Whiskey catches on with a new generation in Charlotte

Not long ago, the world of whiskey was about as trend-conscious as an elderly deacon.

Hoity-toity Scotch drinkers had a lifelong affiliation with their beloved brand of single malt. Barflies with a taste for Irish whiskey ordered Bushmills or Jameson. Bourbon was for Southerners. And rye was for Canadians. Connoisseurs were a small and exclusive breed.

Times have changed, and the new philosophy that has revolutionized food, beer and wine – let’s called it gourmet-ization – has swept through whiskey’s formerly staid ranks. Cock your ear at a well-stocked whiskey bar and you’ll hear patrons batting around terms such as “angel’s share,” “mash bill” and “cask strength.”

YW whiskey
Some of the Kentucky and other bourbons used by Bartender Pete Ladino at Dunhill Hotel in uptown Charlotte. Diedra Laird

Sitting at the bar at The Dunhill Hotel in uptown Charlotte, one can’t help but notice bartender Pete Ladino seems to be constantly pouring whiskey-based drinks. Old-Fashioneds. Manhattans. New-Fashioneds. Muddled blackberry Old-Fashioneds.

What is also noticeable is how many women and younger clientele are ordering these cocktails. Not long ago whiskey, bourbon and rye were drinks for mostly older men, while women drank vodka. The last few years have seen a decline in vodka sales, though, and a surge in brown spirit sales. Why?

Ladino says the popular TV series “Mad Men” had a lot to do with this shift in cocktail trends.

“The hipster movement, what we are seeing on TV and on social media, has the younger generation trying to connect with older beverages,” says Ladino. “By far the drink I make the most every single day is the Old-Fashioned. Customers can’t get enough of it, or variations of it. It used to be vodka tonics and Cosmopolitans for the ladies during the days of the ‘Sex and the City’ series. Not anymore.”

N.C. distillery Defiant has also seen a serious upswing in whiskey sales.

“There is a huge trend right now where brown spirits are trendy,” says Defiant’s national sales manager Mark Boley. “Bartenders and mixologists are coming up with cocktails that just a few years ago we could have never envisioned.”

The Defiant distillery is in Bostic, about 60 miles west of Charlotte, where it takes just 60 days to create what’s known as an American single malt. The style has caught on in big fashion across the country in recent years.

Only four ingredients make up their whiskey: toasted white American oak, yeast, two-row brewer’s barley and water from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Defiant’s whiskey is aged on oak staves instead of in the traditional oak barrels. It is aged on the staves for 60 days total.

In addition to whiskey, the distillery has test bottles ready of its new rye.

Rye consumption in the U.S. has risen 536 percent in just five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Bulleit, Knob Creek, Angel’s Envy, Templeton and other distillers big and small now offer uniquely American expressions of rye, a bourbon cousin in which the majority of the mash is rye instead of corn. Canadian rye, long a sleepy member of the whiskey family, is also finding new American fans.

Charlotte has its share of whiskey and bourbon lovers. The Whiskey Women of Charlotte is passionate about brown spirits and hosts monthly drink-ups featuring cocktails and flights. The Whiskey Club of Ballantyne, formerly the Scotch Society of Ballantyne, meets monthly at Gallery Restaurant at The Ballantyne Hotel.

“As it grew with more demand for bourbon, we changed our direction to feature all different types of whiskeys. That includes Scotch, bourbon, as well as Irish, Japanese and all American whiskeys,” says Tim Burnett, food and beverage supervisor at The Ballantyne.

Written by Jennifer Brantley and Paul Hodgins. Jennifer Brantley is a freelance writer in Charlotte and a member of The Whiskey Women of Charlotte. Paul Hodgins writes for the Orange County Register in California.

Photos: Diedre Laird/Charlotte Observer