Consumers have taken a shine to American whiskey: Consumption of the spirit increased 4.9% in 2013, according to the Beverage Information Group, the research arm of Cheers’ parent company. That amounts to 22.5 million 9-liter cases sold last year.
Big brands are increasingly joined by offerings from smaller craft distilleries, as bourbon and rye are sipped neat and in cocktails. And forward-thinking distillers are using modern techniques to coax out unique flavors.
“American whiskeys have played a major role in the resurgence of American cocktails. And as more distilleries create their own unique styles or takes on American whiskeys, it will only increase the options available to bartenders,” predicts J.P. Fetherston, bar manager for Southern Efficiency in Washington, D.C. The 26-seat bar stocks 110 American whiskeys ranging in price from $2.50 to $27 per ounce.
But Fetherston points out that it’s difficult for these modern versions to mimic the flavor profile of classic brands. “Instead of chasing shadows, it makes more sense to try and create their own kind and push the boundaries of the whiskey category.”
He also says that the uniqueness of new American whiskeys—including experimentation with shorter aging regiments, unique stills and barrel sizes—means they can’t always be slotted into classic sips like the Manhattan. Bartenders may instead need to build the drink around the brand, Fetherston says.
Showing their age
Recent sales of American whiskey have been driven by super-premium, highly aged brands, which may translate to guest perception of the category as luxury-focused and inaccessible. Fetherston points out that since Scotch and Irish whiskeys are aged in used casks, their evolution may take 10 to 20 years.
American whiskey tends to be aged in brand new, charred American oak casks, making it more approachable at a younger age, Fetherston says. “Don’t be distracted by a shiny ‘21’ or ‘25’ on the label—give the youngsters a chance.”
Jacquelyn Zykan, beverage director for the 224-seat Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar in Louisville, KY, has also witnessed an increase in higher-end bourbons with generous age statements. These, she says, can appeal to aficionados of brown spirits made across the pond.
“Someone who appreciates the complexity of Scotch will be able to appreciate the complexity of bourbon that has been aged extensively, picking up many subtle flavors of barrel aging,” Zykan says. Doc Crow’s lists 171 American whiskeys on the menu, priced from $5 to $66 for a 2-oz. pour.
Two aging trends are particularly noteworthy, says Bill Thomas, proprietor of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. For one, “We’ve started to see a lot of experiments with finishes—like Angel’s Envy bourbon in port and rum casks, Willett in Grand Marnier casks, or Jim Beam in brandy casks.”
Then there’s cask-strength whiskeys, which Thomas says “are finally getting their day in the sun.” He’s especially excited about the releases of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon, and Willett Cask Strength Rye.
“With all of their huge complexity, long finish and big, robust mouthfeel, cask-strength whiskeys can rival the complexity of a great single malt Scotch,” Thomas says. Jack Rose Dining Saloon houses the largest whiskey collection in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 1,800 bottles, including 500 American whiskeys priced $7 to $150 for a 2-oz. pour.
Small-barrel aging is sometimes adopted by craft distillers, who have the freedom to try experimental techniques that don’t conform to tradition. But Jamie Boudreau, owner of Canon restaurant in Seattle—which stocks more than 700 American whiskeys priced from $6 to $200—is not fan of the trend. Boudreau says he has yet to taste a great whiskey aged in a small barrel.
“There is too much wood to liquid surface area, and the spirit can’t be given time to mature before it’s over run with the wood characteristics,” Boudreau explains. “No harmony, no elegance, no balance. You simply cannot cheat time.”
Drinking it up
No matter the size of the distillery or aging technique, bartenders are using American whiskey in cocktails ranging from classic and boozy to modern and approachable. At Yardbird, a 152-seat Southern restaurant and bar in Miami operated by the four-concept 50 Eggs, a bourbon-based sip is the overwhelming favorite, with 10,000 of them sold during the first quarter of 2014. The crowd-pleasing Blackberry Bourbon Lemonade ($12) is made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon and cardamom.
Tempering American whiskey with fruit juices, liqueurs and other mixes makes it accessible to a broader audience than when it’s in a highly spirited cocktail like an Old Fashioned. “The public is more educated [about whiskey],” explains 50 Eggs founder/CEO John Kunkel. “It’s no longer your old man’s drink, and it won’t put hair on your chest.”
Husk, a 137-seat, locally focused restaurant in Charleston, SC, offers 94 American whiskeys, priced $6 to $60 for a 2-oz. pour. Its most popular American whiskey drink is the Charleston Brown Water Society Punch ($10), which combines bourbon with Barbados rum, citrus juices, honey and raw sugar simple syrup.
Another highly requested drink at Husk is A Yard Too Far ($9), in which bourbon is macerated with vanilla and ginger, and then stirred with pecan orgeat and pecan bitters.
Mixing bourbon and rye
The two most popular styles of American whiskey boast very different flavor profiles. So can bourbon and rye be used interchangeably?
Yes, according to most whiskey fans. “Bourbon and rye are interchangeable in cocktails ninety-nine percent of the time,” says Boudreau. “Keep in mind that rye will generally be leaner and spicier, and bourbon ‘fatter’ and sweeter.”
Zykan also believes bourbon and rye can be substituted for one another, but she’s a bit more analytical about the process. “Whiskey can be sweet, spicy, vanilla ridden, full of tannins, fruity, light and floral, the list goes on and on,” she notes. “We try to keep modifiers (vermouth, liqueurs, bitters) on par with the level set by the base spirit.”
So a robust rye with a higher proof will partner nicely with a full-bodied, sweet vermouth such as Carpano Antica, while a softer style, delicate, lower-proof whiskey works better with a more subtle vermouth like Dolin Rouge. “It’s all about striking a balance,” Zykan says.
Doc Crow’s drinks program aims to make non-bourbon drinkers as comfortable as aficionados, with sips like the Bourbini ($9), in which Heaven Hill 6 Year bourbon is topped with Mathilde Pêche liqueur, peach bitters and sparkling wine. Still, its most popular cocktail by far is the Old Forest Signature Bourbon Old Fashioned ($9).
At the Whiskey Kitchen, a 132-seat, Southern cuisine-focused restaurant and bar in Nashville, the New Fashioned ($9.50) stirs Old Forester Bourbon with sugar, cinnamon, bitters and muddled apples and brandied cherries. “It’s amazing how you can really elevate the typical Old Fashioned by using a spicy rye or just a nice premium Bourbon,” says general manager Nick Elliott. Whiskey Kitchen, operated by the seven-concept M Street Entertainment Group, offers 80 American whiskeys priced from $6 to $27 for a 2-oz. pour.
Keep in mind that the garnish matters with the Old Fashioned, Thomas says. For instance, lemon works well with bourbon’s sweetness in the original, while rye plays off of the sweet flavors of cherries, orange slices and other fruit in modern versions.
Simply put, says Thomas, American whiskey is cool to drink—and people are drinking quality again. “The rediscovery of a spirit that can impart so many different flavors, and the complexity imparted through the combination of mash bill, cooperage, yeast, climate and aging, has got everybody appreciating what their grandfathers knew about drinking generations ago.”
The Grain Course: Tips for Whiskey Pairings
Not just for pre- or post-dinner sipping, American whiskey is finding its rightful place on the table. Here are a few tips for successful matches.
Be mindful of proof, says J.P. Fetherston, bar manager for Southern Efficiency in Washington, D.C. Since American whiskeys tend to be bottled at slightly higher proofs than their Irish or Scottish counterparts, they work better with slightly—rather than extremely—spicy dishes. And don’t be afraid to add a little water to temper the proof and make the whiskey more palatable, he says.
On the flip side, look for an American whiskey with a higher proof when pairing with dessert, including chocolate, suggests Jacquelyn Zykan, beverage director for Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar in Louisville, KY. “A sweet whiskey may fall absent when pairing with a dessert, but finding one with the same basic flavors and a higher alcohol content will change the notes that are present, as well as the texture,” she says.
Rely on a few go-to, never-fail ingredients, says Jamie Boudreau, owner of Canon restaurant in Seattle. Heavy braised and slowly cooked meats, especially pork, are a great match with whiskey. “Chocolate, dried fruit and figs are other items that are easy pairs,” he adds.
Try pairing whiskeys with all styles of barbecue, as well as salty items like country hams, says Dan Latimer, operations executive for the five-concept Neighborhood Dining Group in Marietta, GA. “If a whiskey is well structured and balanced, it will work with food of all kinds—cheeseburgers, fried chicken, foie gras—you name it.”
Choose the right glassware. Make sure you use a glass with a wide rim, says John Kunkel, founder/CEO of the four-concept 50 Eggs, which operates Yardbird in Miami. A wide-brimmed glass allows the whiskey to interact with the air, similar to the process of a glass of wine evolving over the course of a meal.
Keep an open mind. It’s more about enjoying the whiskey than a perfect pairing, says Nick Elliott, general manager of Whiskey Kitchen, a 132-seat Southern cuisine-focused restaurant and bar in Nashville. “I won’t pretend to be able to tell you why certain 12-year-old bourbons pair well with pizza, but they do,” he says. “I enjoy bourbons or ryes with sushi to steak. Anything goes.”
New Brown in Town
What’s new in American whiskey? Here are a few craft brands to keep an eye on.
Westland American Single Malt Whiskey is produced from five different malts, has a mash fermented with Belgian brewer’s yeast, and is aged in new American casks. “The traditional grains in the U.S. have been corn and rye, but using malted barley really goes back to the old world heartland of Scottish and Irish tradition,” says David King, president of Anchor Distilling Company, who collaborated on the project.
After researching letters, and sampling and testing pre-, mid- and post-Prohibition bottles, Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown Trading Co. relaunched James E. Pepper 1776 American Whiskeys: Rye 15 Years, Straight Rye, Straight Bourbon and Bourbon 15 Years. “American whiskey is very versatile, and so on one hand there are many consumers who prefer to drink it straight or with a little ice, but on the other it works so well in all the classic cocktails,” explains Georgetown Trading Co. founder Amir Peay. The Old Fashioned was supposedly created in honor of James E. Pepper, Peay adds.
Made in the sherry tradition, Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon from New York’s Hudson Valley mingles young bourbon with a mature spirit carefully selected by master distiller Dave Pickerell, that’s then aged in 20-year-old oloroso sherry casks for 36 days to balance its spicy rye notes with fig, roasted walnuts and candied fruit. “The oloroso sherry cask finish is like putting parentheses around bourbon,” explains Pickerell. “It adds a dry nuttiness on the nose and a warm fruity finish at the end.”
Dan Latimer, operations executive for the five-concept Neighborhood Dining Group in Marietta, GA, is keeping an eye on producers including Charleston Distilling Company and High Wire Distilling Company (both in Charleston, SC), Balcones Distilling in Waco, TX, and Bull Run Distillery in Portland, OR. “We won’t really know for sure what these new places are capable of for several years, though,” he admits. “I hope they continue to strive for new and exciting things.”