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Malt and Malts

by Lew Bryson (originally ran in Cheers magazine, November 2002)

Ever go into a cheese shop and realize that the place also has a great selection of high-end olive oils? Or maybe you’ve found a specialty butcher shop that just happens to carry a ridiculously large assortment of fine European chocolates. The owners of these shops have realized that people who look for the best in one thing often look for the best in related fields.

So did Howard Hunt, the general manager at the Ginger Man in Manhattan. The Ginger Man is known for its beer selection, and rightly so: they sport 66 drafts, two cask ales on handpumps, and around 100 specialty bottled beers. It’s one of the top beer selections in New York City.

But the Ginger Man also has about 20 single malt Scotch whiskies, enough to be noticed by a beerdrinker with a wandering eye. "There’s a large crossover," says Hunt. "We find that great beer and great whisky are not mutually exclusive at all."

Twenty whiskies doesn’t make the Ginger Man a draw for whisky lovers, and Hunt knows that. "There are other bars in New York that are better for pure scotch selection, so we don’t get the scotch fanatics. We do get the high beer side, the kind of beer drinkers who are what I call pro-flavor. You don’t meet many guys who will drink Liberty Ale and then turn around and slam shots of Jägermeister. If you have high quality beer, you should have high quality Scotch whisky."

The same scenario works at Ashley’s, in Ann Arbor, Wisconsin. Owner Jeff More came to it over time. "It was the beer first," he explained. "We started twenty years ago with a pretty good beer selection: 8 taps and 20 bottles, and not the usual stuff, Beck’s, Guinness, Dos Equis. Then one day a rep came in selling Watney’s Red Barrel. I put it on and my overall beer volume went up. Every time I added another one, the volume went up again.

"Now we have over 60 taps," he said with a chuckle. "We’re actually going to add 6 more taps this year. The next logical extension, because I didn’t want to take away from beer sales, was Scotch whisky. We get a lot of foreign and out-of-state students at the university and they have more exposure to drinks from around the world. We move more with the faculty and staff, there’s a high level of education in the town as a whole. Single malts move more in this kind of town. We’re up to about 50 single malts now."

Bill Burdick really gets the whole synergy of beer and Scotch whisky, but then, he’s got an edge. He was born in the north of England before coming to America and opening Sherlock’s Home, a brewpub in Minnetonka, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis. Sherlock’s Home is nationally known for their house-made "real ales" and single malt selection.

Burdick gives a simple reason for the equal weight of beer and whisky at his brewpub. "We’re a British restaurant," he said. "Aside from gin, the only drink made in the UK was whisky and beer. We couldn’t get real ale here, so we had to make it from British malts and hops. We’re a bit ahead of the curve, we’ve been doing it since 1989. And whisky is the national drink in the UK, not gin."

Beer and whisky are not just good sellers for Burdick, they are "the preponderance of all the drinks we sell," he said. "They sell at an inordinate pace."

Weren’t microbrews and single malts supposed to be trendy drinks, fads that have faded? Not a problem at Awful Al’s Cigar & Whisky Bar in Syracuse, New York, where general manager Dave Ouderkirk admits he’s not in the most trendy town. "Even in a city that lags behind the trends," he said, "we’re passing the point where people were very curious about whisky. When a trend like that happens you get a big influx of new customers. You’ll lose 60-70% of that fad-following crowd when they run off on the next trend, but some will stay."

Burdick knows it’s going to last for him. "We were in one of the very first issues of Cheers," he noted, "talking about whether malts are here to stay! They are, you know. We’ve never sold more malts than we did this year. The beer lovers, the whisky lovers, they know where we are, they know where to look."

Maybe you’re thinking that this only works in large metropolitan areas, or smaller cities with big universities that draw sophisticates from around the world. Talk to Russell Lewis. Lewis, owner of the eponymous Russell’s, has built a steadily-selling selection of 650 bottled beers, 34 taps, and around 80 single malts…in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. You may have never heard of Bloomsburg – it’s a small town northwest of Allentown – but Lewis knew his market.

"We get a lot of travelers off I-80," he said. There’s also a small state university in town, some industry with international connections, and Geisinger medical center, a major center for drug trials, is right down the road. That all adds up to a surprising number of sophisticated palates moving through this rural town. Lewis saw that and upgraded his selection to take advantage of it.

He also upgraded his clientele to take advantage of his selection by hosting regular whisky tastings with whisky expert John Hansell, publisher of the whisky and beer magazine, Malt Advocate. Hansell’s name was mentioned by a number of the people quoted in this piece as a source of both education and inspiration, and he had something to say about how to handle the best in whisky and beer.

"We have a lot of tavern and restaurant owners who are subscribers," Hansell said. "They’re fairly fanatical about their drinks, they send me their whisky and beer lists. They don’t want me to write it up, they just want me to know about it, which is pretty cool. They have this passion, and they want to know what’s new."

That’s the kind of people they get as customers, according to Hansell. "People who are into high-end whiskies and beers are curious, not brand-loyal," he said. "They always want something new. You can supply that.

"Every restaurant has to have something they’re known for," he explained. "Something that makes them stand out from the endless number of restaurants and bars. They’ve specialized in this: if you want this whisky or beer, you’ve got to go there to get it, and they’re proud of that. Providing a service your competition doesn’t provide is a way to succeed. If it ties into a passion, that’s even better. You can succeed in business and have fun at the same time."

Most of these people are passionate about whisky or beer, or both. Dan Rubino is one of the owners of Mews Tavern, in Wakefield, Rhode Island. "I’m a beer drinker, but I love scotch," Rubino said. "The beer came first, and I’ve got 69 taps. Then the single malts just kept growing. We’re just shy of 200 right now, and I don’t carry the shitty ones. Now I’m working on getting the really rare stuff."

Are there a lot of people like Rubino who like both? "For the most part it’s two different crowds," he said. "But there are plenty who do like both. There is some overlap."

That varies, of course. Hank Benoit doesn’t see a lot of overlap at his Vortex Bar & Grill in Atlanta, where he has almost 100 malts and 40 taps in his Midtown store. "The scotch market is pretty definitively scotch drinkers," he said. "They’re not chasing it with a Coors Light. They know what they like, and they can’t get it a lot of places. They like that they can come in and try a new one before buying a bottle. It’s not unusual for people to come in and try four, five six different ones. If you offer people variety, they’ll take advantage of it."

How much variety? That is, how many taps does it take? How many malts? Howard Hunt says there are variables. "With ten taps that are good beers, rotated regularly with new products, you can get yourself a name," he said. "To get a rep as a beer bar you have to double that, and have a good bottle list as well, because there are some things you never want to have off tap, but you need room for new things, seasonals."

The owner of St. Andrew’s in Manhattan, Martin Whelan, agrees with Hunt to some extent. "You need a good draft selection," he said. "I know places that have 12 taps that are good. There’s nothing wrong with the mainstream beers, but you can’t just have that. For a bottle selection you’d have to have some from Belgium, England, Germany, and some micros, so at least 25 bottled beers and 12 taps. That’s enough for someone to walk in and think, okay, I got enough here."

Of course, Whelan has over 130 single malts at St. Andrew’s, so he might go a bit low on drafts. But his estimate of how many single malts you need to be noticed, to have a broad enough selection, falls right in the middle of everyone’s estimates. "You need at least 30 to 40 to be known as a single malt place. You want to get all the areas – Highland, Lowland, Islay, Campbeltown – the different distilleries, the different ages, the different you need that many."

That’s not just ticking off labels, either. Different ages bring out different characteristics in the whisky. The different "finishes" refers to the relatively new practice of putting whisky in various types of barrels for the last months of aging to pick up nuances of what was last in the barrels: port pipes, rum casks, Madeira barrels. The areas refer to areas of Scotland that have a regional character: Islay whiskies are generally boldly peaty, Lowland whiskies are soft and gentle, and so on. Then the individual distilleries have signature characters, like The Macallan’s use of sherry butts to age their whisky.

Bill Burdick is blunt about why there are so many whiskies, and echoes Martin Whelan’s estimate. ""You can get different expressions, different finishes," he said, "but the main thing for the distillers is to get shelf space. We could have more whiskies, but in the end, they’re all either Highland, Lowland, Islay, or Campbeltown. If you’re trying to be representative, 20 to 50 malts would cover the range quite well."

So you’ve decided you’re going to boost your single malt selection to match your beer selection. It’s a good way to add the wealthier 38-60 year old customers to your 21-35 group drinking beer. It makes sense, too, as Jeff More noted. "I like it from an operator’s point of view," he said. "We’re providing beers and whiskies of good flavor to customers who don’t just want to drink a lot and get drunk. I still make my margin, and you have a couple good beers or drams. You can go cheap and sell in mass quantity, or go with a higher price point and pour better stuff." The good stuff can mean a lot fewer headaches for you and your customers.

Before anyone asks, don’t even think about Scotch cocktails. The days of Scotch and ginger ale, even a Rob Roy, are long over according to these pros. Bill Burdick was emphatic about it. "There are two things you can add to whisky," he said firmly. "A drop or two of water, or more whisky. We’re rather old-fashioned here. We don’t really have to worry about someone asking for some sweet cocktail; that kind of person doesn’t darken our door. The crowd here is 35 and up. The budding VP with a bit of money, who maybe goes to England, comes back and starts buying books on single malts: That’s our customer."

That’s the kind of customer who will buy these whiskies. But don’t they cost astronomical amounts per bottle? Not to worry, according to Hansell. "Because of its relatively long shelf life," he said, "you can look at whisky as a long-term investment. You don’t have to turn it over. And over time the rare whiskies only become more rare, even more valuable and attractive. You’ll eventually sell it, and probably you can even sell it for more as the whisky appreciates over time."

Dan Rubino understands that. "We have two bottles of the Bowmore 40," he said of this whisky that sells for a couple thousand dollars a bottle. "We got one to sell, and one for an investment. It’s simply the most incredible scotch I’ve ever had. Only 294 bottles were released worldwide, and I got two of them." Rubino sells the whisky for $690 a shot, and has made it the centerpiece of his website. If you can’t get some local press from something like that, you’re just not trying.

That may seem ridiculous in these post-stock bubble days, but Hansell disagrees. "If you’d like to try a whisky you just can’t afford," he said. "There aren’t many opportunities for that. When you find a restaurant that specializes in this, it’s a great, fun way to do it. Even if it’s a really expensive dram, you can still split it with friends. And it’s a fun thing to share a dram with your friends, talk about it, it’s a social thing. It’s a bond among whisky drinkers."

What do you need to do besides buy the whisky and put it on the back bar? Well, a lot, if you’re going to make the commitment to actually selling the whisky at the price you deserve. You have to learn these whiskies, or some long-term staff member does, and then you have to teach your bartenders and waitstaff.

The only way to tell your customers about these whiskies is to know about them yourself. But teaching yourself can be fun. "First, study some books on single malts," advises Russell Lewis, who suggests Michael Jackson’s single malt guide. "Then go to some tastings, go to WhiskyFest [an annual pair of high-end whisky tastings in New York and Chicago]. I’ve been able to taste quite a few that way."

But most of all, you need people on the floor who know what they’re talking about. "You need people who know the whisky and the beer, just like a wine collection needs a sommelier," explained Bull Burdick. "When you work here, you’re tested, put through your paces. For example, every bartender here has had to work the cycles in the brewery. They understand brewing, they understand making whisky, they understand the four areas of Scotland. We teach them, and if a customer comes in and asks the bartender to teach them, well, the bartenders aren’t Michael Jackson, but they can help the customer. There’s nothing more dreadful than asking about malts and having the bartender know nothing."

Hansell hates that. "How’s someone going to help a customer choose a drink when they can’t even pronounce it themselves?" he asked. "Your waitstaff should know why Lagavulin is peaty and why Macallan is sherried, which beers are light, dark, malty, or hoppy. At the least you should have a detailed menu. You do it once, you keep it simple, and you take the care of the variance of waitstaff knowledge."

Making the decision to stock big beers and big whiskies is like making an investment. You have to do your due diligence, you have to keep up on the market and the movements, you have to take some risks. But like investments, building beer and whisky at the same time is a smart diversification. We all saw recently what happened to people who didn’t diversify their investments. If you make the investment in time and money, this is one venture that will pay off some handsome dividends.

Bill Burdick was reaping one of those the week he was contacted for this piece. "We’re doing a malt tasting Saturday," he said. It’s an annual event in its 14th year at Sherlock’s Home, and it’s a big one. "Michael Jackson is coming, and we’ll have 300 people. It’s the biggest whisky tasting he does. We sold out in about 30 minutes. They’ll taste eight malts in total, there’s a lunch, bagpipers, all the other paraphernalia." Now that’s making an investment.

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: February 21, 2006