The Bourbon Industry was starting to change in the 1990s as the slump in sales leveled off and by the first decade of the 21st century, distilleries started to see increased sales. There are many reasons for this change. One of the changes was in the nature of the bar scene. Here are six whiskey bar owners that contributed to this change.
Each of these bar owners have a few things in common. First of all, they are huge Bourbon enthusiasts. They all believe that those working at their bars needed to be knowledgeable about Bourbon and placed an emphasis on training their staff. Finally, they believe in true hospitality. Customers feel welcome in their bars and these owners are always sure to see that any questions about what the customer was drinking would be answered to the best of their ability.
1) Mike Miller of Delilah’s in Chicago. In the mid-1990s, Susan Reigler wrote an article about the best Bourbon Bar in the United States. People in Louisville were shocked that this was not in Louisville, but instead it was Delilah’s in Chicago. Miller once told me that his philosophy was that when he quit having fun in Delilah’s, he would sell the bar. He has always had a huge selection of Bourbons and this included some bottles of older, Prohibition whiskey. Miller was always a Maker’s Mark fan and sold a lot of it in his bar. This attracted Bill Samuels to the bar when Bill was in Chicago for business. Miller saw the advantage of Bill’s visits and started inviting other distillers to visit when in town. This led to events centered around these people and helped create the “rock star” image of Master Distillers.
2) Jason Brauner of Bourbons Bistro in Louisville. Jason and his business partner, John Morrison, wanted to create a restaurant that served southern cuisine that also included a bar with every Bourbon made in Kentucky. The Galt House Hotel had experimented with a bar dedicated to Bourbon and that met with some moderate success, but Jason was the first to create a fine dining and Bourbon bar. He trained his staff well and started hosting Bourbon dinners with Master Distillers speaking at the dinner. Bourbons Bistro is still a “must visit” place for Bourbon fans who come to Louisville.
3) Bill Thomas of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington D.C. Bill created a bar that focused on all things whiskey. Being in Washington D.C., he did not have the troublesome state liquor laws that every other city has, so he was able to convince the local liquor authorities to allow him to sell drinks from vintage bottles of whiskey that did not necessarily come from the distributor. He could go to an estate sale or other source of old whiskey bottles, purchase their bottles and sell drinks from these bottles at Jack Rose. People began to appreciate old bottles from the 1950s or Prohibition and even older. Bill never took full advantage of these bottles as he based the drink price upon what he paid for the bottle, even though he could have charged two or three times as much for the rare whiskey. His staff is trained in all things whiskey, not just taste but history of the brands. When selling a drink from an old bottle, the server should be able to discuss the brand, where it was made and who distilled it. Jack Rose Dining Saloon
4) Molly Wellmann of Japps in Cincinnati. Molly Wellmann is a bartender at heart. She loves her cocktails. She loves making cocktails, And she loves talking about cocktails. She also loves Bourbon. For a while she was part owner in the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and still has a great fondness for that bar, but now her focus is at Japps. Wellmann has written a book on cocktails, Handmade Cocktails and she likes nothing better than getting behind a bar, making a cocktail and discussing the history of that cocktail. Wellmann took the Bourbon Cocktail out of the realm of the Bourbon and Coke into the classic cocktails of the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails and into many other drinks that had been lost to time. The staff is well trained, not only in cocktails, but also in Bourbon. Molly loves a straight Bourbon neat and loves doing events with the different distilleries, creating cocktails using their brands.
5) Joseph Head of the Century Bar in Dayton, Ohio. Joe Head is a Bourbon lover. He worked at the Century Bar for many years and convinced the owner that she should change the bar into a Bourbon Bar. The venture was so successful that he eventually became a partner in the bar. What is so amazing about the Century Bar is that it is in a control state with its limited choices of products that can be purchased. Joe has proven that it can be done in a control state. In fact, it can be done well. The staff is well trained in Bourbon heritage and tasting. The Century Bar has attracted a loyal clientele and has even created a fan club for these customers. They host tastings and bring in speakers to discuss whiskey with the customers.
6) Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill and Charlotte, North Carolina. Gary is a bar owner who really believes in hospitality. His original bar in Chapel Hill was very popular and made more so when Gary lobbied to get a law change that would allow him to purchase and sell drinks from vintage bottles in The Crunkleton. This law benefited not only Gary, but every other bar owner in the state that wanted to sell drinks from old bottles. Later a group of investors convinced him to become a partner in a restaurant in Charlotte that would have fine dining as well as a great Bourbon bar. North Carolina is also a control state and North Carolinians may now experience many whiskeys that they might not be able to drink without the change in the law.
These are six bar owners who changed the Bourbon industry. They are as much a part of the present Bourbon Boom as any person working directly for a distillery. If the Bourbon Hall of Fame had a category for “Bar Owners”, these six trailblazers should be the first members invited to join.