Whiskey's everywhere these days. Revenue from American-made varieties shot up 7.7 percent between 2015 and 2016, bringing total sales to $3.1 billion and 21.8 million cases, outstripping growth in the overall booze market. And whiskey imports also rose last year, from $1.8 billion in 2015 to $1.9 billion in 2016.
What's driving the surge? Our insatiable appetite for all things retro, artisanal and small-batch. Or, in the corporate-speak of the Distilled Spirits Council, perhaps cocktails "are exceptionally well-positioned to meet adult millennials’ demand for unique and varied experiences" and spirits like whiskey "fit nicely into the trend of consumer interest in brands with authentic, interesting backstories." Sure. What they said.
But who in Sarasota is pouring the good stuff? A panel of experts (and me) spent one recent Friday evening wandering the streets of downtown Sarasota, sampling an unhealthy amount of whiskeys and whiskey cocktails and discussing what it is about whiskey that turns fans into obsessives.
First, meet our distinguished panel:
Qualifications: Founder of Sarasota's Whiskey Obsession, the biggest world whiskey festival in the United States, which takes place for a fifth straight year March 29-April 1.
Preferred variety: Scotch
Qualifications: Founder of the Sarasota Whiskey Society, a group of local aficionados who trade tips online and get together for tastings and bottle-shares.
Preferred variety: Bourbon
Qualifications: One of the founders of Men Whiskey & Watches, an annual fundraiser that benefits the Child Protection Center. (He's also a sales rep with Sarasota Magazine.)
Preferred variety: Rye
Preferred variety: The brown kind
Now that that's out of the way, let's roll...
The Gator Club has become a bit of a hub for the whiskey-obsessed. Moore started hanging out upstairs when he moved to Sarasota decades ago. Wells started coming after moving to town three years ago from Tallahassee, where the San Francisco native threw herself into the whiskey world as a way to explore her new Southern hometown. "I felt this complex relationship to being in the South," she says, and so she deliberately immersed herself in her new environment and became a regular at Market Square Liquors, a legend in Florida drinkery. After moving to Sarasota to take a job at New College, she came to the Gator Club for one main reason: "It has the broadest selection of American whiskeys in this town." The bar today stocks more than 225 varieties.
"A cocktail is only as good as your weakest ingredient," says bartender Josh Hojnacki, and that's particularly true when he's pouring a classic, like his simple, perfect Manhattan. While the drink is typically made with rye, Hojnacki has swapped out that for the bar's individually branded single-barrel Buffalo Trace bourbon. Hojnacki also mixes in a high-botanical vermouth and dark cherries with a flavor worlds apart from the run-of-the-mill neon-red candied maraschino. "They taste like cherries, not the idea of a cherry," Wells says.
The result is a hands-down triumph. Wells praises the Gator Club's "spirit-forward" drink, which allows the main ingredient to shine while offering subtle accents, too—not a simple balance to achieve. Classic drinks are so simple that one wrong note can wreck them.
Cask & Ale bartender Robert Boyland looks more like a mad scientist than a drink-maker as he whips up the newish Main Street restaurant's "malt & maduro." He fires up a smoker stuffed with tobacco pulled from broken-down cigars and shoots the vapor into a large decanter, then plugs the top with an orange while he mixes the rest of the ingredients separately. The drink includes 12-year-aged Balvenie Scotch, cognac, vanilla syrup and bitters, plus the flavor of that tobacco smoke, which punches you right in the face when you take a sip.
Moore calls Boyland's experiment "one of the most unique" drinks around. Starostecki loves it. "I could drink that all night," he says.
How about a whiskey sour? The cocktail gets a bad rap, thanks to the zillions of places that make it with pre-made mixes, but at Pangea Lounge it's all done the old-fashioned way. Our bartender mixes together Four Roses bourbon (the bar's well pour), lemon juice, sugar and an egg white, then rubs an orange peel all around the rim and up and down the stem and inks a design across the top with cardamom and Angostura bitters.
This drink is frothy, with a thick, whipped texture thanks to the egg white, and a citrusy vibe that would make this ideal for sipping underneath a beachside Chickee hut.
This place gets Starostecki's heart pumping. The smoked Sazerac, he swears, is to die for. To make it, bartender Christopher Nalefski plops down four hunks of wood (whose origin he knows and can recite), then blowtorches the wood and caps the smoke with a glass before mixing up the Sazerac. The drink is right on—absinthe-flavored, but not overwhelmed by anise.
Although today he prefers Scotch, Moore got into American whiskey at a young age. "I went to college in Virginia," he says, "and so I drank a lot of cheap bourbon." That taste shifted toward international spirits when he bought a bottle of Glenlivet to accompany a screening of Barfly while living in Arizona in the '90s. "I really started to geek out over single malts," he remembers. By the early 2000s, Moore was traveling to whiskey festivals and sitting in on tasting panels and learning about the tight family units that produced the Scotch he loved. He found himself tearing up as he listened to stories about the craft and history behind the bottles. "The human element drew me in," he says, and that's what prompted him to organize the first Whiskey Obsession festival in 2013. It has since grown to become one of the nation's biggest.
Loving whiskey isn't just about the flavor, I learn. Part of the fun is the thrill of the hunt for the most elusive bottles or the best deals. Die-hards travel abroad and bring back cases to resell for profit, and many aficionados stockpile their picks as investments. At Boca, Wells scrolls through the photos on her phone, zooming in on particularly rare or valuable bottles, which she's never cracked. What's on her shelves is going to cover the closing costs on her first home, she says. Not to be outdone, Moore pulls up pics of his own collection.
Boca's barrel-aged Manhattan at Boca is "darker," "a bit more viscous" than the Gator Club's, Moore points out. It's made with High West double rye, spicier than the Gator Club's bourbon, and spends three weeks in a barrel before being served. Boca's other offerings don't earn as much praise. The Sazerac is too absinthe-heavy and its whiskey sour too acidic, the panel concludes.
Louies Modern is banging, with a three-deep crowd surrounding the bar and shouting orders. It's a frenetic scene, which perhaps explain why two of the bar's two custom whiskey cocktails we tried are a miss. The "Buddy's brew," a coffee-flavored concoction that nods to Louies' neighboring coffee shop, Buddy Brew, is coffee-heavy, overloaded with St. George coffee liqueur, while "the North Palm" is too fruit punch-y. "That tastes like something I had on a Royal Caribbean snorkeling expedition," Moore decides.
Things are getting a bit blurry at Social, our final stop, but it's a perfect time to sit back in the moonlight and reflect on what makes whiskey special. Some epicureans get into wine, some get into craft beer. Why whiskey?
"I like it because of how I got into it," Wells says. "It made me feel like I was discovering something new." There's also the appeal of tasting something that quite literally can only be tasted once. Two barrels filled with exactly the same whiskey at the same time can produce spirits that taste totally different when the liquid is finally bottled and poured out. "You can't cross the same river twice," Moore says.
Relationships are important, too. Meeting the makers, learning about the work they put into producing this stuff, makes a difference. That's one reason why Moore launched Whiskey Obsession and why Wells started the Sarasota Whiskey Society. "I wanted to bring that to other people," Moore says.
"A spirit isn't a spirit without people," Starostecki observes. Building relationships with makers, vendors and bartenders is a pleasure. "I know you and you know me" is a big part of the fun, Starostecki says. After an evening with Moore, Wells and him, I'd agree. Cheers, you guys.