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Sip and savor Buffalo's growing taste for whiskey

The local craft beer boom has grown so large, it's obvious even to non-beer drinkers. Bars boast of the number of craft beers and taps they have available, local breweries are releasing new beers on a regular basis and events are centered around - you guessed it - craft beer.

Quietly stirring around the loud craft beer explosion is a cascading wave of interest in whiskey, a spirit to be sipped and savored much like a fine wine.

Lucky Day Whiskey Bar (320 Pearl St.) opened less than a year ago and showcases more than 600 different bottles of whiskey. Restaurants such as Marble + Rye, Toutant, Roaming Bison Tavern and NEAT all boast impressive whiskey menus to pair with the food.

Crabapples Micro Brew Pub in Cheektowaga now hosts a weekly Bourbon Night on Thursdays. And the inaugural Buffalo Whiskey Fest, set for Jan. 28, quickly sold out.

[READ: How to savor Step Out Buffalo's inaugural Whiskey Fest]

Several regional distilleries including Buffalo Distilling, Tommyrotter Distillery, Black Button Distilling and Southern Tier Distilling started with clear spirits like vodka and gin and have since expanded to include whiskey.

Bobby Finan is the co-founder and head distiller at Tommyrotter. He's next to the oak barrels where the whiskey ages. He's holding a bottle of their American Whiskey. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Tim Stevens, owner of Lucky Day and Ballyhoo, said he has noticed three reasons for whiskey’s growth in the area: variety, marketing and quality. “There are a lot more ways to ease into the spirit then there ever have been which only leads to a progression in the palate and furthers curiosity," Stevens said.

"Marketing will always play a very large role in the state of consumption, and a lot of doors have been opened for whiskey [locally]. The stigma is gone now, the association to old molds of the whiskey consumer are able to be embraced as well as built upon. Quality obviously doesn’t hurt.”

Tim Stevens owns Lucky Day with his wife Morgan. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The same is true for purveyors entrenched in Buffalo’s craft beer explosion. Pete Orfanos of Crabapples is well known for pouring rare and fantastic beer in his Genesee Street pub. The demand for whiskey is so great he started the Bourbon Night.

“Whiskey has the same complexities and underlying tones that the new artisan ales possess,” Orfanos said, adding whiskey and beer can be enjoyed in a similar fashion.

“They are both layered with intricacies and nuances that create that fantastic euphoria in the imbiber. The experience starts right away with the nostrils and warms right to the belly. The many stages tickle the palate and the intellect much like a hearty stout or super-hopped IPA.”

Expert tips on where to start with whiskey

One of the reasons whiskey has grown so quickly is the broad interest in the spirit. While bars and distilleries are seeing mostly men belly up to the oak, women have joined the movement.

Tommyrotter Distillery makes an American whiskey and a bourbon whiskey. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Distiller Andy Wegrzyn of Buffalo Distilling said Buffalo is unique in this way. “Women are certainly interested in the whiskey revolution as well. The Buffalo women have always had a smart, hipness about them and we are seeing their interest in our Bourbon grow, too.”

Bobby Finan of Tommyrotter Distillery agreed. “Our guests will be from all over the spectrum. Avid whiskey collectors who know excruciating detail about every brand to new legal drinkers looking to be more informed about a beverage they see popping up more and more in back bars and blog posts.”

Interest in craft whiskey is rising as rapidly as the ongoing craft beer movement. Once limited to a regional specialty, craft whiskey is setting roots all over the country.

Wegrzyn of Buffalo Distilling has helped to spearhead whiskey production in the area, and said local ingredients play an important role makes whiskey great.

“I can choose whiskey distilled by hundreds of different new craft distilleries from all over the country who are mashing the local corn, rye, wheat, barley and then distilling, aging and bottling for a what should be a unique imprint of their region and their approach to whiskey great,” he said. “It is truly the most exciting thing to happen to whiskey in the last 100 years.”

That excitement led to the creation of the Buffalo Whiskey Fest which will feature tastings of more than 75 whiskeys, seminars, and vendors of specialty products associated with whiskey. Finan of Tommyrotter Distillery explained how the festival came to be.

“As I was preparing for Tommyrotter Distillery's release of its Triple Barrel American Whiskey, I was trying to think of a way to get the word out about our new product. I thought, how can we get hundreds of whiskey drinkers in one place. The answer was Buffalo Whiskey Fest.”

“Over the past five years, brown spirits have been growing like wildfire," Finan said. "Everyone has a friend that is a whiskey enthusiast. Imbibers now sample whiskeys like they would craft beers; many local bars even offer whiskey flights so guests can try their different selections."

The interest in whiskey seems to be only growing. Another Buffalo Whiskey Fest is already being planned for the fall. And at Lucky Day, where owner Stevens likens his whiskey menu to a library, it seems he may need to do some remodeling already.

“Lucky Day is a grand space with a larger-than-life feel to it so a library build out seemed to fit. We currently offer 600 different bottles of whiskey ... I guess I’ll have to build more shelves,” Stevens joked.

A portion of the whiskey wall at Lucky Day. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

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