The Path to the Dark Side

Five ways to spot the next big spirit

From a rough cowboy-swigging relic to the super smooth Don Draper, the bourbon boom has been in full swing for years and shows no signs of stopping, with 2017 exports surging 14% to become the largest export category of US distilled spirits. With hindsight, the path to the dark side was surprisingly well lit. All the signs were there for bourbon’s riotous revival, so what were they, where have we seen them before and how can we be sure to spot them again?

 

  1. The Original Influencers

It seems that bartenders may be the last experts we are willing to trust. Bartenders’ resurrection of the famous post-war Savoy Cocktail Book was seen as a key part in gin’s renaissance, while bourbon’s versatility, taste profile and accessibility made it a staple in the noughties cocktail culture (including endless new takes on the classic Old Fashioned). For both drinks this has paved the way for their transition into more mainstream palettes and regular repertoires, showing how today’s cutting edge cocktails predict a spirit’s future success. A glance at the contents of Dandelyan’s (winner of World’s Best Cocktail Bar 2018) latest menu reflects the alcohol abstinence trend while potentially pegging vermouth and absinthe as ones to watch.  

 

  1. The Imitation Game  

At their simplest, brands are still cultural symbols, sending off both implicit and explicit messages to all who see them. There lies bourbon’s secret power: its enviable associations. Cowboys, rockstars, Sinatra, Draper; they are all effortlessly cool. For brand ambassadors, you couldn’t make that dream team up. Associations may be key to bourbons success, but they can be a blessing or a burden. It’s one of the starkest differences between Scotch and bourbon. Scotch’s deeply ingrained associations are strict, serious and in the worst case stuffy which, combined with its price tag, has seen its success stalling in the US. Dispelling these outdated associations while not having an identity crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing Scotch, but more about how to solve that in 2019…

  1. The Pull of the Past

With so much uncertainty around the world and ever greater fault lines in society, the pull of the past is greater than ever, and yet another string to bourbon’s bow. For reassurance, reliability and romanticism, the past is where we automatically retreat. We view days gone by through rose-tinted glasses: times were simpler then, more glamorous, more personal, more caring. Its allure is powerful, and has been most visible in the last decade through our return to artisanal, small batch, crafted produce and retro-inspired designs (epitomised by brands such as Few). It’s why bourbon is finding further opportunities in going back to its roots. Bourbon as a style was originally made thanks to corn being more readily available in America (to count as bourbon, the spirit legally has to contain at least 51% corn). Some producers such as Woody Creek are now growing their own corn, harking back to a more organic and sustainable past in order to drive difference.

  1. The Force of the Foodie

Another part of bourbon’s success in the UK has been attributed to the Americanisation of cuisine, with the proliferation of rib bars and burger joints. When it comes to spirits, the control over serve, context and credibility a restaurant can give is only paralleled in bars and therefore equally crucial in reinventing a forgotten classic. Food trends foreshadowing drinks trends is a pattern we’ve seen before with the premiumisation of Mexican food in the US and UK leading to the revival of sipping tequila (another area we’ve been delving into recently, ahead of a 2019 launch).

  1. The Holy Grail

Finally, the inevitable…As America’s only Native Spirit, bourbon has authenticity in abundance. Creatively, this rich drink’s rich history is a gold mine both verbally and visually, you just need the tools to excavate it. When stories are social currency, the value of a brand’s fifteen-second fact is high. The holy grail of authenticity doesn’t need to come from decades of heritage, though, it can equally be found in process, product or personality. Wit (tone) or wisdom (facts) can work wonders in sparking an instantaneous emotional connection. That’s why we centred one of our latest creations, the surprisingly fruitful Barren River, around the irony of its name.