Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Ore., has a lot of the things you’d expect to find in a whiskey bar – leather chairs, dark wood, a certain amber glow. It also has something you don’t see every day: a ladder.
The bartenders need those steps to reach some of the higher-perched spirits in its collection of 850 types of whiskey. Multnomah, which opened last fall, is one of a new breed of whiskey parlors that could be called “ladder bars” because they possess such an enormous variety, far beyond that of the average whiskey bar, that every square inch of wall space must be put to work.
You’ll find ladders, too, at Hard Water, a waterfront bar in San Francisco that specializes in rare and vintage whiskeys; Canon, in Seattle, where roughly two-thirds of the 3,500-bottle collection are whiskeys; Flatiron Lounge, in New York, which carries 750 to 1,000 whiskeys at any given time; and Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the Washington, D.C., bar that can be considered the father of the über whiskey bar. When it opened in 2011, it had 1,200 selections. Today, it has 1,800 and room for more.
These saloons have timed their arrival well, as Americans’ thirst for whiskey, and for whiskey knowledge, has skyrocketed. Sales of bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and Irish whiskey, particularly high-end brands, have risen sharply over the last decade. In 2013, 18 million nine-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in this country, compared with 13.4 million in 2003, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Distilleries in Kentucky, Scotland, Ireland, Japan and other strongholds have responded by releasing more varieties: small batch, single barrel, barrel proof, limited edition.
That is a lot of whiskey. And obsessive bar owners are intent on cramming a good chunk of it into one space.
“The traditional business model for a bar, you don’t want to sit on inventory,” said Alan Davis, an owner of Multnomah. “Our business model is to have a massive inventory. We take the ‘library’ word very seriously.”
Surprisingly, given their huge stock, most of these bar owners say few bottles gather dust.
“The vintage stuff only sells about every two months or so, but everything else moves pretty well,” said Jamie Boudreau, the owner of Canon. “The one beautiful thing about the collection is that because people order so many different things, most bottles usually last four to six months before needing to be replaced.”
Geoffrey Rosenblatt, a regular at Hard Water and a member of the San Francisco Whiskey Society, likes to meet up with other enthusiasts and try a variety of whiskeys.
“They opened at the right time, at the peak of the whiskey phase,” said Rosenblatt, a residential construction manager. “But I think it would do well regardless. There’s really nothing else like it.”
Lew Bryson, the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine, says the trend can be traced to “the Van Winkle phenomenon,” the craze for Pappy Van Winkle, the most sought-after cult bourbon. “ ‘Pappy-ophilia’ started about three years ago,” he said, “and that’s when ‘dusty hunting’ ” – the quest for old and rare spirits – “became more than something a relative handful of guys were doing.”
These collections don’t grow overnight. Davis hired a “curator” a year ahead of time to assemble Multnomah’s. Boudreau had been collecting bottles for a decade before opening Canon. (Brandy Library, a forerunner in New York, opened in 2004 and now has about 500 whiskeys.)
The owners are not mere completists, buying every whiskey that rolls off the still. “There’s no skill in that,” said Erik Adkins, the bar manager of Hard Water, which stocks few whiskeys less than 90 proof.
Davis, of Multnomah, said that while he has “something for everyone,” his list is compiled with an eye toward quality. But for Bill Thomas, an owner of Jack Rose, there’s not a lot new that’s hard to like.
“Especially on the Scotch side,” he said, “there are whiskeys that are being released every day that we know are the iconic whiskeys for the next decade.”
Thomas does not mind that there are now other bars that can match his numbers. “It makes us go the next geekier mile,” he said.