It’s no coincidence that, as Raleigh’s millennial population grows, so does its population of cocktail bars. In fact, in recent years, imbibers under 35 have shown a clear preference for spirits and mixed drinks over beer, with beer comprising just 43 percent of alcohol consumed by young drinkers in 2016, down from 65 percent in 2006, according to a study by Anheuser-Busch InBev, owner of Budweiser.
With this market trend in mind, Raleigh’s Lonerider Brewing Company just launched its sister brand, Lonerider Spirits, and releases its debut, a sherry cask finished bourbon whiskey, this month. Bottled at a distiller in Durham, the whiskey will be available in North Carolina ABC stores, bars, restaurants and, eventually, in eight other states.
“We saw the spirit market at the same place we saw the beer market almost 10 years ago,” explains Lonerider’s CEO, Sumit Vohra, a well-known local entrepreneur who quit the tech industry to pursue his beer-making dream. “We know that it’s going to grow at the same rate, and we have the opportunity to become a part of that.”
Lonerider has been brewing Ales for Outlaws since 2009 and boasts an impressive portfolio of award-winning beers. With the rapidly emerging national trend toward craft spirits, branching out seemed a logical step for the popular local brand.
So why did they choose to make a whiskey first?
“It’s very simple,” says Vohra. “We like it. We’ve always enjoyed the complexity of the flavors. Whiskey is a passion; we appreciate the art of whiskey. It’s a spirit of time and the spirit of drinking slowly.”
Chris Mielke, president of Lonerider Spirits and a former blogger for Southern Distilling News visited 50 distilleries nationwide while researching the process and the market.
“People are starting to appreciate the complexity [of whiskey],” Mielke says. “There’s so many variations, so much you can do with whiskey, we enjoy it and wanted to create something that stands out.”
And just as consumer tastes are changing, so is the stuffy image sometimes associated with whiskey. Like the surge in popularity of craft beer over big name beer brands, the younger crowd’s gravitation toward spirits is adding a trendy, cool edge to the whole sipping experience. And, as with beer, millennials prefer not to drink their father’s whiskey or bourbon. But their dads might just want to taste some of theirs.
“There’s also a big movement of women who drink whiskey,” adds Mielke. “There’s still more men right now, but it’s amazing, it’s not 70/30 anymore; it’s 60/40.”
With the Lonerider brand already well established, Vohra and Mielke are confident the new products will have a broad appeal.
“We’re trying to use the same resources as the brewery, and we’re giving the same level of dedication to bringing spirits onto the market,” Vohra says. “Our team already understands the ethos of the brand, the soul of the brand as I like to call it. It’s something we can replicate and sell whiskey with as well.”
And there will be a crossover between beer and spirits, with plans to create additional, unique whiskies from several Lonerider beer recipes.
“In the future we’ll use some of our beers in the product,” Mielke says. “We can make a great tasting whiskey out of Sweet Josie Brown Ale or Shotgun Betty, for example.”
But the first spirit to hit shelves will be the bourbon whiskey finished in sherry casks.
“You can go through all different ways to make a good bourbon,” Mielke explains. “We’re trying to ‘add to the conversation’ with our own little nuance, put a little bit of a spin on it.”
“You have to make the product great,” Vohra adds. “It’s the Lonerider way. If you don’t have the best liquor in the bottle, then really, what are you selling?”
Speaking of bottles, Lonerider will carry on the maverick look and feel that’s become its visual trademark with the packaging, shape, size and even the label on the whiskey bottles.
“Is the image of whiskey changing? Yes, and this is our attempt to change some of that im-age, too,” says Vohra. “Most bottles look about the same. Iconic bottles are few and far between. In our research, we didn’t see anyone that was stepping out of the norm.”
So Lonerider Spirits did just that with a clear glass, long-necked, simple but stylish design, and a wacky label that will get people talking and definitely keep them looking. Vohra expresses his love for Spaghetti Westerns throughout the brand, in the Hideout—Lonerider’s Wild West themed taproom in Raleigh—and, in the names of all Lonerider’s beers. The label of the new whiskey bottle is no exception to this tradition.
“This is our imagining of the new West,” explains Vohra. “People are going to look at it, and they’ll find something different each time.”
It’s a colorful and eclectic montage of iconic western images—a biker cruising a deserted highway, a bald eagle perched on an old TV set, a UFO, a Saguaro cactus, a grizzly bear…and if you look again, you’re sure to find more.
“We’re planning on every label to be different, to keep it fresh,” says Mielke. “They might become collectibles, and we may do special releases.”
“We may even put clues in there,” Vohra adds.
This bring us to the most important question: What does the bourbon whiskey taste like? Lonerider utilizes some intriguing notes, such as waffle cone and cacao in the body, with leather on the finish.
“But you’ll just have to try it for yourself and find out,” Vohra suggests. “There is an assumption of what whiskey should be and how it should be consumed, who should consume it and what time it should be consumed. We’re going to break that tradition, break that mold. We’re going to do it our way. I think you will enjoy it – and, whether you agree with us or not, I think you will appreciate it.”
Lonerider Sherry Cask Finish will be on shelves this September.