Beyond the Wine Aisle

Why is Whisky Back in Fashion?

Australia: Why is whisky back in fashion?
Source: SMH (excerpts)
John Bailey
June 9, 2011, Australia

If popular culture has taught us anything, it's that the main markets for rum, bourbon and Scotch are pirates, cowboys and eccentric millionaires obsessed with breeding the perfect orchid (respectively). So why is whisky in all its forms becoming the tipple of choice in bars today? There are bars in Melbourne dedicated to it, courses in its history and nuances, and high-end restaurants are increasingly adding the brown stuff to their cocktail menus. Grandpa's liquor cabinet is suddenly back in fashion.

If Australian drinking culture still appears to be based around beer, it's not. As a percentage of total alcohol consumed, beer is at its lowest figure in 61years, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics. This isn't to discount the spread of boutique and microbrewery beers: we're drinking better beer, but less of it. The growing interest in wine accounts for some of that change, as do the companies pushing premixed spirits in recent years. But where wine became cool at the millennium's turn, and martinis returned to the spotlight five years ago, more and more drinkers are looking through a glass, darkly.

Chez Regine is a tiny bar in Russell Street almost completely dedicated to Scotch whisky. There's an elegant, Old World atmosphere to the place - all dark woods and aged bottles behind glass, it's the kind of place you might expect to see some elderly sleuth puzzling over his latest mystery. But in its 12months of operation, co-owner Brooke Hayman has found that the vast majority of her customers aren't of the tweed-jacket-and-pipe variety. "We don't really have a lot of older people coming in but younger people are really interested in it," says Hayman. She estimates the average age of her customers to be between 22 and 35, and despite whisky's traditionally masculine aura, a third of her patrons are women.

For a younger generation, says Hayman, whisky is both familiar and strange. "Everybody knew someone in an older generation who drank it, but it's one of those products that's still got a sort of mystique about it. It's not an old mothbally thing that you don't want to try because your parents had it."

It's perhaps appropriate that one of the most popular whisky cocktails is known as the Old Fashioned, since the very appeal of these spirits is bound up in the passing of time. They're all aged - they're the original "slow drink" - and Hayman notes the romance of realising that somebody barrelled the drink you're tasting before you were even born. They can invoke a sense of continuity: while drinking culture is often gripped by flash-in-the-pan fads, the classic cocktail offers a link to the past. "When people learn that they're drinking the same thing people drank in the 1920s jazz era or even before that, they light up," she says. "You can judge a bartender by how they make an Old Fashioned," says Nathan Debritt, co-owner of Brunswick Street bar The Kodiak Club. "It's all about the chat and the interaction. You can do it quickly and get the job done, but it's about taking time with it if you can, and talking through the experience with the customer. You add a little bit, add a little bit, and continually taste until you get it just right."

The Kodiak Club is all about American Whisky (a term that encompasses bourbon, rye and Canadian whiskies). Like Chez Regine, the venue is another new kid on the block. Debritt opened the bar 10 months ago and has built up a list of about 60 American whiskies; he's off to Kentucky in August and hopes to bring back another 20 or so.

If you associate bourbon with bar brawls and barf, it's just that your exposure has been limited to the cheap stuff, says Debritt. "It's like tequila. Everyone associates tequila with that one bad night they had when they were 16. But there's such a variety."

What does a good bourbon taste like? "Smooth. It's about the quality of the finish. With any kind of basic spirit you get the flavour hit and then the alcohol hit. When you drink a high-grade spirit there's a lot more complexity to the flavours and it's generally a lot smoother."

At both The Kodiak Club and Chez Regine, chatting about the product is de rigueur. "You find you can educate people and they're quite willing to be educated," says Debritt. "Plus we have a long bar, so there's a lot of interaction."

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