The liquor stock at Delilah’s, a dark punk and country bar on North Lincoln Avenue, can make you think you’re seeing triple. Not only is there no room for more bottles behind the bar, there’s barely space for the bottles that are already there.
Owner Mike Miller likes to describe Delilah’s as his hobby bar. “I’m only really trying to cater to me,” says Miller, a gregarious 39-year-old who founded the bar 13 years ago while studying for a BFA in film at Columbia College. “What I saw when I opened was a real lack of product. Most bars didn’t have more than a bottle of Jim Beam and a bottle of Daniel’s.” Today Delilah’s is considered among the country’s best bars for drinking straight spirits: if you want whiskey, there are 375 from 11 countries on offer.
That number’s gone up: this week Miller launched his own line of whiskey. Delilah’s house whiskeys, exceptional single barrels of bourbon and scotch, were selected by Miller from a few undisclosed distilleries. Currently the bourbon is on sale only at the bar (which will host a tasting on January 4), but Miller plans to start selling it at a few other local bars and restaurants next year. Over time he hopes to expand the brand internationally. “I try to think pretty local,” he says. “In this case, I’m contemplating global.”
Miller’s been mulling this idea since Delilah’s tenth anniversary in 2003, which he celebrated by bottling and selling shots from a single barrel of decade-old wheat bourbon he’d sampled in Kentucky. This year, for Delilah’s 13th anniversary, he did the same thing with a 13-year-old rye bourbon, then worked to make more of it available. “The idea was to continue to produce it,” he says.
Miller has deep connections in the whiskey world–especially the Kentucky part of it, where he gets access to forgotten barrels in the back corners of warehouses. He claims to know every master distiller in the Kentucky bourbon business, and says that a well-known distiller in Scotland (whose name he agreed not to disclose) has promised to let him cherry-pick from its barrels once a year. The bottles for Delilah’s have arrived from France, the labels (an eye-catching monochromatic design) are finished, and Miller has a local distributor, Maxwell Street Trading. Larger distributors have expressed interest but Miller has turned them down, saying he doesn’t want to grow too fast.
The 13-year-old bourbon, samples of which were poured at the anniversary party in August, went on sale December 14. It’s spicy and powerful, with a rye zing. “I knew it would say Chicago on the label and I wanted it to be a big, bold, shouldered whiskey,” Miller says. You can take a bottle home, but it won’t come cheap: $75. (A shot at the bar goes for $6.50.)
Delilah’s house brand wouldn’t appear to present much of a force in the larger whiskey market. But the bar has a loyal clientele, and Miller is convinced that his customers will help spread the word. “If you go into the liquor store down the road and you see a bottle of Delilah’s and you’re part of Delilah’s long-term community, you’re buying that bottle of whiskey,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. You’re buying it because you have an association with it already.”
Interest in high-quality, pricey bourbon is higher than it’s been in almost a century. But there’s not enough high-quality bourbon to go around. “Fifteen years ago, people weren’t sitting around thinking, ‘In 15 years, there’s going to be a lot of people interested in overaged bourbon,'” Miller says.
Lew Bryson, the managing editor of Malt Advocate, a quarterly that covers whiskey and the distilling industry, confirms that “bourbon supplies are drying up.” (He adds that bourbon, which must contain at least 51 percent corn, isn’t as rare as aged rye whiskey, which he says “is almost impossible to find.” Delilah’s carries more than 20 brands of rye.) Malt Advocate hosts an annual WhiskyFest at a downtown Chicago hotel, and Bryson notes that attendees routinely end up at Delilah’s. “Delilah’s is in the first tier [of whiskey bars], no question,” he says.
If American whiskey producers missed their own comeback, that’s not so surprising: they’ve had a tough century. Before Prohibition, whiskey was America’s drink, and it was produced in prodigious quantities. “As soon as Prohibition hit, you’ve got hundreds of thousands of barrels in dozens and dozens of distilleries,” Miller says. “All these family distilleries–what are they going to do with all this whiskey? They’re fucked. Some people had licenses where they could continue to bottle for medicinal purposes only–you could get a prescription for whiskey.” In fact, Delilah’s carries one brand, Old Mock, whose pre-Prohibition bottles came with a medicinal label on the back. It’s $40 a shot.
During the 13 years of Prohibition, people drank homemade beer and wine, as well as cocktails that masked the taste of black-market vodka and gin. When it came to whiskey, Miller says, people shifted from “drinking bold, brown spirits to drinking lighter whiskeys coming out of Canada and bootlegged over the border.” The national palate changed, and that change affected the whiskey industry when Prohibition ended. Before Prohibition, whiskey was taxed every year it was in the barrel, which meant producers rarely aged it longer than four years. The annual tax was rescinded after Prohibition, and whiskeys that had aged for at least 14 years during that time came on the market. “You not only have access again to American whiskey, but you have access to whiskeys that have been sitting in the barrel way longer than they ever would have before, creating a much, bigger, bolder, over-the-top product,” Miller says. The difference in taste, among other factors, made whiskey fall out of favor. “Nobody was drinking this stuff,” he says. “We went from 200 American whiskey distilleries to 40 that reopened after Prohibition. Now we have maybe 12.”
Many distilleries began closing in the 80s, just before bourbon took off in America. Ironically, their excess inventory, bought by other labels, has supported the spirit’s resurgence. (The Delilah’s ten-year-old bourbon, for instance, came from the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which closed in 1991.) As the stock of barrels diminishes, some distillers and independent distributors of rarer bourbons have started to behave like hard-core mushroom hunters, desperate to protect their secret spots. The origin of any previously unknown, seriously aged bourbon is treated as classified information. Miller won’t disclose where his 13-year-old whiskey comes from.
“In America, access to private barrels remains very limited,” Miller says. “No active whiskey-making distillery will sell me a barrel to put my label on.” That’s unlikely to change, he adds, because even if the market is strong, whiskey is a poor way to make a quick buck. “Why do you see so much investment in vodka?” he asks. “Because you make it today and you sell it tomorrow. And the margin on it is much higher. A $30 bottle of vodka? Are you kidding? As opposed to a $30 bottle of whiskey that took six, eight years to mature in an oak barrel. That’s why there’s a new vodka on the market every day and there aren’t new whiskey products.”
That’s partly why Miller is hesitant to grow a Delilah’s line too fast: “What if I came into the market big and then I couldn’t get any more? There’s not an endless supply.”
But even Miller, who likes to say that his bar “is never going to be Delilah’s Martini Ranch,” admits that prestige whiskey isn’t what most Americans think of as whiskey. “The market will still continue to consume more young American whiskey than older whiskey,” he says, before uttering a statistic that must give him heartburn. “I mean, 75 percent of whiskey is mixed with Coke.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos J. Ortiz.