Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Tampa Bay bars have trouble holding their bourbon thanks to 'Mad Men,' barrel shortage

TAMPA — It was called the Mad Men effect.

Swaggering up to the bar for an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, gifting fancy whiskey stones and stocking the liquor cabinet with rare single-barrel or small-batch bourbons was the height of the fad.

Thanks in part to the popular television drama, bourbon shed its image as your granddad's drink a few years back.

Even though the series ended in 2015, the luster hasn't worn off. Bourbon remains particularly popular with a hipster millennial crowd and is gaining a rabid following abroad.

But all that demand coupled with a shortage of wood for the barrels in which bourbon soaks has created a shortage. And bars and liquor stores throughout Tampa Bay are scrambling to manage their inventory until production catches up.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Tampa, for instance, was out of Maker's Mark for three weeks straight. ABC Fine Wine & Spirits has been forced to ration each store's weekly bourbon supply. And Hattricks in downtown Tampa tries to stretch supply by setting aside certain brands for their top customers.

"There are months I have trouble getting bottom-shelf brands," said Kristine Becker, the purchasing manager for ABC. "Bourbon is just hot everywhere."

The "bourbon craze" took off a few years ago and has largely been driven by millennials, said David Mangione, one of the partners of Hattricks in downtown Tampa. Last year, the bar was tapped out of Maker's Mark for a full month.

"There's been times where, especially Maker's, was low limited quantity and going to our top customers or we've been out all together," he said.

For the last couple of years, ABC has struggled to keep bourbon on the shelves at its 135 locations.

"We keep our fingers crossed that we're going to get everything we order," Becker said. To stretch the inventory, stores will only get a few bottles or cases per week.

"We're not in this boat alone," she said. "If I'm out, chances are everyone else is out, too."

The best stuff can be hardest to come by. Higher and mid-range products made by companies like Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve are aged a minimum of five years.

The distillers in 2009 and 2010 were producing what they thought would meet today's demand and certainly didn't plan for such a boom. "If you had told us five or six years ago that we would see double digit growth we would have laughed at you," said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Association.

"From 2012 to 2014, the number of distilleries tripled, the number of jobs tripled, our payroll went from $400 million to $700 million," he said. "The numbers are just staggering and we haven't slowed."

A welcome relief for consumers, bars and companies like ABC is that price has remained steady.

"Unlike wine, spirit drinkers are very loyal to their brand. You don't want to lose them by pricing them out," Becker said. "You want to keep that loyalty."

The bourbon buzz is also thriving abroad.

New trade regulations have allowed bourbon and American whiskey to compete on a global scale with its counterparts in Scotland and Ireland, Gregory said. That may be compounding the problem for consumers in the United States.

U.S. distilleries in 2015 sold 38.7 million proof gallons of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a Washington-based lobbying group. As American companies were crying for more, another 33 million proof gallons of bourbon were shipped out to 125 countries. The top bourbon importer was Spain, with nearly 8.8 million proof gallons, followed by Australia at 5.5 million and Japan at about 3.2 million.

"We're hitting and setting major production benchmarks that we haven't seen in half a century," Gregory said. "The blessing and curse is that you can't make it overnight."

Bourbon, by law, must be made in a charred oak barrel, which can't be reused. Major problems with the timber industry since the recession have led to a shortage of the special wood needed to build the barrels, as well as a lack of carpenters to put them together, Gregory said. On top of that, a harsh winter followed by heavy rains in Kentucky may result in further production delays.

"We can only make it so fast and right now we're making and selling as fast as we can," he said.

Distillers in Kentucky, he said, have invested $1.3 billion to expand their operations in an attempt to meet the demand.

In the mean time, hundreds of new distilleries have opened around the country in the last few years to pick up the slack.

Frank Dibling, 62, is one of those distillers.

"When I was a kid whiskey was a popular drink," he said. In the '80s and '90s, the clear liquors like vodka became popular. "Slowly but surely in the mid-2000s the demand changed to whiskey."

Now the vice president of production for the St. Petersburg Distillery, Dibling made the company's first batch of bourbon this year.

He said the company, which currently specializes in whiskey blends, will produce 120 to 150 barrels of bourbon annually.

In 2021, the distillery's first batch will likely be a novelty, made with 100 percent Florida corn, which is sweeter. He is confident that they will sell, but still, there is some risk involved.

"No one knows what the demand will be when they're ready," he said.

Contact Alli Knothe at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA

     
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