Don't tell Ashley Klatecki that bourbon is a man's drink.
The owner of Spears Bourbon, Burgers and Beer restaurant in Wheeling is quick to note that the spirit -- once associated with tuxedoed men sitting in plush leather chairs and smoking cigars -- has found a new fandom among women.
"Bourbon was always pictured as a man's drink, but with the changes in society, I think things are becoming more equal," said Klatecki. "I think women are starting to be more comfortable being the person that sits down at the table and orders a bourbon on the rocks or neat."
A fancier of good bourbon herself, Klatecki said the whiskey industry has expanded tremendously over the past decade. Established distillers, responding to the rise of small craft businesses, have broadened product lines, adding new flavors and aromas by aging the whiskeys in barrels previously used for other spirits or wines, such as rum, sherry or port.
"The industry has boomed in the past decade and the flavor profiles that some of these distillers put out are incredible," she said.
That, as a result, has opened new flavors that appeal to women. Klatecki said she's noticed women tend to lean toward bourbons that are finished in sherry or port barrels.
But, she adds, more women are also ordering stronger, undiluted barrel proof bourbons.
Organizations like Bourbon Women Association -- which has a chapter in Chicago -- also help further the mission through promoting and hosting tastings, classes and events in conjunction with local businesses such as Binny's liquor store chain.
Klatecki also notes more women are taking on leadership roles at the distilleries. Woodford Reserve in Louisville, for example, hired Elizabeth McCall in 2018 as assistant master distiller, and according to Woodford's website, she is one of the youngest master distillers in the nation. Old Forrester, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, has had Jacquelyn Zykan in the role of master taster for several years.
Spears stocks about 350 different types of whiskeys, from bourbons, Irish and Scotch whiskies to ryes. The bar staff is trained to help customers learn about the characters of whiskey, Klatecki said. Many whiskey newbies are introduced to the spirit through mixed drinks, like a special martini made with rye.
"It's not a straight up whiskey or bourbon, but it gives them a little taste of what they can find at our bar, and that makes them more comfortable," she said.
Klatecki admits enjoying bourbon can take a bit of getting used to. "It took a little bit for me to get into it," said Klatecki, who starting by drinking old fashioneds, then eventually leaving out the other ingredients.
"But I was always a whiskey fan," she added, noting she enjoyed Irish and Scotch whiskies, as well as the all-American Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey.
Whiskeys are only one aspect of the restaurant Klatecki took over two years ago at the age of 28. She started at Spears as a server in 2014 and worked her way up to bartender, then eventually to manager before being given the opportunity to become majority owner of the restaurant.
Riding out the COVID-19 lockdown was tough at first, she said, because she was out of town attending a family member's wedding when the state shut down indoor dining in March.
"Not being there for the staff was hard, there were so many questions and concerns about how long this was going to last," Klatecki said. "I had to make the best decision to close temporarily to ensure my staff and their families were safe and healthy until we had more answers about COVID-19."
The restaurant reopened May 29 with curbside carryout, and an event tent was set up in the parking lot to accommodate al fresco dining.
In addition to Spear's signature burgers -- such as the Hangover Burger (with Merck's cheddar cheese, crispy onions and a fried egg on top), and the Bourbon Bacon Coffee Burger (a coffee-rubbed, grass-fed beef burger) -- the restaurant's carryout menu also offers bottles of bourbon and single-serve cocktails in tamper-proof containers.
She hopes to grow the restaurant by opening at least one more location in the next couple of years. She finds a lot of business inspiration from local serial entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, who hosts the CNBC show "The Profit."
"He works with a lot of different businesses, so I love watching that. He definitely influences me and my husband in his business as well," she said.
And -- for the record -- Klatecki prefers to relax with a nice Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.
"Woodford Reserve is my go-to," she said.