Bourbon’s Bounce

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The drink market’s bourbon renaissance.

Bypass that bowl of grits and hefty portion of gumbo. The South’s best-kept secret is out, and it’s all about bourbon.

In the past decade, the American whiskey strongly associated with Kentucky has seen a rise in consumption. Chicago’s drink scene is falling hard for the spirit, as a plethora of bourbon drinks and cocktails pop up at trendy bars and restaurants. Delilah’s owner, Mike Miller, agrees. “In the last 15 years, we’ve seen an unimaginable, almost meteoric rise in people’s interest in whiskey,” he says.

Local beverage enthusiasts list several reasons for the spirit’s surge. Primarily, the cocktail culture and times are changing. Also, it’s seasonal. “As the weather cools in the fall, I start thinking more about whiskies for sipping and cocktails,” reveals Sepia mixologist and spirits taster Josh Pearson. Others note simple consumer drink demand and taste evolution. “In years past, people ordered whiskey straight or on the rocks,” shares Owen & Engine cicerone Elliott Beier. “Now, people are accepting that bourbon is perfectly allowable and enjoyable in cocktails.”

Historically, bourbon was poured alone or as the key ingredient in simple, paired down drinks including Mint Juleps, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. While these classics remain cocktail menu staples, bar directors tweak the old into something new. “People understand bourbon has so many more applications than single-spirit-focused drinks, not just with whiskey,” adds Yusho beverage program director Alexander Bachman.

The fusion restaurant dishes out a cocktail called The Resurrection with Johnny Drum Private Stock bourbon. “Bartenders add one or two other elements into a bourbon drink and craft cocktails based on storied tradition,” explains Mr. Bachman. This is echoed at The Whistler, where owner and bartender Billy Helmkamp says one of the most common orders is for something “brown and stirred.” That’s whiskey stirred with Vermouth or an Amaro and a modifier or sweetener.

Along with tradition, mixologists focus on bourbon’s layered flavor profiles. The spirit lends itself to almond and cherry oak open notes and corn sweetness on its back end. The depth of taste comes from strict U.S. distillation rules specific to the bourbon label.

Bourbon made for American consumption must abide by the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. Among these regulations, bourbon must be barrel-aged for a minimum of two years, made from a 51 percent corn/grain mixture and contain no added coloring or flavoring.

The finished pour is a consistent, all-natural product that restaurants and bars reach for again and again. “Bourbon is an accessible, sustainable and relatively inexpensive spirit that’s always of high quality,” says Mr. Miller. “It’s loaded with flavors and lends itself so well to bars because it makes exceptional cocktails straight out of the bottle.”
Delilah’s carries one of the most extensive spirit selections in Chicago, with about 600 whiskeys, 100 of which are specialty house-made bourbons. Whiskey Magazine named Mr. Miller’s 5-year-old single cast rye Best in the World. The world!

In the heart of the theater district, the Palmer House Hilton has unveiled a private label Woodford Reserve bourbon. “We’re the only Chicago hotel Woodford teamed up with to do this program,” notes Patrick Coyne, beverage director at Potter’s Lounge and Lockwood Restaurant. “Since we began selling the bourbon, it’s been flying out of here! You can’t get this anywhere else. We serve it straight up, featured in a classic Manhattan, and customers are requesting it in traditional bourbon cocktails, too.”

In the West Loop, beverage hotspot Sepia offers the Boulevardier, Mr. Pearson’s favorite classic cocktail mixing bourbon with Campari dark bitters and sweet Vermouth.
Whether sticking with traditional bourbon or sipping a hybrid creation, the smoky spirit is here to stay. “Chicago is a brown town,” says Mr. Helmkamp. “People here love their whiskey!” We’ll drink to that.

ABOVE: Yusho’s The Resurrection, Ashton Ray Hansen Photograph

Debra Lipson

About Debra Lipson

Debra Lipson is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Focused on feature writing, her published work spans from fashion and beauty to the arts and profiles. A graduate of DePaul University, she recently began a yearlong graduate program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A self-proclaimed magazine junkie, she enjoys reading whatever she can get her hands on.