Bars of Titan

The wider the range, the harder to source
By Liza Weisstuch
At the end of April, after almost three months of waiting, Flavien Desoblin received three bottles each of Hibiki 12 and 17 Years Old at Brandy Library, his 11 Years Old Tribeca bar. His other bar, Copper and Oak, an intimate space in the East Village that opened last year, received the same, plus six bottles of Yamazaki 12 and three of Hakushu 18 Years Old.

"It's crazy. Three bottles of each - that's insanity. Ten years ago, there was no problem getting Yamazaki 12 or 18 Years Old. For three months when we couldn't get Hibiki or Yamazaki, I was off Hibiki 12 Years Old for a week. The month prior I took advantage of monthly allocation of each, which kept me running for three months. But I was finally out of stock of Yamazaki 18 and 12 and Hibiki 12 Years Old. All I got was embarrassment," he said.

When the Brandy Library opened in 2004, nobody was talking about Japanese whisky, let alone seeking out Yamazaki the way a comic book collector hunts down a Marvel Amazing Fantasy #15, Spiderman's debut. (For that matter, nobody was talking about rye whiskey, either.) But then things changed. Big time. Over the past five years, jaw-dropping stats made headlines: Irish whiskey doubled year upon year for eight years; rye whiskey, once an afterthought, was skyrocketing; Bourbon producers can't keep up. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US, sales of super-premium American whiskies grew 120 per cent in volume over ten years. Brand loyalty became a thing of the past, and now people want something older, cask-strength, speciality barrel-finished, and so on. Enter: the Titan bar.

These days, bars around the country are narrowing their focus and expanding their inventory. A new generation of whiskey bars have joined the ranks of the Brandy Library and Delilah's in Chicago, which opened in 1993 and has long been a pilgrimage-worthy whiskey mecca. These bars boast hundreds and sometimes thousands of labels. They're catalogued in precise arrangements - usually by region - on book-like, sometimes leather-bound menus. They have tall ladders that bartenders scale for top shelf bottles. Just one problem: keeping those shelves stocked. Expanding inventory is a constant, complex balancing game with a myriad of perpetually shifting variables.

"Ten years ago, we had to fight to get knowledgeable staff, now it's a fight to get product. The curating part is much harder. I have to have a lot more substitutes, so if one product is out, I have to be able to offer another two or three that are somewhat similar," said Desoblin. His inventory has grown by about 30 per cent while the value has tripled, demonstrating patrons' willingness to trade up.

Drinkers are more adventurous than ever, a fact that's evident at Canon in Seattle, which showcases over 3,500 labels. That's up from 400 bottles when it opened in 2011.

"We skew more towards American whiskey (with the largest collection in the world), but we have a full representation of all styles. And whiskies from the 1800s that are absolutely delicious," says proprietor Jamie Boudreau. "Our guests want to try new things. All the typical heavy hitters don't do very well at our place as you can get those anywhere, so why have it here?"

Tommy Tardie, a longtime Brandy Library patron, opened Flatiron Room in Manhattan in August 2012 aiming for 300 items on his menu. Today there's over 1,000.

"It took on a life of its own. You have a commitment to consumers when have such a big collection. Once you have all the Bruichladdichs, you always have to have all the Bruichladdichs," said Tardie, who also offers private lockers for people who want to buy a bottle for repeat visits. People come in - have you got the new Macallan rare cask? Can't say no. With a big selection comes big responsibility. You're saying: you can count on us to have your favorite pours. People don't expect us to have really rare vintage bottles, but we have new marks, like Glenmorangie releases, all the time."

This article could have been about every bar owner's hot pursuit of Pappy Van Winkle, a frustration/elation most whiskey fanatics easily relate to. It could have been a guide to who's offering Balvenie 30 Years Old or Elijah Craig 23 Years Old. It could have been about the arms race that seems to play out across the industry to amass the biggest list. But what's truly worth broadcasting is the extent to which maintaining a monstrous selection in a busy bar is basically a constantly moving target. Hitting a bull's eye one night might actually set you up to miss it the next few nights.

"There's no whiskey that doesn't sell. Nothing sits. It's incredible. If it's a horrible rail brand bourbon, people come and drink that. And people come and drink Black Bowmore '64 first edition. The selection can fluctuate by 100 bottles a month. Unless I'm pumping in 100 bottles, I'm just trying to hold on." says Bill Thomas, who opened Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington DC in 2011. In April he cracked the cap on the 2,015 bottles offered on the shelf. His life, he says, is a constant search for whiskey. "The worst thing is when I come in and look at six empty, say, Clynelish bottles. It's a mad scramble to replace them. And I have to replace all of them. People like to come in and try three."

Ask any bar owner in any major city about his supply of allocated products, and you better have 30 minutes for a kvetch session expressing exasperation with distributors, distilleries, store owners, fellow bars. But any bar owner in the mid-west, where imbibers are clamoring just as loudly for the same high-profile, low-supply brands, deals with a different strand of challenges.

"There's always limitations on the products we get - especially with American whiskies - because we're in a smaller market," said Beau Williams who, with his wife Keeley Edgington, is a partner in Julep, which they opened in Kansas City in April 2014. "People are intrigued - they start talking about Japanese whisky and the next thing you know they want Amrut and Sullivans Cove."

He admits it was a bit of work to initially get the excitement going in a town where people aren't used to being confronted with 400 whiskey options at the bar.

"When the staff are passionate, we can get people into it," he said. "You just have to ask people, 'Do you like caramel, butterscotch? Because you can get all that in a whiskey.' It was just a matter of figuring out ways to open people's eyes in a different way."