Bourbon Bars are the New Dive Bar

Nestled in between salty peanuts and a cold beer, a candle flickers in a dive bar. A candle! What is that thing doing there?

I rub my hand along the bar’s edge. Gone were the familiar sticky spots. The original lacquer felt smooth to the touch. Hey, what’s going on here? Why aren’t my soles making peeling sounds when I walk? And where’s the occasional peanut shell crunch?

I cracked open the menu. It’s new, the candlelight—ugh, the candle—reflecting on its plastic sheen. Gone are the $4 canned beers and $5 bourbon shot specials. Now, it’s Old Fashioned, Martini, and some house cocktails, and the canned beer is now $6, Maker’s Mark is $7 and Old Forester 1897 is $16. What the hell?

Come to find out, some hipster found this watering hole, wrote about it on Yelp, which then attracted the local independent newspaper, which attracted the city’s visitor bureau, who showed it to a travel writer, who called it a great Dive Bar in some magazine. And now, it’s known, and the owners freshened it up for the new customers whose presence offended long-time customers—thick knuckle plumber guy and chain-smoking data cruncher who hates his job. Apparently, this new crowd doesn’t like the 1960s smell and crusty charm that made it a true dive bar, and the owners, too afraid to be themselves, put candles in the place and lost all the customers who brought them to the dance.

If you didn’t know it from before and or really didn’t understand dive bars, you may think nothing of the new wall paper. But when it changed to reflect its new clientele, the dive bar lost its soul—all too common amongst dive bars, which became havens for the cool kids, who go to the next great thing as soon as a so-called influencer tells them to.

Without thick knuckle plumber and chain-smoking data cruncher, the numbers inside grow fewer, nobody plays darts on Tuesdays and the electric bills become past due. They closed, and it’s the sort of story that plays out in every industry since mankind sought to grow businesses. If you don’t take care of your loyal customers, you’ll lose them.

The bar business, however, is about servicing customers and they’re supposed to know their customers, but many dive bars didn’t notice the loyals were gone until it was too late—a trend American whiskey bars may soon face.

It’s been 10 years since the great bourbon boom truly trickled into the everyday bar business. I’ve seen nearly a dozen bourbons in chain restaurants in places as random as Boise, Idaho. In major cities, if a bar doesn’t have at least 20 bourbons, some people walk out unimpressed. And of course, more than 100 bourbon-themed bars quench our thirst all over the country.

But there’s a new phase of bourbon bars and restaurants—they have no identity and don’t know who they’re targeting. So many bourbon bars employ bartenders who don’t know jack shit about bourbon.

The best at educating staffs and having an identity: Bourbon’s Bistro and Silver Dollar in Louisville; Jack Rose, Washington, D.C.; canon, Seattle; and Delilah’s, Chicago. All of which maintain massive bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey collections, servicing unique-to-them customers entirely different. For example, canon boasts the world’s most-impressive original cocktail list and is bubbling over with vintage whiskey, attracting cocktail lovers and whiskey geeks. Jack Rose appeals to this audience, too, but a U.S. senator is as likely to come here for the steak as the whiskey. And Delilah’s, well, the charm flows here.

Despite increased competition, these whiskey bars never changed their approach, always doing what they do and uniquely appealing to their customers. Meanwhile, others shifted focus for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s out of their control, such as they can no longer purchase Pappy Van Winkle, but the great bars adapted by offering private barrel selections and selling affordable pours.

Furthermore, many new bourbon bars lack originality, slapping 60 whiskeys on a menu and calling it a day. Their staff doesn’t know the meaning of a barrel-entry proof and their menus offer three vodka cocktails. In 2016, at a major so-called whiskey bar, I saw more gin cocktails than bourbon ones. That’s great for a general concept, but don’t claim to be a whiskey bar if you’re not celebrating the spirit with your cocktail menu. (I’d name the bar, but I told the owner in person and hope they changed the menu.)

I fear bourbon bars may be going the way of dive bars, becoming too clichéd in an effort to capture the Johnny-come-lately bourbon fan.

But there’s still hope: The good bars don’t want to change who they are.

Portions of this post originally appeared in Whisky Magazine. Fred Minnick is the author of Bourbon: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of American Whiskey

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2 Replies to “Bourbon Bars are the New Dive Bar”

  1. If you’re ever in Chapel Hill, NC, check out The Crunkleton. Owner Gary Crunkleton is bona fide, and his broad-and-deep whiskey selection, curated over several years and long before bourbon was “a thing,” is one reason it’s won several Garden & Gun and Southern Living magazine awards.

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