When Christ Aivaliotis, the bar manager at Flora, was deciding what cocktail to make for last month’s San Francisco Cocktail Week East Bay showdown — at which a handful of local bars vied for audience votes on specialty cocktails — the choice was easy, if not necessarily obvious: He went with the Bulldog Smash, one of the bar-restaurant’s more popular cocktails, which consists of Bulleit bourbon, peach, mint, lemon, and curacao. It’s delicious — citrusy, cool, and undeniably summery, with a warm, slightly oaky flavor from the bourbon — but it’s a far cry from the kind of sugary, vodka-heavy, indistinctly alcoholic-tasting cocktails you might have found at this event if it’d happened five or even two years earlier.
Flora wasn’t the only bar to use bourbon in its cocktail at the showcase, either. In fact, the spirit — which is distinct from other whiskeys in that it’s made in the United States from a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn — was the most represented liquor there, appearing in at least three cocktails. Nationally, the trend holds, too: Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey sales hit an all-time high in 2010, with more than 15.4 million 9-liter cases sold — up from 13.1 million cases sold in 2000. A few years ago, the US Senate even went so far as to declare a “National Bourbon Heritage Month” in September, presumably as a means of further celebrating what the bill called the United States’ “native spirit.”
In other words: Bourbon is everywhere. Locally, it’s mixed with egg whites, citrus zest, maple syrup, and bitters in Hudson’s My Dear Watson; with Cointreau, pear liqueur, lemon, and club soda in Make Westing’s Williamsburg Lemonade; and with bitters, mint, sugar, and peach in Disco Volante’s Summer Julep. At Flora, four of the bar’s sixteen specialty cocktails include bourbon; Uptown’s Picán, meanwhile, has long been renowned for its outsize bourbon menu, which features more than fifty varieties that can be mixed into cocktails or drunk straight; and Bourbon and Branch, a speakeasy-style bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, has garnered a truly cult-like following in large part because of its focus on bourbons and other whiskeys. Altogether, Aivaliotis said, there’s no question: “Bourbon has definitely experienced some kind of a renaissance” in recent years.
Much of this can be attributed to the recent, resurgent appreciation for specialty cocktails, especially in the East Bay. “The Bay Area cocktail drinker is more sophisticated, I think,” said Alexeis Filipello of Bar Dogwood. “We’ve always been sophisticated about beer and wine, but it’s really exciting to see this appreciation for cocktails coming up.” Now, bars like Dogwood, Flora, Hudson, Disco Volante, and Make Westing — many of which have only opened in the last year or so — are turning well-made drinks and expertly trained bartenders into a bona fide business model and giving rise to a new breed of bartenders and patrons: committed to quality, highly creative, obsessed with flavor. In a sense, it wouldn’t be entirely hyperbolic to say that cocktails and spirits are experiencing something of a slow-food movement of their own as tastes and expectations begin to change. Tastes are shifting, and they’re shifting toward bourbon and other whiskeys.
To some degree, Filipello said, it’s bartenders and bar owners themselves that “are dictating what we want people to drink — and I don’t want to drink a cocktail that just tastes like juice. Whiskeys add a nuance of flavor that a lot of other alcohols just don’t.” Unlike, say, vodka, bourbon stands out in a cocktail, rather than being overpowered by other ingredients. (That’s a good thing.) “If you think of something like vodka, it’s designed to be flavorless, so it just absorbs whatever you mix it with,” Aivaliotis said. “So it’s appealing because you can drink a lot without really tasting the liquor.” But, he said, that’s changing: “I think people finally are wising up and realizing that if you’re going to enjoy a well-made cocktail, you want it to taste like something.” For Filipello’s part, the numbers speak for themselves: At the last bar she worked at, she had 25 different vodkas, and at Dogwood, she has eight. “I’m finding that people really want flavor,” she said.
That’s the appeal of bourbon: Depending on the style, mix of ingredients, and aging process, it can take on any number of flavors and aromas — maple, vanilla, tobacco, coffee, oak. Because of that, Aivaliotis said, “it’s very easy to make something good with a good bourbon.” And meanwhile, because it’s made from corn, bourbon tends to be sweeter and smoother than Scotches, ryes, and other whiskeys — which is appealing to people who may be accustomed to milder spirits. “It’s still totally manageable, because it’s so sweet,” Filipello said. “It’s kind of a gateway whiskey.”
And unlike, say, wine or tequila, bourbon can still be drinkable even on the cheapest end, according to Jennifer Seidman of Acme Bar, which stocks some eighty whiskeys, many of which are bourbons. “It just has a really amazing cross-section of styles, tastes, and price points,” she said. “So it’s a very versatile product.” If spirits are now experiencing their own analogue to the food revolution, it follows that small-batch, single-barrel, and boutique bourbons are now cheaper and more available than ever before. “There’s such an explosion of really great, thoughtfully made products out there now,” Seidman said — or, in other words, there’s no longer any excuse to drink the crappy stuff.
Meanwhile, other nostalgia-based food and nightlife trends that lean toward Sixties- and speakeasy-style drinking — prompted in part by the continuing popularity of Mad Men and of bars like Bourbon and Branch — appear to be furthering an interest in bourbon. Though it’d be hard to argue that the Manhattan ever really went out of style, there is, undoubtedly, an increased interest in what the industry calls “revival cocktails” — Sazeracs, mint juleps, old-fashioneds — apart from and alongside the broader cocktail. “It’s all trends,” Filipello said. “And right now, on the food side, we’re seeing all these old-fashioned dishes. If everyone’s eating beef Wellington and oysters, what goes better with revival food than revival cocktails?”
Of course, drink trends come and go, and bourbon may fade — in fact, Aivaliotis said he’s already seeing a new trend toward rye whiskeys. But regardless, Seidman said, one thing’s for certain: “I’m excited that the days of Red Bull and vodka are fading.”