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How whiskey got its groove back

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

That's what I was thinking when Ray Isle, executive wine editor at Food & Wine, stopped by our studio to talk about the whiskey boom that's taken America by storm.  

"Suddenly brown spirits, particularly whiskey -- which includes bourbon, scotch and Irish whiskey -- have become cool," Isle says. "It's been pushed by the whole cocktail movement, which has a little Mad Men effort behind it. And I think people are getting a little tired of the vodka boom; they're thinking 'there's got to be something else out there to try'."

And try they have, as these stats from a recent USA Today article suggest:

  • U.S. whiskey exports exceeded $1 billion last year, up from $400 million just a decade ago.
  • Whiskey sales rose 10.2% last year, according to the Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council.
  • Reversing a two-decade long decline in its share of the U.S. alcohol market, whiskey has gained 6 percentage points since 2000, to 34.7%.

Isle says rumblings that increased demand could lead to a whiskey "shortage" may not be so far-fetched.

"You can't call it 'scotch whiskey' unless it's been aged a certain number of years in barrel, the same with bourbon, he says. "As a result, you have to forecast way in advance to know what you're going to need. That unfortunately means if you don't predict it right you're suddenly out of stock; and you can't just get more from somewhere."

(All whiskey is distilled from fermented grain mash; location of production, the aging process and select ingredients are the key differences between whiskey, bourbon and scotch. See this Mental Floss article for more details.)

In the meantime, he recommends those new to "brown" spirits start with bourbon, noting there some "really nice bourbons" from major producers like Maker's Mark, Baker's, Blanton's, Booker's (all the Bs) that "are not so price prohibitive you can't play around."

For those with more experience and deeper pockets, "you can spend an enormous amount of money, particularly on single malt scotch," Isle notes. Earlier this year, a six-liter bottle of the highly sought Macallan 'M' fetched $628,205 at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong -- a record for a single-malt and above the expected range of $258,000 to $516,000.

Isle didn't comment on the Macallan 'M' but he did bring a few of his favorite 'browns' to sample, as you'll see in the accompanying video.

Like I said, it's a tough job...

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.