The Apres’ Ski Cocktail Classic starts mixing in Snowmass on Thursday. This year whiskey will be playing a central role. The brown liquor is gaining popularity. Last year, sales of whiskey in the United States jumped 6 percent. More than 5 million cases of whiskeys were sold including Irish, blended, Single Malt Scotch and American. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, one local whiskey-maker is jumping into the action.
Woody Creek resident Jess Graber carefully pours his newest creation into three clear classes. The golden liquid swirls around a bit and then goes down easy. Graber describes its taste.
"I like to say it starts off with a little honey on a corn muffin in the beginning and then you get spicy raisins and cinnamon in the middle of it and that’s the rye kickin’ in, and then at the end it softens, kind of like the milk that’s left over from a cereal bowl," he says.
Graber’s experienced palate is born from decades of whiskey making with much of it here in the Roaring Fork Valley. He’s the creator of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and, now, his newest product; Tincup American Whiskey.
"Stranahan’s was a 100-percent malted barley whiskey and it was unique to America at that point. I received some challenges from people, especially because it was new and especially from bourbon drinkers. They were saying it was a scotch type of drink, and can you make a real American whiskey? I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can make a real American whiskey.'"
Unlike Stranahan’s, Tincup is a corn-based liquor with hints of rye and malted barley. It’s inspired by Colorado’s mining history and uses water from Colorado. Graber says it is a good time to be in the whiskey business.
"Right now brown goods are on an upswing and more people are trying them. Vodka had a very good run for awhile and now people are changing back and going into brown goods, for whatever reason," he says.
Lew Bryson is Managing Editor of Whiskey Advocate Magazine.
"I mean the brown spirits were dominant in the late 50’s, early 60’s and they always had been in America and that’s about when the decline started. But, the decline in whiskey has finally stopped and has actually turned around and we’re seeing growth again," Bryson says.
After 30 years of steep declines in sales, whiskey is gaining ground and not just here in the U.S. Bryson says international exports topped $1 billion last year.
"American whiskey is really popular in Asia and growing in Europe. One of the big markets is Australia."
The jump in demand for whiskey is due to two things, says Bryson. First is a rebirth of interest in classic cocktails.
"The bartender has become the mixologist and whiskey is a big part of that because a lot of the classic cocktails were about whiskey - a Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Blood and Sand, a Whiskey Sour."
There’s also a surge in artisanally crafted products like whiskey.
"People want to make their own pickles, they want to know where the beef came from, they want to know the cheesemaker, craft beer is the same thing. And, that’s right in whiskey’s wheelhouse, that’s what whiskey’s all about - it’s about the people, the hands and the noses," Bryson says.
Back behind the bar, whiskey-maker Jess Graber prefers his whiskey “neat.” Already, his new product Tincup, which runs about $27 a bottle, is on shelves in most Western states. Still, he’s competing in the world market.
"So, we’re competing against Johnny Walker, which is the largest selling whiskey, we’re competing against Jack Daniels, the largest selling American whiskey, and we want to get our share of it, so it’s a competitive business."
A competitive business that’s surging, with brown spirits such as whiskey growing at a faster rate than popular white spirits, like vodka and gin.