Mix It, Shake It, Stir It: Your Weekly Guide To Spirits and Cocktails (All-American Whiskey!)

Welcome back, my dear sippers and shooters! I told you that I would, indeed, be back this week with all things American Whiskey.  It seems fitting that yesterday was National Bourbon Day- I’m always a day late and a dollar short, it seems- and in case any of you missed National Bourbon day, you’ll get your dose of bourbon history here.  Not to mention all the other types of whiskey made here in the good ol’ USA.

I’m going to go ahead and get right down to the nitty-gritty when it comes to American Whiskeys.  There’s a lot of specifications we need to cover before I can talk about relevant historical tid-bits.  There’s a lot of different types out there, so let’s start with a run-down of types of whiskies and their definitions.

Oh, Sean..

  • Bourbon- a whiskey made in the United States that is composed of at least 51% corn.  Many bourbons contain much more than this.  Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred, American white oak barrels. Bourbon aged for at least two years may be referred to as “straight”.   No coloring or flavoring may be added to the spirit. Bourbon is sweeter, heavier, and more viscous than rye. Old Rip Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace,, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Bulliet, and Woodford Reserve are just a few examples of bourbon distilleries.
  • Corn Whiskey-  a whiskey made in the United States that is composed of at least 80% corn.  May or may not be aged.
  • Tennessee Whiskey-Straight, Bourbon whiskey made in the state of Tennessee.  Most Tennessee whiskeys undergo a process known as the Lincoln County Process in which the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal.  This gives the whiskey a distinct flavor.  There are currently only four Tennessee whiskeys on the market; Jack Daniels, George Dickel, Prichard’s, and Collier & McKeel.
  • American Rye- a whiskey made in the United States that is composed of at least 51% rye.  American Rye must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred, American white oak barrels.  American Rye that is aged for at least 2 year may be referred to as “straight”.  No coloring or flavoring can be added.  American Rye is thinner, lighter, and much spicier than bourbon. Templeton, Redemption, High West, Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, Michter’s, and Wild Turkey all produce American rye whiskey.
  • American Whiskey: a whiskey that is made from at least 51% of any cereal grain. The spirit must be distilled to not more than 80% abv (160 proof) to ensure that the flavor of the grain is retained. All American whiskeys except corn whiskey must be aged (at least briefly, although no minimum aging period is specified) in charred new oak barrels. Lots of American Craft Distillers are experimenting with making whiskeys in this way.

Here’s a little tid-bit for you.  Although bourbon takes its name from Bourbon county, Kentucky, no bourbon is currently

Some common and not-so-common bourbons.

produced there.  I’ll tell you, though.  Bourbon would not be what we know it as today without Kentucky.  You see, Kentucky just happened to be one of the best places EVER to begin bourbon production.  Hot summers and cool winters make it ideal for aging bourbon, the soil is rich in phosphates, and those phosphates make growing grain a whole lot easier.  The river water in Kentucky is also full of calcium and really pure, which makes for a delicious-tasting distillate. Not to mention that Kentucky’s oak forests supply wood for barrels.

American whiskey begins it’s life as most whiskies do- in a pot still.  Pot stills are most frequently used for making spirits that will end up having a lot of flavor.  I like to think of pot stills like this.  Distillation takes a longer period of time in a pot still, and all the flavors have an opportunity to mingle and blend.  It’s kind-of like a crock-pot, only for

Pot still.

booze.  Pot stills aren’t as efficient as Coffey stills, so it takes longer to rectify the spirit.  Rectification is the process of distilling a spirit over and over again in order to get it to a higher proof and a purer state.  Vodka is highly rectified.  Whiskey, not so much.

Now, lots of bourbons and other American whiskeys have the phrase “sour-mash” somewhere on the label.  What this refers to is how the whiskey is made.  Sour-mashing is a process in which leftovers from one batch of whiskey are used to start the next batch.  This is done in order to ensure consistency in flavor from batch to batch, and is really similar to the process used to make sourdough bread. Sour-mash does not refer to the taste of the whiskey.   Mash, in case you’re wondering, is a combination of corn and other grains used to make the whiskey, and water.

So, how do you make bourbon (and almost all other whiskies) you ask?  Here’s a run-down of the process:

  1. Cook your grains (51% or more corn for bourbon, 51% or more rye for rye whiskey) with water and transfer them to a fermentation tank.
  2. Add yeast to mixture.  This yeast converts all available sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  At this time, add the leftover mash from the previous batch of whiskey.
  3. Allow this mixture to ferment for about four days.  The alcohol content will be at about 8%.  This mixture is now known as “distiller’s beer”.

    Fermentation tank at Maker’s Mark Distillery.

  4. Add this mixture to the still, and distill.  The resulting liquid is called “low wines” or “singlings”, and is still relatively low in alcohol.
  5. Redistill the liquid to achieve a higher alcohol content.  This second distillation makes “high wines” or “doublings”.
  6. Place your high wines into new, charred, oak barrels and allow to mature.

That, in a nutshell, is how one would go about making whiskey.  Don’t try that on your own, though.  It’s a Federal offense without a license.

The maturation process is really, really important though, and I cannot stress that enough.  Those barrels add a lot of flavor and color to whiskey, and how those barrels full of whiskey are handled makes a difference.   The maturation process is so important that

A peek inside a whiskey aging facility.

special facilities are built to house the barrels. This sacred, flammable place can be made out of brick, wood, or metal, and are completely unheated.  It just so happens that two barrels containing the same batch of whiskey in identical barrels can wind up tasting wildly different depending on where in the aging facility they are stored.  Some distilleries rotate their barrels to ensure consistency from barrel to barrel, but most distilleries avoid this pain-in-the-ass process by blending the barrels together to create the final product.

Now, with the rise in popularity of single-malt scotches, demand was placed on American whiskey makers to produce a higher-quality, more specialized product.  You’ve probably seen or heard of  “single barrel”, “small batch”, or “vintage” whiskeys.  Here’s what those terms really mean, and why  these whiskeys are often so much more expensive than their regular relatives:

  • Single Barrel: This means that the whiskey in the bottle comes from a specific barrel and is not blended.  The barrel is carefully selected from a particular area of the aging facility, and the barrel number is often noted on the bottle.  This is a pretty limited production, since the flavor will change from barrel to barrel.
  • Small Batch: This refers to the practice of marrying and blending a select, small number of barrels to create a particularly delicious result.  The barrels come from different areas of the aging facility, each barrel bringing unique, sought-out qualities to the blend.  The sum, in this case, equals way more than the parts involved.
  • Vintage: This is a term used to describe whiskeys that have been marked with the date of their distillation and/or bottling.

Now that we’ve gotten some technical stuff out of the way, let’s talk about the history of bourbon and other American whiskeys.

Like most things American, bourbon was the invention of Scotch-Irish immigrants who brought the practice of distilling and aging spirits from grain with them from the old country.  By 1776, there were about 250,000 immigrants from Northern Ireland living in the US, and they lived primarily in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  These people planted corn, barley, and rye; stuff that was easy to grow, and fairly easy to distill.   These rough spirits-and when I say rough, I mean rough– actually ended up as currency.  It was traded for food, furs, and other supplies.

As we all know, the Revolutionary War lasted a long time and all but tapped out American funds.  In order to rectify that, Alexander Hamilton proposed an Excise Tax on Spiritous Liquors.  Seems the Federal government was going to get money out of booze, regardless if it was for personal or commercial consumption.  This left the people living in backwoods Pennsylvania pretty damn angry.  You see, the government didn’t help these settlers out too much;  Pennsylvania, during this time, was frontier land, and these settlers were constantly defending themselves from Native Americans.  No protection was provided to

Angry guys tar and feather a tax collector. Blegh.

them.  Neither was basic infrastructure, like roadways.  So, Pennsylvanians put up quite a resistance against tax collectors infringing on their daily lives.  It wasn’t until 1794 that George Washington was finally fed up with the rebellion, and decided to send  some 12,000 government militiamen into the backwoods of Pennsylvania.  That was enough to quell any remaining rebellion, and that action did so without any bloodshed.  Over those six rebellious years, only a handfull of deaths occurred.

Now, on to a bloodier part of American history: The Civil War.  Whiskey took quite a beating during this time, mainly because the whiskey-producing states were on different sides of the Mason-Dixon.  Pennsylvania was part of the anti-slavery north, Maryland and Virginia were part of the pro-slavery south, and so was Kentucky, even though the state was more politically tied with the north.  Most Kentucky distillers fought on the side of the Confederacy in order to retain business in the south.  In order to help fund the war, Lincoln re-enacted the excise tax on distilleries.  After the war, America’s taste for whiskey was waning, and so were distilleries.  By the time Prohibition was enacted in 1920, whiskey was thought of as passe, having been replaced with gin.  With the right ingredients and the right equipment, anyone could churn out bathtub gin on the cheap.  Although whiskey was considered out-dated, supplies reached an all-time low after Prohibition ended in 1933.  Americans made quick work of whiskey rations with the end of The Noble Experiment, and Canadian, Irish, and Scottish distillers stepped in to fill the gap.  They filled that gap with a new style of blended whiskey; American distillers bought neutral grain whisky from these foreign distillers and blended it with what whiskey they had left in order to stretch out the good stuff.  This allowed American distillers to get back on their feet, but changed America’s palate for whiskey.  Americans grew accustomed to these lighter, blended whiskeys and were reluctant to go back to the bolder, more flavorful whiskeys.

With the onset of World War II, many American distilleries were tasked with producing industrial alcohol, which was needed to manufacture rubber, antifreeze, ether, and rayon for parachutes.  Of course, while focusing on the war efforts, American whiskey supplies dwindled, and Americans turned to rum to compensate.  Rum was cheaper than American whiskey because it’s made in the Caribbean, and wasn’t subject to American whiskey rationing.  After the war ended, the popularity of American whiskey had reached an all-time low, and wouldn’t recover for another forty years.

The booze-fueled 1960s and 1970s set up for the 198os to be more moderate in drinking habits.  This new-found moderation in drinking also came with a new interest in well-made, quality drink.  After decades of guzzling cheap jug wines, American wine drinkers developed a taste for well-made wines, and this lead to an increased interest in well-made spirits.  Single-Malt scotches started to receive a lot of attention in the mid-eighties, and high-end bourbons snuck in through this newly opened door.  American distillers piggybacked this new demand for high-end products by producing small-batch and single-barrel varieties of whiskey.  And it worked.  Today, the hard-as-nails habit of drinking straight whiskey is making a solid comeback.  Lots of bars all over the country have fantastic selections of high-end, beautifully made whiskeys that are fantastic sipping on their own or in cocktails.

Now, you want to buy a bottle of American whiskey for your bar, but don’t know what to get?  If you’re just starting out on your journey into American whiskey, I’d suggest a bottle each of bourbon and rye.  They play differently in cocktails, and have very different flavor profiles.  Some brands are better beginner bourbons and ryes than others.  Here’s a list of bourbons and ryes, from introductory to advanced.  Just a warning; for the most part, the further down the list you get, the more expensive bottles become:

Bourbon/Rye

  • Maker’s Mark/Wild Turkey Rye
  • Jim Beam White Label/Jim Beam Rye
  • Knob Creek/Templeton Rye
  • Bulliet Bourbon/Bulliet Rye
  • Woodford Reserve/ri 1
  • Buffalo Trace/Rittenhouse
  • Elmer T. Lee/Redemption
  • Basil Hayden/High West Double Rye
  • W.L. Weller/Russell’s Reserve 6 Year
  • Old Rip Van Winkle/Sazerac 6 Year
  • Eagle Rare/ Michter’s Rye
  • Booker’s/Willett 5 Year Rye
  • Baker’s/Michter’s 10 Year
  • Willett/Whistlepig
  • Blanton’s/Sazerac 18 Year
  • Pappy Van Winkle/ Rittenhouse 23 Year

Now, this list is by NO MEANS definitive.  I’ve had all of these whiskeys, and this is based on my opinion.  So don’t take my word for it.. Belly up to the bar, chat up a knowledgeable bartender on a slow evening, or talk to your friendly liquor store clerk.

Now, lets get to cocktails!

When most people think of whiskey cocktails, a few come to mind. And yes, I’m going to teach you how to make all of those that you’re thinking about.

We just passed the Triple Crown, and with all those horse races comes Mint Juleps.  I personally love Mint Juleps when they’re

The Mint Julep, in all its frosty glory.

made correctly.  So here’s how I like to make mine.

Mint Julep

  • 3 oz bourbon
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 5-6 mint leaves, and a mint sprig for garnish.

If you happen to have one of those super-cool metal beakers shown to the right, more power to you.  If you don’t a tall 12-14 oz glass will do just fine.  Put 5-6 mint leaves in the bottom of the glass, and pour your simple syrup into the glass.  Muddle the mint and sugar (press well with muddler), and add ice.  Now, this ice needs to be crushed ice.  Take a bunch of ice from your freezer, wrap it in a towel, and bash the hell out of it with a rubber mallet or your muddler.  Add this ice to the glass, pour the bourbon over the top, and stir really well, until the glass is frosted.  Add more ice and stir again.  Garnish with the mint sprig.  Smack that sprig of mint lightly to release the aromatic oils, and stick it in the top of the drink.  Serve with a short straw, so you get a nose full of mint every time you take a sip.

The Old-Fashioned happens to be one of my favorite cocktails both to make and imbibe.  Now, there’s two distinct ways to make an Old-Fashioned, and I’m going to tell you both ways and let you decide for yourself which you like better.  This is the way you’re probably familiar with:

Old-Fashioned

  • 2 maraschino cherries (for the love of all that is holy, get  some Luxardo maraschino cherries, not those electric red ones)
  • 2 slices of orange
  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • simple syrup to taste

Muddle the oranges and the cherries in a mixing glass with simple syrup if you like things extra-sweet.  Add bourbon, bitters, ice, and shake.  Dump the contents of the shaker into a double old-fashioned glass, and top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with a cherry and an orange wedge.

This version is quite delicious if made with high-quality ingredients, but it’s far from what I’d call a traditional Old-Fashioned.

a traditional Old-Fashioned.

Now, if you ever happen to come to the  bar I work at and order an Old-Fashioned from me, this is what I’d make you:

(Old) Old-Fashioned

  • 2 1/2 oz bourbon
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters
  • orange peel for garnish

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass and add ice.  Stir and strain into an iced double old-fashioned glass.  Express the oil from the orange peel over the drink, and run the peel around the rim of the glass before dropping it in the drink.

Now, this cocktail has been around for a really, really long time.  It’s what’s considered to be the original cocktail (the phrase “cocktail” first appeared in print in 1806 and was described as a potent drink made with spirits, bitters, sugar, and water).

The term “Old-Fashioned” wasn’t coined until sometime in the 1880s and referred to a bourbon cocktail that was made at the Pendennis Club, a gentleman’s club in Louisville, Kentucky.  Lots of other stories abound, but like all things that involve booze, nothing was really written down and most of it lies somewhere between the truth and legend.

The final cocktail I’m going to talk about is the Manhattan.  It’s one of few cocktails that’s been made the same way for over 140 years, and is 3 simple ingredients; rye or bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

Classic Manhattans.

Manhattan

  • 2 oz rye or bourbon
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth ( I really like Carpano Antica)
  • 2-3 dashes angostura bitters

Put all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice.  Stir until super-cold, and strain into a martini glass, or over ice in a rocks glass if you like your drinks on the rocks.  Garnish with a maraschino cherry, lemon twist, or both.

One of the many histories behind the origins of the Manhattan says that the cocktail comes from The Manhattan Club in New York, and was concocted sometime in the early 1870s.  The drink was thought to have been made for a  banquet held by Winston Churhill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, in honor of the presidential candidacy of Samuel J. Tilden.  The banquet was a huge success, and the cocktail became well-known, and people asked for by it’s place of origin, hence- The Manhattan.  This is pretty-much untrue, though, because Lady Churchill was known to be in France at the time.

There are mentions of the Manhattan before the aforementioned story takes place, including a story involving a bartender named Black at a bar near Hudson Street on Broadway. But really?  No one knows where the cocktail originated from.  Everyone was too drunk to write things down or remember exactly what came from where.  And that’s really the fun of cocktail history.

Next week, it’s Scotch/Irish whisky!

Until then, drink well, dear readers.

Be sure to check out Celia’s guides to gin and vodka!

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  1. OMG YUMMMM

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