When the Urban Bourbon Trail was created in Louisville, Ky., in 2008, member bars were required to list at least 50 bourbons. Is it me or does 50 bourbons in 2021 sound like too few to have at a dedicated bourbon bar?
Agree with me or not, what’s the ideal number? And how much variety is required given age, brands, types, regions, distilleries and more? Here’s another: Must it have proper glassware? And what about ice … and staff knowledge … even food choices?
Agreeing on answers to those questions may never happen, so let’s just start with what I think are at least 13 basic requirements for a dedicated bourbon bar.
1. IT HAS AT LEAST 150 SELECTIONS
Anything less is just, well, a bar. Far as that number … I like round numbers for marketing purposes. But I also like that count to include a broad range of brands, distilleries and even geography. And here are the operational facts: 75 will sell regularly, and the other half more slowly due to higher prices or customer dislike. Those slower sellers give owners an opportunity to freshen the list.
And speaking of freshening the list, great bourbon bars update theirs frequently, i.e. removing the names of depleted stock. Customers hate hearing, “I’m sorry, but we’re out of that,” in the digital age.
2. ITS STAFFERS ARE KNOWLEDGEABLE AND ACQUAINTED WITH EVERYTHING ON THE SHELF.
The question of, “What’s that taste like?” should always be answerable. “Dunno. Never tried it,” doesn’t work in a real bourbon bar. Educated staffers also know the bourbon backstories that lead to entertaining experiences and better tips.
3. A TRUE BOURBON BAR HAS AN EASILY NAVIGABLE WHISKEY MENU.
This can take many forms, such as alphabetizing the lineup. But what about going further and alphabetizing it by brand? Some break it down further by mash bill or age, but that’s overcomplicating it.
4. A GREAT BOURBON BAR HAS RATIONAL PRICING.
What’s rational in 2021, when bourbon pricing is crazy irrational? I loosely define it as “not shockingly beyond what consumers pay at retail in their specific market.” (In other words, rationally high prices in New York will be irrational in Lexington.) For example, any bourbon I’d pay $25 +/- a bottle for off the shelf should cost $6-$9 for a 2 oz. pour. Do the math to see that that’s a gross margin ranging from 300-450%. Pretty sweet. What about a $100 bottle at retail? Apply the same 3x to 4.5x markups to get $25-$37 per 2 oz. pour. Seems “rational,” right?
And speaking of price, market pricing is ridiculous and screams “the owner’s whim.” I went to a bourbon bar once that boasted 350 offerings and was excited about all those choices until I saw there were no prices beside them on the menu. Buh-bye. That windsock of an owner cares more about secondary market movements than providing fair value to customers.
5. ANY PROPER BOURBON BAR USES CORRECT GLASSWARE.
Glencairn and NEAT glasses are pricy and fragile, yet they’re beneficial to the experience. They’re another reason why such bars can charge 300 percent and higher margins. So, no rocks glasses. Ever. A neat pour served in a rocks glass is akin to serving a sirloin steak in a bowl. It shows that the establishment knows nothing about presentation or enjoying that opening aromatic salvo of caramel, oak and citrus. Proper glassware is essential.
6. A GREAT BOURBON BAR SERVES A SMALL RANGE OF FOODS THAT COMPLEMENT BOURBON.
I’m not suggesting the bar be a restaurant, but it should at least serve small bites that improve the experience. Paper-thin-sliced cured ham is excellent, as are smoked almonds or candied nuts. Good quality milk chocolate also is great, as are aged cheeses. People’s appetites are stimulated by alcohol, so why miss out on an incremental, high-margin sales opportunity? A little food also helps with sobriety.
7. ANY GREAT BOURBON BAR HAS A BOTTLED-IN-BOND CATEGORY!
BIBs are history lessons waiting to be taught and sipped. They’re also fine measuring rods for whiskey quality in general. Depending on the year, there are 40 or more BIB offerings on the U.S. market, and at least 10 are widely available through most distributors. They also are typically affordable.
8. A DEDICATED BOURBON BAR SERVES FLIGHTS.
Firstly, these are a layup to create, and people love ‘em. (Flight names alone can be half the fun of creating and choosing them.) Do flights of wheated bourbons, rye bourbons and four-grain bourbons to teach about mash bills. Do BIB flights to focus on that category. Do flights from Kentucky, flights from Tennessee, flights from Colorado, or single-brand-only flights to demonstrate a house style across that brand. Do a Bar Manager’s Choice for every week. The possibilities are endless and profitable.
9. A PROPER BOURBON BAR HAS A BASIC 10-ITEM COCKTAIL LIST, AT LEAST.
Five classics and five staff choices—based on set recipes fully mastered by the staff. Great bars make consistent cocktails and create a house style. I go out of my way to visit bars where I know particular drinks are great and always made the same way. Even a riff on a classic can be great when it’s consistent across a single bar staff.
10. AND TO MAKE GREAT COCKTAILS, A GREAT BOURBON BAR MUST HAVE GREAT ICE.
The premium presentation of dense ice in cocktails or spheres and squares for a rock pour is officially part of an elevated experience. The machines that make those aren’t cheap, but their positive effect on every drink is amazing.
11. A GREAT BOURBON BAR’S STAFF POURS WITH JIGGERS.
Why? It shows customers they’re getting everything they’re paying for and, you guessed it, it’s consistent. Jiggers also negate the need for “rocks pour charge,” which is the most arbitrary and stupid upcharge ever created. Just pour the whiskey neat and serve rocks on the side and never overcharge the customer again.
12. A GREAT BOURBON BAR HAS ITS OWN VIBE.
Whether it’s as noisy as a never-ending happy hour or ponderous and quiet, customers can know ahead of time whether their mood at that moment fits the bar’s mood. Some days you just want a hideout. On others, you expect to see the roof rise off the joint. I love both.
13. LASTLY, A GREAT BOURBON BAR HAS COMFORTABLE FURNITURE.
Save the wood stools for the beer-and-a-shot spots. They don’t belong here. My ideal bar seats are padded and backed; they beg my back to stay awhile. The rest of the room would be lounge-like: a mix of cushy leather couches and chairs with shared end tables. I love sports, but I can do without the TVs when I want to drink whiskey. In those moods, I’m generally with friends I want to talk with. And if going solo, people watching in a great bar is hard to beat.
OK, readers, I’ve had my say, so let’s have yours! Tell us what would you consider some basic necessities of an ideal bourbon bar? Add your comments below so we all can learn!