Bartender Latonza Hunter measures out a pour for a Yamazaki 12 at Wassabi Off the Hook.
Written by Edward Smith
Alongside the rise of craft beer, more and more restaurants are serving higher-end whiskeys whose price tags may have, in previous years, deterred younger buyers.
Bottles of Japanese whisky as well as single-malt scotches are finding their way onto menus and drink lists, and becoming more than just your grandpa’s drink.
“Before it used to be a middle-aged demographic, but now I have millenials buying it, I have women buying,” said Raj Bisla, general manager at The Standard, a north Fresno restaurant and lounge. “To single out one single whiskey demographic isn’t the case anymore.”
Bisla first glimpsed the trend about five years ago. Now he believes it is peaking, perhaps about halfway through, with plenty of time to go through the bottles in inventory.
Restaurateurs are hoping to capitalize on the craft craze, where fine dining creates opportunities for fine drinking as well.
Coupling a whiskey with a meal is only natural for Aaron Gussett, bar manager at Wassabi Off the Hook in Fig Garden, who caught onto the craze about a year ago.
“If you’re going out for a quality meal, you also want a quality cocktail,” said Gussett. “You’re not going to drink a $20 glass of scotch with a McDonald’s cheeseburger.”
When the market for Japanese whisky (spelled without the “e,” as is Scottish whisky) opened up about three years ago, Wassabi saw its patrons pairing freshly made sushi with bottles like the Yamazaki 18, which can sell for north of $150.
In the eyes of many restaurateurs and their customers, a pricier meal calls for something special, and people want the same for their drinks. Whiskey is becoming more versatile than simply neat or on-the-rocks. Bartenders are getting requests for fresh basil or mint garnishes, and customers expect a nicer drink to go into that.
“If you’re going to put that much care into a cocktail, you’re going to want to put in a finer whiskey or spirit into that cocktail,” Gussett said.
Over at The Standard, Bisla feels the draw is largely due to availability. Many restaurants have access to bottles their customers can’t buy on their own.
Bisla ordered what was once considered to be the most sought-after bottle of bourbon, called Pappy Van Winkle 23. Even at $95 for a 1-ounce pour, people were more than willing to pay for it and Bisla sold through it in only 30 days.
“Part of the fun of bourbons and whiskeys is being able to find something you’ve never tried before,” Bisla said.
Limited availability is part of the game and in Bisla’s eyes, that can be good for everyone. Getting access to those higher-end bottles of whiskey can also be difficult for many restaurants in the Central Valley. Part of the draw for customers is finding those rare bottles, but for suppliers, those bottles have to come from somewhere.
“It all comes down to allocation and what you can pick up,” said Chuck Van Fleet, owner of Vino Grille and Spirits, which began selling liquor just over a year ago. “You know who sells Pappy Van Winkle, it’s just a matter of how many you can get.”
Suppliers will only provide so many bottles to distributors and so for the growing number of restaurants vying for the stuff, it breeds competition.
“You have to be able to sell a whole lot of other stuff,” said Van Fleet. Distributors and suppliers both want their drinks moving, so distributors want to see their accounts selling more than just the good stuff.
Van Fleet will sell flights of whiskey just like he did with wines. A flight might contain various years of a release. For instance, when Van Fleet wanted his bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, he has to pick up the 10-year-old and the 15-year-old before he can get the 20.
For The Standard, virtually all of their orders for bourbon are done in October, so Bisla has to plan for the year what he wants and has to be strategic before cracking open a bottle.
The other difficulty is staffing. Both Vino Grille and Spirits and The Standard have an inventory well above 100 bottles of fine liquor, and for both of them, having a person behind the bar who knows all of the flavor nuances of the scores of bottles is difficult.
“Staffing people who can sell those bottles is nearly impossible,” Van Fleet said. Considering the staffing demands, the distribution needs and the sheer cost of a liquor license, which can easily cost $30,000, turning a profit means marketing it right. But, for Van Fleet, “people in search of those whiskeys are going to come out to the restaurants that have them.”