Cool and Rare
“The younger crowd who wants to be on the cutting edge; they are drinking Scotch because it’s cool,” says Harris. “They like to talk about what they are drinking and Instagram it.”
The Wren’s import list tends toward the esoteric, bottles other places in the neighborhood don’t have. Harris is excited about a rise in artisanal Irish whiskey. As an example, she cites Teeling Whiskey, a young company that opened the first distillery in Dublin in 40 years and produces unusual variations.
The Wren carries three Teeling whiskeys, Small Batch, Single Grain and Single Malt. “They taste so different from each other,” says Harris. To showcase that, she created a flight of the three expressions of Irish.
“We get a few whiskey geeks,” says Johnson, “and we try to track down some interesting bottles, brands that people haven’t heard of yet.” Piper’s Pub lists some obscure malts like Glen Scotia and Bunahabhain, an English whiskey from St. Georges and two Amrut whiskies from India.
Casa Fuente has a separate menu called the “Black List” of rare and hard to find whiskeys. Prices per ounce can range up to $650. Among Frey’s favorites are Balvenie 15-Year Sherry Cask, Bruichladdich Black Art, Highland Park 30-Year, Talisker 30-Year, Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu 3-Year, and the granddaddy of them all—Glenrothes 1968, 45-Year. “We also have a nice selection of whiskies from the négociant Alexander Murray, including Speyside 40-Year and The Glenlivet 41-Year.”
Flights are the most popular order at Small Batch. There are nine flights, including one Irish and one on Scotch, priced from $13 to $21.
As for sipping: “First timers and novices stick to safer bets. Tried-and-true whiskey drinkers are more open to trying Scotch,” observes Beadle. “Even then they go for a milder malt, with some of the same characteristics as bourbon. After a while, they start looking for bolder whiskeys, like the Compass Box Peat Monster.”
At Casa Fuente, “it’s all sipping,” Frey says. “Our customers like to enjoy the pure taste of whiskey with their cigars.” He is currently rolling out a new flights program at the cigar lounge.
“We are a sipping kind of place,” echoes Johnson. At Piper’s, a 1-½ oz. pour ranges from $5 for a bourbon and tops out at $80 for an obscure Ardmore 1977.
The sweet spot in pricing ranges from $10 to $15; flights are $12 to $16. “We understand our extensive list of whiskeys can be daunting, and have created the flights as introductions,” says the beverage manager.
Imported Whisky Mixology
Unlike bourbon and rye that star in a number of classics, fewer cocktails feature Scotch, with some notable exceptions like the Rusty Nail and Blood & Sand. Flavors of many malts are too assertive to play well with modifiers in a drink, and prices are often prohibitive.
Blended Scotches tend to work best for mixing. Irish and Canadian are other good choices for cocktails.
At The Penrose, Vasconcellos is using Cutty Sark in many of his cocktails, including his off-menu take on the Penicillin, and the new Chest Rockwell ($14), which is made with Cutty Sark Prohibition, amontillado sherry, Gran Classico bitter, blackberry and black plum syrup and a float of Lagavulin.
Harris puts a Scotch cocktail on The Wren’s menu every fall; “it feels seasonally appropriate.” In the past, she has used a blend, but this year, the Scotch is Auchentoshan American Oak, which is more approachable than other malts.
“There is just a hint of smoke, and a cocktail is a nice way to introduce people to Scotch,” she says.
The brunch menu features Back in Black ($12), made with Black Bush Irish whiskey, Guinness Stout, burnt sugar and cold brew coffee.” The whiskey’s robust quality and slight sweetness stand up to the bitterness of the burnt sugar and coffee to make it really well balanced,” Harris says.
At Small Batch, classics such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan are top sellers. The bar offers just a few import-based drinks.
A riff on the classic Morning Glory mixes Compass Box Scotch, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and anisette ($10). “The drink has really taken off—it’s one of our better-selling classics,” says Beadle.
Popular at brunch is the Irish Breakfast, made with Paddy Irish whiskey, house-made clementine syrup, lemon juice, topped with cava ($8). “It’s the whiskey bar version of a Mimosa,” Beadle says.
Whether it’s sipping, flights or cocktails, operators see promise in imported whiskies, and aim to increase their stocks. At Casa Fuente, Frey wants to roll out another barrel. “Once customers try the Kavalan, they absolutely love it,” he says, noting there is only half a barrel left. The proprietor intends to continue the barrel program; next, a single cask from Scotland.
Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based writer specializing in all things drinkable.