New products are the lifeblood of the beverage alcohol industry, as are new and rediscovered usages of traditional products. If nothing else, the popularity of the cocktail culture and the new wave of mixologists have spurred interest in some forgotten and seldomly used spirits. And suppliers, always sensitive to untapped markets and emerging trends, have taken note, and are creating, importing and re-introducing a range of spirits barely seen on retail shelves as recently as five years ago. Here’s a brief discussion of some of these “outlier” spirits categories and products creating a buzz.
Rye is in the midst of a real resurgence. Remember the small-batch bourbon craze? Well, rye is aspiring to take its place. When it comes to classic cocktails such as the Manhattan or the Old-Fashioned, some consumers are taking up rye in lieu of bourbon. One brand has been so popular of late that demand has surpassed supply. “There is a total shortage of Rittenhouse. There’s not much we can do about it; you can’t rush the aging process. We were unprepared. All of a sudden, almost overnight, we were faced with the difficult decision of allocation,” admitted Larry Kass, of Heaven Hill Distilleries. “This fall, we will finally be able to put that right and expand; we’ve had to allocate the 100 Proof Bottled In Bond to the East and West Coasts. But now rye is popular in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Miami and Dallas,” he added.
It wasn’t marketing or advertising that turned industry and consumers onto Rittenhouse; it was purely a grassroots movement. Kass said, “For years, Rittenhouse was a sleepy little brand for us. David Wondrich was an early proponent and we were encouraged by that to get Rittenhouse registered in New York. I clearly remember the dark days of rye when you just couldn’t sell it. Now, lo and behold, consumers and trade are coming to us. We didn’t even market our rye; it was an honest organic interest – the kind that marketing can’t create.”
Rittenhouse Rye’s appeal has a lot to do with the quality in the bottle, but the packaging appeals to the throwback trend too. “People look at the Rittenhouse and Mellow Corn [another whiskey product finding favor with industry tastemakers] labels and think they are really cool, but we didn’t create some hip new retro-style label. We just haven’t changed the label in years,” he said.
Last year Jim Beam debuted a boutique rye whiskey phonetically named (r1)1. Clearly aimed at the new rye consumer, the packaging is modern and clean. Brand Manager, Mara Melamed, noted, “(r1)1 stands apart from other whiskeys on the shelf because of its smart, sleek packaging. The packaging also adds an element of attitude and intrigue to the brand. The bottle is modern and does not include any of the traditional packaging cues for whiskey.”
Meanwhile, Skyy Spirits markets Russell’s Reserve Rye, a six-year-old, small batch produced whiskey created by renowned distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie Russell. Bottled at 90 proof, Russell’s Reserve Rye launched a new package a little over a year ago.
The micro distillery, Tuthilltown, which was the first distillery to open in New York State since Prohibition, features a distinctive package for its whiskies. “We make a 100% rye whiskey,” said Tuthilltown distiller Gable Erenzo. “Rye was the quintessential New York whiskey before Prohibition, when every farm had a still. Single grain rye, these days, is very rare. We try to make a number of single grain whiskies.”
Still, the Buffalo Trace Distllery (Sazerac) leads the field, offering several brands of superpremium, limited-production rye whiskey. Among them are Sazerac Rye, aged for six years (90 proof); Thomas H. Handy Rye, aged a little over eight years and a barrel-proof whiskey (132.7 proof); and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, aged 13 years (95.6 proof).
After the legalization of absinthe two years ago, countless new and old-recipes for the anise spirit have launched and re-launched. Pernod Absinthe made its comeback last year. “What’s interesting about Pernod Absinthe is that it was the first ever absinthe. Pernod Absinthe spawned absinthe,” said Jamie Gordon, brand specialist at Pernod Ricard USA.
Word has is that spirit is gaining momentum and drawing cocktail-geek consumers and the curious alike. Gordon continued, “Absinthe attracts because of the mystique surrounding it, but its comeback is also due to the interest in classic cocktails. So many classics contain absinthe, including what is considered America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac, but beyond that, it is leading to experimentation and nouveau cocktails.”
Simon Ford, director of trade outreach and brand education for Pernod Ricard USA, added that “vintage brands are definitely coming back.”
Besides Pernod, there are now several other absinthes on the market, and with proof levels ranging from about 100 to nearly 130, retailers and consumers should be aware of the techniques to use in making various cocktails using this highly potent spirit. The most famous, of course, is the classic Absinthe Drip cocktail, the details of which can easily be sourced on the internet. At the same time, many absinthes now in the U.S. market certainly have signature cocktail recipes available to be tried. The most visible of them include Lucid Absinthe Superiore, Grande Absente Absinthe Originale, La Fee Absinthe Parisienne, Versinthe Aux Plantes d’Absinthe, Mata Hari Bohemian Absinthe, and Kubler Swiss Absinthe Superiore.