown-spirits consumer has already emerged: The self-identified “whiskey drinker,” who, just like the self-styled wine aficionado, views liquor as a lifestyle choice.

The coveted yet difficult-to-define “millennial” market, drawn to flavored whiskey and non-flavored alike, is largely credited for this boom. Unsurprisingly, it’s the same audience whiskey gadget makers are targeting, though the jury’s still out on their efficacy and staying power.

Josh Ringle is the COO of Time & Oak, a Portland, Oregon-based company producing what they’re calling “elements,” staves of wood designed to customize whiskey to a drinker’s exacting specifications. Dropping one of these potent, futuristic-looking sticks into your liquor bottle, Time & Oak claims, will smooth out impurities, enhance existing flavors and introduce new ones—and they’ve done the lab work to prove it. Ringle says he was inspired to develop a prototype after being disappointed that a high-end bottle he came across in a shop was out of his price range. What was stopping a layperson from simulating additional aging at home, getting creative to close the gap between what’s really good and what he could afford?

He already knows what you’re thinking. “A lot of people assume it’s snake oil, it’s bullshit, it’s not going to work,” says Ringle, who founded the company last year with partners Tony Peniche and David Jackson. He cites his lab results, plus extensive blind tasting that’s scored on the side of altered liquid, as counterpoints. Though the company was founded on the premise that shelf-worthy liquor can be improved upon, he says hasn’t run into much opposition from actual producers (yet). “The distillers we have spoken to and worked with were overwhelmingly supportive,” he says. Many of these assumptions, he observes, seem to originate with a more traditional whiskey crowd, while a good chunk of Time & Oak’s clientele are curious drinkers in their 20s and 30s.

Ringle feels the intense personalization coveted by this audience is where company and consumer connect best. “People want to have their own hand in their drink, not just something that’s given to him or her straight off the shelf,” he says. “If you want a desk, you don’t buy a desk—you build it.”

Eric Prum, whose Brooklyn company The Mason Shaker offers an at-home spirit aging kit, connects the allure of the DIY mindset with the growth of ambitious bar programs around the country. “I see people really interested in recreating the things they’ve seen in the bar at home,” he says.

The Mason Shaker and a number of other companies also offer whiskey “stones,” smooth soapstone cubes you stick in the freezer then slip in your glass. The idea is that they’ll chill your whiskey without watering it down like melting ice would. This particular product, which has grown in popularity over the past few years, is a divisive topic among experts. “I think whiskey stones are the dumbest thing in the world,” says Ethan Kahn, GM of Cocktail Kingdom—the El Dorado of bar tools.

William Grant & Sons whiskey associate Bradford Lawrence, who owns a set of stones, admits that they’re “a little tedious,” and cites the scientific importance of adding water to a neat pour to open up latent flavors and aromas (“water is whiskey’s friend, period”). Still, he sees value in the gadget category as a potential gateway for enthusiastic initiates. “If whiskey stones enable someone to experience whiskey, more power to them,” he says.

Stone ambivalence be damned, both Kahn and Lawrence both barrel-age their own concoctions in miniature casks. Excepting the act of hammering together a still for running DIY moonshine, this level of small-batch customization might be the current pinnacle of brown-liquor geekdom—recreating the distillery on a micro level to achieve the coveted sense of personalization so synonymous with whiskey’s new kids.

While they’re far from exclusive operations, product manufacturers working within the whiskey sphere seem to gravitate toward two types of customers: the experimental, whiskey-sipping millennials responsible for the category boost, and those who want to buy them gifts. The rest don’t need to be convinced; they don’t want to be in the first place.

In terms of a serious game-changer, the whiskey gadget industry hasn’t quite experienced its Coravin moment yet, but it’s seems a new type of brown-spirits consumer has already emerged: The self-identified “whiskey drinker,” who, just like the self-styled wine aficionado, views liquor as a lifestyle choice.

But those who simply enjoy drinking whiskey, unadulterated, will always exist. “If you like whiskey and you only like it straight, I don’t think anyone can improve your whiskey drinking experience,” says Aislinn Hardison of Corkcicle, which produces the Whiskey Wedge, a silicone mold that forms a steep angled ice hill (for slower dilution) inside one’s tumbler.

Definitely a conversation starter.

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