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Move over, wine. Cocktails are finding their place in the imbibing habits of millions of drinkers, with whiskey the customary ingredient. Vodka and gin have long been favorites, but in recent years, the so-called “brown” spirits, along with bitters, specialty liquors, and all manner of flavors and garnishes, have been increasingly popular. They include bourbon, blended scotch, single malt scotch, and rye whiskey.
It’s been said that cocktails were initially developed to mask the taste of poorly made whiskey, but that’s no longer the case. Whiskey has improved in both quality and selection over the past several years, with The Distilled Spirits Council recently indicating that most of the growth in demand is on the higher end or super premium segment of the market.
Craft distilleries are increasing across the country
The craft distilling industry has more than tripled since 2007, along with it the availability of creative and varied whiskey choices. According to the American Craft Spirits Association, “The craft distilling industry is growing with, on average, one distillery opening per day. There are craft spirits distilleries operating in all fifty states, employing close to 20,000 people.” California leads the top five states with 148 active distilleries, followed by New York, Washington, Texas, and Colorado.
While there’s no standardized definition of “craft whiskey,” the term mostly refers to the size and ownership of the distilleries rather than what’s produced. It follows the style of craft beers: usually small, local, and hands-on producers who enjoy direct contact with their customers.
Even in wine-centric Central California, whiskey distilling is en vogue. I recently visited Dorwood Distillery, formerly Brothers Spirits, and spent time with Jay Lockwood, one of the aforementioned brothers who created the distillery. In a rustic, inviting tasting room, I sampled Mesquite Smoked Malt Whiskey, Limoncello, and a delicious vodka distilled from wine. (“Tasty” is a word I have never used to describe vodka, but this one certainly was—especially chilled and served in a crystal Glencairn glass.)
My recent visit to High West Distillery near Park City, Utah was an education in both history and whiskey production. In 2006, High West became Utah’s first legal distillery in almost 150 years. Founded by David Perkins, a former biochemist inspired by a visit to the Makers Mark Distillery in Kentucky, High West boasts a 1600-gallon copper still, educational tours, and tastings. It’s also the only distillery in Utah licensed to serve five tastes at the same time.
The fascinating process of distilling whiskey
High West’s well-informed guide, Austin, took us through the process, explaining the selection of grains—corn, barley, rye, or wheat—depending on the final intended product. The grains are crushed into grist or flour and then added to water where enzymes break down the starches into their sugar components. Next is the fermentation stage, when yeast converts the sugars in the mash to alcohol, the result comparable to beer. The importance of the water is critical at this point, with every distillery carefully focused on the unique qualities of their water as an essential flavor component.
Distilling is next, usually in copper stills with a wide base and long narrow neck. Heat vaporizes, and the alcohol comes out as condensation in three parts. The middle liquid, the “heart,” is placed in a charred barrel for aging. The rest, less desirable, is either discarded or re-distilled. Burning or charring the barrels caramelizes the sugars in the wood, creating vanilla, floral, fruity and other flavors that give the whiskey its color as well as taste and fragrance.
At High West, a critical step before bottling is the blending to maintain consistent taste among batches. The process consists of both chemical analysis and an expert taster. “No machine can replicate the human palate,” Austin explained. An actual library of whiskeys is maintained as a tasting guide.
Aging time varies, but whiskeys labeled as “straight” must be aged a minimum of two years. Longer aging concentrates flavors and increases proof because of evaporation through the porous wood, the evaporated whiskey referred to as the “angels’ share.” The higher price of aged whiskeys results from that loss of product.
Cocktails are both classic and creative
The classic Manhattan is made with either rye whiskey or bourbon, which is slightly sweeter. Add sweet vermouth in a ratio of two whiskeys to one vermouth, and a dash or two of Angostura bitters. Stir briefly with ice and serve in a coupe or martini-style glass. Finish with a cherry in a quality brand like the Italian Luxardo. The Old Fashioned is new again and still simple to make: a sugar cube soaked in bitters, two ounces of rye or bourbon, garnished with an orange slice and cherry.
Scott Allen, whiskey connoisseur and Copper Lounge Bar Manager at the InterContinental Los Angeles Century City, shared with us his recipe for The Copper Carrot, a signature cocktail that might even be good for your eyesight. Using 2 ounces of Elijah Craig bourbon, 1 ½ ounces of carrot juice, a half ounce each of lemon juice, clementine juice, and simple syrup, add a dash of bitters, strain over ice, and garnish with a peeled baby carrot. His Vanilla Old Fashioned updates the classic with a hint of Tahitian vanilla bean muddled with orange slices, bitters, simple syrup, and a bit of water. Add ice and two ounces of Weller 12 year bourbon and garnish with an orange slice.
Is there a best way to drink whiskey?
According to the experts at Whisky Advocate, Executive Editor Jeffery Lindenmuth, Senior Whisky Specialist Adam Polonski, and Susannah Skiver Barton, Senior Whisky Specialist and Digital Editor, there is no singularly “best” way. One prefers to drink whiskey neat; that is, without ice or added water. Another prefers it “on the rocks,” and the third enjoys the first sip neat and then adds a small bit of water. The bottom line is “there’s no wrong way to drink whiskey as long as you’re enjoying it.”
While we’re on the subject of age-old questions, let’s talk about the spelling of whisky/whiskey. Scotland and Canada always use “whisky,” while Ireland and the United States generally favor “whiskey.” The word comes from a Gaelic term literally meaning water of life, possibly a translation of Medieval Latin’s aqua vitae. To many who enjoy drinking whiskey, it truly is the water of life, or in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Whisky is liquid sunshine.”