Top bars and restaurants in D.C. leverage the popularity of whiskey

Whiskey and bourbon popularity in DC

Whiskey remains a thriving choice in the brown spirits category. The elevated cachet of bourbon is also being embraced as a marketing and branding force. “We’re a bourbon bar, not just a whiskey bar; we specialize in bourbon,” says Max Cabrera, bar manager at Barley Mac in Arlington, Va., in a recent Eatery Pulse TV Episode. The bourbon bar and Italian/American restaurant is a highly-rated evening spot in the Rosslyn neighborhood, which is currently seeing much redevelopment. It benefits from the popularity of whiskey, and more specifically bourbon, the most famous of the American Straight Whiskey variety. Barley Mac reportedly has over 50 bourbons available.

Barrel, located on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, in Washington, D.C., opened in 2014. Initially, it was one of just three or four bars in the city focusing on whiskey; now that has changed, says Bar Manager Parker Girard. A lively retreat from politics and the power lunches, it beckons to the politicians and lobbyists during the early evening, and to the more local influencers in the late night hours. Girard says he sees the crowds ask for the top-shelf whiskey, including coveted bourbon brands like Pappy Van Winkle. For top shelf, supply doesn’t keep up with demand.

Bourbon’s popularity is not waning. American straight whiskey volume, which also includes Rye, is growing 5.0 percent in the first half of 2017 and grew 5.1 percent in 2016, according to Beverage Marketing, a chicago-based research and consulting firm. Whiskey volume was the driver of growth for spirits. Total whiskey grew 4.0 percent in 2016, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, while total spirits had volume growth of just 2.4 percent.

Enhancing the whiskey experience

“We’re a late night, local bar first,” says Girard. Customers will start out with a bourbon neat or rocks on the side and then move on to enjoy the variety of whiskey, spirits and craft beers on tap. Barrell has 300 whiskeys on the list and has access to smaller, less-known whiskeys that are introduced by distributors that may be diamonds in the rough. Variety is something that keeps the locals happy here, as well as the Southern-influenced small plates.

American spirits and bourbon are always the top two best sellers, notes Taha Ismail, beverage director for Mike Isabella Concepts and a 2017 Cocktail Program of the Year award recipient at the RAMMYS. “Bourbon pays the bills,” he jokingly says. Ismail, too, enjoys having a variety of spirits and for mixing cocktails. A top shelf brand may not necessarily go with a particular cocktail. The juice and the flavors come first. There is an experimentation process that takes place to see which spirits fit well with the bar cocktails.

Customers like stirred drinks, including the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, says Ismail. Bitters are key and citrus and vermouth are very complementary to whiskey. Ismail has a penchant for Fee Brothers Bitters, particularly the old-fashioned and walnut bitters. Embrace creativity and depth of flavor. “In the winter, I like to use the spices in the bitters, (including) the cinnamon taste, bacon, spices, flavors of coriander and star anise.  “My favorite is the Classic Old Fashioned, with old fashioned bitters and with a little top of sugar.”

Operations play a big part in enhancing the whiskey experience. For Barrel’s Girard, there are three keys: people, options and greeter. He looks to hire people with a fun attitude, who are friendly. He also surrounds his customers with options. Again, variety is key and customers may start with one type of beverage and migrate to others as long as there are fresh options. From experimenting with staffing, he learned that the host position is critical to improve the guest experience. “We realized that we had to have someone greet them (to start things off in the best way).”

This article was originally published in our Fall 2017 Digital Issue.