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Behind the Backbar at Salt Lake City’s Whiskey Street

Published: 03/28/2018
By Kara Newman, PUNCH — As bars and backbars go, Salt Lake City’s Whiskey Street boasts a long one: It stretches 74 feet in total.

“I wanted it to be the longest, largest bar in Salt Lake,” says Jason LeCates, managing partner for Bourbon Group, which owns the bar along with two other local venues.

A luxurious expanse of polished wood, Whiskey Street’s bar boasts more than 2,200 bottles of liquor, including roughly 400 varieties of whiskey. LeCates has been building the collection since 2013, when the bar opened. Considering Utah’s byzantine state liquor laws, amassing a collection of this size is no easy feat.

“We run into different challenges,” says LeCates. “In Utah, we have to special-order everything. It’s a very strict control state, I can’t go on to auction sites and buy one bottle. You can’t even belong to the Wine of the Month Club in Utah.”

As required by law, every bottle in the bar has been purchased through state-run liquor stores. Among other restrictions, liquor must be ordered by the case, and that usually means quantities of six to 12 bottles at a time. “That’s why we have so much inventory on hand,” he explains.

This also means that LaCates needs to be particularly selective about what the bar buys, since it’s not feasible to purchase a case of every whiskey on the market. While this may put the bar at a comparative disadvantage against bars in more lenient states with collections that number well into thousands of whiskey labels, it makes Whiskey Street’s existing collection all the more impressive.

The process of gathering the collection has been a slow build: “one case at a time!” LeCates says, laughing. “When we first opened, we bought everything we could locally in the state-run stores, and then started special-ordering cases every time we came across something that looked neat.” Today, he continues, “our availability is substantially larger than any liquor store in Utah.”

The collection is particularly heavy in American whiskey, especially bourbon—“generally if someone’s going to come in and drop $200 on a shot, they usually go with a bourbon”—as well as a substantial Scotch list. This is in line with customer demand, LeCates says, as well as his own love for bourbon (he’s also a fan of Irish whiskey; Redbreast 21yr Irish Whiskey is a personal favorite).

In addition to the American and Scotch whiskies, “international whiskies” are grouped together: Irish, Canadian, Japanese and Taiwanese. The substantial tequila and rum offerings also get pride of place; vodkas, too, are front and center. The priciest bottles are locked within lighted glass display cases at the top of the backbar; bartenders must roll a ladder over and scramble up the rungs to retrieve them.

Although straight pours are strong sellers, variations on the Old-Fashioned get their own section of the menu, and remain the most-ordered cocktails at Whiskey Street, followed by Moscow Mules (hence the prominence of vodka on the backbar) and Boulevardiers. The beer menu, which boasts more than 200 bottles and another 30 on draft, has become an important source of inspiration for LeCates, who sees craft beer’s ascendancy as a bellwether for where craft whiskey might go.

“If people think the craft whiskey craze is going away—look at craft beer, how creative they’ve gotten, how big that category’s gotten; it’s been growing for 30 years, and it’s getting even more creative,” he says. “I think whiskeys will also continue to go that way.” Luckily, there’s plenty of room on that 74-foot-long bar to house all those future whiskey bottlings—and then some.