The Seaport Boston Hotel’s beverage director, Eric Loring, sniffed and sipped from three small plastic cups, jotting down the kind of notes you might expect to see at a wine tasting. He recorded the taste of “sweet,” “oaky,” and “nice spice” flavors.
“You can feel the heat on your lips and just on the tip of your tongue,” he said after downing another.
Loring was sampling blends mixing three bourbons in a dozen different proportions, looking for the perfect combination to sell at the hotel as its own uniquely flavored spirit. Like many other hotels, restaurants, bars, and even liquor stores, the Seaport Hotel is trying to capture a little bit of the bourbon boom in its own private-label bottles.
Sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have climbed 34 percent in the last five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And the $2.5 billion bourbon industry appears to be hotter than ever. Last month, Japanese liquor giant Suntory offered to buy the iconic Kentucky bourbon brand Jim Beam for $13.6 billion.
Restaurants and bars looking to stand out to bourbon fans can spend as much as $13,000 to purchase an entire barrel, because the taste of each one is uniquely affected by its aging period, storage location, and other factors.
Others work with distillers like Angel’s Envy to mix bourbon from different barrels and come up with blends they can call their own.
“You want to find a whiskey that reflects who you are,” said David DuBois, owner of the Franklin Restaurant Group. “You want to offer your customers something they can’t get in any other bar.”
DuBois’s Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar offers more than 100 whiskeys, including seven single-barrels he purchased from distillers all over the world.
Redstone Liquors in Stoneham sells two private label bourbons: an Angel’s Envy blend and an Eagle Rare single barrel.
Chris Gifford, a sales manager who leads Angel’s Envy custom bourbon blending events, expects booming Massachusetts business to surpass 2013 levels by mid-March.
“Everyone is looking for a point of difference,” Gifford said. “The overall quality of restaurants has gone up and you have to set yourself apart in some way.”
Bourbon is a whiskey with high standards. It must be distilled in new charred American white oak barrels, made with at least 51 percent corn in the United States, and be at least 80 proof. Straight whiskey, which is also bourbon, must be aged for at least two years and anything less than four years must be noted on the bottle.
The spirits council said 53 new bourbon brands entered the market last year and they are not all private labels or high-end products. Trader Joe’s offers its own brand of bourbon and even warehouse retailer Costco sells its own Kirkland Signature Premium Small Batch Bourbon.
Joy Richard, the Franklin Restaurant Group’s beverage director, said the popularity of bourbon is increasing thanks to a trend called “the cocktail renaissance,” the revitalization of mixed drinks. As some mixologists are inspired to invent new libations, others refresh the classics.
“So many classic cocktails have whiskey as a base spirit,” Richard said. “As people gained more interest in the classic cocktails they started using more whiskey.”
Whiskey or bourbon is the key ingredient in the Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned, and the Mint Julep.
Richard said new whiskey drinkers tend to gravitate toward bourbon, which can be less harsh.
Melissa Abraham, 27, prefers a Whiskey Smash — bourbon muddled with mint, simple syrup, and club soda.
Abraham, an event marketing coordinator at the Seaport Hotel, said bourbon-based cocktails have unseated her former favorite, vodka.
“I don’t love fruity or sweet drinks, so this really appealed to me,” she said. “When I was younger, I just associated it with an older generation. I didn’t know I was going to love it until I gave it a try.”
Abraham is a among a growing number of female whiskey drinkers. Women make up nearly half the membership of the Citizen’s whiskey tasting club and restaurateurs say they have seen an uptick in women ordering bourbon drinks.
Abraham, Loring, and a group of other Seaport employees recently tasted and mixed Angel’s Envy bourbons to come up with their own blend. The more experienced bourbon drinkers described the flavors as caramel, butterscotch, almond, and white pepper. The less experienced called it burning water.
They tasted 12 samples over an hour-and-a-half before selecting a blend with a robust flavor and smooth finish.
“We have a winner!” Gifford said. “No one can ever duplicate your blend.”