Here's to the ladies!
It was a ramshackle building where adventurous boys climbed one flight up to learn to play pool in a room with a warped floor and straight tables. On the way, we always stole a peek into the first-floor space where the busiest tavern in town was located.
We'd seen the inside of a tavern before. But this one was different. Women were welcome.
Back in the mists of time when I was a youngster, it was rare for a respectable woman to frequent a tavern in towns like the small farming community we called home. There, rough-hewn men drank rough-edged beverages. No distiller or brewer was looking for a share of the female consumer market which barely existed.
A local ordinance prohibited women from sitting at the bar. There was a painted line on the worn wooden floor which they could not cross. They even had their own entrance to the building.
This was not all male chauvinism. In those days, it was expected that business owners would make some efforts to shield the ladies from unwanted attention. The restrictions created a no-action zone.
For the most part, those adventuresome lasses drank the same stuff as the men. Maybe a little bit of sloe gin or Southern Comfort here and there, sweet drinks that rounded off the edges. But no distiller was really aiming to attract them.
Flash forward to today and the female niche of the liquor market is significant, generally interested in beverages tending toward the fruity and the sweet. Distillers are falling all over themselves trying to meet the rising demand.
All of which brings us to one Dean Phillips, fifth-generation head of Phillips Distilling Co. in Minneapolis, a company long known for flavored schnapps and vodkas and spiced whiskies. He's continually on the road pushing a new line of whiskies called Phillips Union. The name may sound like a petroleum product, but it actually is a blend -- a "union'' -- of Kentucky bourbon and Canadian whisky.
In addition to the basic blend, he has one flavored with Michigan Royal Anne cherries, another with Madagascar vanilla. The whiskies come from longtime suppliers whose names Phillips won't reveal.
"I just got back from a tasting demonstration in Lexington, Ky.,'' Phillips said. "You'd expect them to call it sacrilege, blending their bourbon with Canadian, but it really went over very well.''
His basic finished product is 80 proof, fairly standard for your average bourbon or Canadian. The flavored blends, however, are 70 proof (35 percent alcohol), which many surveys say meets the demands of women and younger consumers.
"Over one-third of whiskey consumed in this country is by women,'' said Phillips. "Our new styles intentionally speak to women.''
A recent issue of Advertising Age magazine carried a cover story called "The Death of Beer,'' citing the swift increase in liquor purchases and decline in beer consumption, particularly among young adults.
"The depth of the dilemma (for breweries) was highlighted in a recent survey by Morgan Stanley that found spirits were the most popular drink choice among 21-to-27-year-olds -- the sweet spot for brewers. Among that group, 40 percent said spirits were their favorite drink compared to less than 30 percent in 2003,'' the magazine said.
Phillips Union whiskies ($25 each fpr 750 ml bottles) are made in a facility north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The bourbon and Canadian are taken from their aging barrels and blended in vats with local spring water. Some of the blend then is infused with the cherry or vanilla and left to marry. The finished products are bottled directly from the vats.
Phillips like the idea of lower proofs because "alcohol dulls flavor, sugar enhances it. Jim Aune, our second-generation blender, really knows how to make a great tasting product.''
That opinion was backed up in private tastings I held in which we found the basic Union an exquisitely smooth blend. Aune seems to have captured all the high points of both types of whiskies, removing the signature bite of the bourbon that sometimes is too much for lighter drinkers despite being part of the enjoyment for bourbon regulars.
Some of the tasters were fearful the cherry- and vanilla-infused blends would be too sweet, perhaps on the order of soft drinks. The reality was quite different for some.
While the sweetish vanilla version did require some cutting (plain soda works well) for most of us, the cherry version tasted very much like a ready-made Manhattan straight from the bottle, and was particularly good with a dash of bitters and shaken vigorously with ice to both chill and slightly dilute the blend.
In both instances, mixing them in plain Coca-Cola (3 parts soda, 1 part whiskey) makes adult versions of Cherry Coke and Vanilla Coke, particularly nice for a barbecue or summer party.
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Posted by William M. Dowd at 12:54 PM