Part of what fuels the current whiskey boom is consumer thirst for new flavors. This is why we’ve seen a rise in different mash bills, blends and barrel finishes. And as the category expands, bringing in new drinkers, some companies have begun experimenting with unusual ingredients in their whiskeys to vary the flavors.
While this remains a smaller trend, it’s worth noting as part of the increasing variety that currently defines the category. Here are three brands that have used interesting ingredients to help expand their lines while differentiating their products.
From the world of craft spirits comes this rye whiskey that contains farm-fresh honey. Proprietor Claire Marin began beekeeping 15 years ago. Her honey (and maple) business now supplies hundreds of restaurants throughout New York.
Looking to get into spirits, she saw a craft honey whiskey as a natural way to stand out. She experimented with bourbon, but found rye to be better when blended with honey. Getting the honey in is the easy part — filtering it out is trickier. And Marin did not want to chill filter because she feared losing too much flavor from the key ingredient.
So bottles of NY Honey Rye Whiskey will have honey sediment swirling around their bottoms. Marin uses a micro filter, making the flavoring process more of an infusion. An estimated 90% of the honey leaves the liquid during this 72-hour production step. “The last thing I wanted to do was make something that was just sweet, just honey,” Marin says. “This is still a whiskey. The honey just cuts enough of that rye ruggedness to make the spirit overall more pleasant.”
“I wanted to give ‘honey’ a better name, because the flavor has become so overused” she adds. “I did not want to be too honey-forward. I aimed for somewhere between Jack Honey and honey-forward.”
The rye she uses is around 2.5 years old, though Marin has more that’s aging for 4, 5 and 6 years for future honey products. “It’s an exciting time, because craft distilling has brought experimentation and the individuality of products to the forefront,” she says.
Whiskey and spicy food are both staples of southern food and drink, so the team at George Dickel decided to combine the two. Last May the brand launched George Dickel Tabasco Brand Barrel Finish, in partnership with McIlhenny Co.’s Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce.
This crossover product taps into a number of trends. One is the explosion in popularity of cinnamon whiskeys. “We wanted to create a spicy, peppery shot with a smooth finish,” explains Nicole Austin, George Dickel general manager and distiller.
Autsin also pointed to consumers’ love of what’s hot — literally. “The American palate is desiring spicy and we’re seeing that in the rise of Sriracha and spicy margaritas,” she said.
Marrying whiskey with hot sauce is no simple task. First, George Dickel takes barrels from McIlhenny Company used in aging the company’s pepper mash. The whiskey then rests in the barrels for approximately 30 days, allowing the spice and flavor imparted on the wood to deliver a spicy mouthfeel and finish. Afterwards, Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce is distilled to create an essence, which is blended into George Dickel Tennessee Whisky with a hint of cane syrup for “that perfect balance of spicy and sweet,” Autsin explains.
Does the brand foresee more mashups with whiskey and hot sauce? “We’re concentrating on Tabasco Brand Barrel Finish right now and will evaluate the desire for additional flavored variants in the future,” Austin says.
This brand is already known as a lighter-style whiskey, more approachable. So it was no surprise when they announced a new rye in 2017 that balanced the grain’s spice with a smoother sweetness. How Basil Hayden’s accomplished this, however, was unexpected.
Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye contains a touch of California port wine. This “delivers notes of sweetness and a deep ruby color to the whiskey, rounding out the traditional spiciness of the Kentucky straight rye whiskey and the soft presence of the Canadian rye,” explains Adam Harris, Beam Suntory American whiskey ambassador.
Part of the thought-process behind launching such a unique recipe was creating additional variety. “We’ve seen significant consumer appetite for unique rye offerings and distinctive taste profiles across the American whiskey market,” says Harris.
Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye is a permanent addition to the brand’s lineup. For other examples of the company’s creativity, Harris points to the limited-edition release of Basil Hayden’s Two by Two Rye: a blend of two Kentucky straight ryes and two Kentucky straight bourbons.
Variety and unique flavors will continue to drive growth in American whiskey, so look for more recipes with unique ingredients like those three above.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz or Instagram @cheers_magazine. Read his recent piece Interview: Woodford Reserve’s Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall on Wheat Whiskey, Mint Juleps and More.