When a friend gave Krissandra Anfinson a bottle of bourbon as a birthday gift, her fiancé drank it over a period of months, thinking that she probably wouldn’t like it.
She discovered it was gone and asked for a replacement. So he took her to Ace Spirits in Hopkins, where staffers poured samples to help her determine preferences.
Anfinson, a 33-year-old IT specialist, found a taste she liked and has since attended a handful of classes to learn more about whiskey.
“It’s more of a study than getting a buzz,” Anfinson said. “Everybody wants something new that they‘ve never tried before.”
Minnesotans, like people all around the country, are in the midst of a whiskey craze. Consumption of all whiskeys in the U.S. was 22 percent higher last year than in 2004, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And Minnesota ranked ninth in per capita consumption of spirits, with whiskey the most consumed spirit in the state.
Trouble is, liquor distributors view the state as a second-tier market and allocate smaller quantities of whiskey to retailers in it, leading to scarcity of some popular labels.
“Distributors consider Minnesota a flyover state, so we’re lucky to get a few bottles of highly-sought-after Sazerac 18, Thomas Handy Rye or Eagle Rare 17,” said Louis Dachis, owner of Ace Spirits, one of the state’s largest retailers of whiskey with more than 1,100 types.
Mat Garretson, who has spent 35 years in the spirits industry, moved to Minnesota five years ago and was surprised that, despite the relatively high demand for whiskey, no major tasting events existed. “The Twin Cities has a larger population than Madison, Cleveland or Portland, Oregon, yet they’ve already hosted major whiskey festivals,” he said.
So he organized one that’s happening Sunday at the Depot in downtown Minneapolis, where tastings of 300 whiskeys from eight countries will be poured by 100 distillers. Garretson said he hopes the event signals to distributors that Minnesota is a serious whiskey state that deserves a larger allocation.
Demand on the rise
PJ Zavada, the beer and spirits buyer at South Lyndale Liquors in Minneapolis, said he gets about three or four calls daily from customers wondering about release dates for certain whiskeys. “The interest has grown enormously in the last three years,” he said. “Four years ago we had a $200 bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, aged 23 years, and it sat on the shelf because no one wanted to pay that much. Now they don’t bat an eye.”
Local bars and restaurants are also pouring more scotches, which is from Scotland, and bourbons, American whiskey generally produced in Kentucky. Jerald Hansen, bar manager at Butcher & the Boar restaurant in Minneapolis, said that three years ago he could get any bourbon because demand was too low in the market.
“Now it takes a lot of time to source them. And you’d better buy it while you can because everyone else is looking for it, too,” he said. “The demand is there nationwide and worldwide.”
Whiskey, associated in popular culture with the “Mad Men” prosperity of the 1960s, continued to be popular through the 1980s, but then consumption fell dramatically, by more than half in the U.S., until leveling out around 2000. With the recovery in popularity of the past decade, the U.S. has returned to the top ranks of whiskey-consuming nations, though India, with its huge population, drinks the most.
Trying to catch up
Part of the scarcity felt in Minnesota stems from the combination of the relatively low production in the early 2000s and the need for whiskey to age for five to 20 years. Some distillers also choose to curb production to maintain prices and the aura of exclusivity, Dachis said.
In the past two years, the U.S. whiskey market has grown 13.5 percent and it was strongest among all spirits in 2014, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Its appeal cuts across age and gender, said David Ozgo, chief economist at the council. “People appreciate the heritage of copper stills and dark warehouses,” he said.
Stores such as Rum River in Anoka, Blue Max Liquors in Burnsville and South Lyndale Liquors have greatly expanded their whiskey selection.
“It’s amazing to see a 22-year-old kid buying a $40 bottle of bourbon,” said Jim Sebring, manager at Blue Max Liquors in Burnsville. “They’re not afraid to treat themselves.”
At the millennial-magnet Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, whiskey geeks can dig into the back story of their drink, including barrel char number (burnt wood lends caramel and vanilla notes), mashbill (grain mix), age, percent of alcohol and distillery. “Our customers have a high level of interest,” said bar general manager Peder Schweigert. “We try to get them to try something different.”
Liquor stores such as the Vintage in Chanhassen are adding “Women and Whiskey” tastings. At Ace Spirits, owner Dachis said he used to think that women wanted lighter and sweeter whiskeys such as Irish or Canadian, but that’s changing, too. “They’re often looking for the same thing as the guys,” he said. Sebring said that women now make up about 25 percent of his whiskey clientele. “A decade ago it was 10 percent,” he said.
Hansen of Butcher & the Boar said he’s excited that this weekend’s Whiskey on Ice event will bring more attention to the spirit, but he added there may also be a downside. “Maybe it will make it even harder to get some of these super-premium whiskeys,” he said.