Order Whiskey Like a Gentleman
Half our team are whiskey obsessed guys and gals. The other half are whiskey novices who always seek out Google or a kind bartender’s recommendation for what to drink. Well, thank Dionysus that we have Jon Rich, our Men’s Editor, and whisky connoisseur for help. He’s our favorite in-house expert to turn to when we are deciphering the drinks menu at a hip, Brooklyn whiskey bar, but are too scared to ask the moutachiod, Pendleton-shirted bartender for assistance. Now you don't have to be scared either. Your time to learn is now. Because, as the great Hemingway decreed, "Never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey.” Over to you Jon…
I can’t tell you how many times my friends have asked me what whiskey to drink or the best one to gift to someone else. Okay, I can actually tell you - about 12 times. However, this is troubling because many of my friends cannot distinguish between the types of whiskeys that exist. I’m peppered with frantic text messages as friends stand in the aisle of their corner liquor store on Friday nights: “Is all whiskey bourbon?” “What’s rye?!” “Scotch is not whiskey, is it??!?! (Sent with a confused smiley face emoticon.)” “Isn’t all whiskey basically Jack Daniel’s!??!?!??” “Who wants a shot of Jamison!?!?!?” Get a grip, man! Just because the stuff is brown doesn’t mean it’s all just seeping out from the same tank in Kentucky. This bothers me because while many parts of the world produce fine whiskeys, some of the finest hail from right here in the U. S. of A. Many people I’ve met have no clue how awesome, diverse and affordable American whiskey is. I’m sorry not sorry. I just can’t take it anymore. While it still feeds my ego to be the go-to source for whiskey advice, it’s time to solve this little problem, one fermented grain at a time. Let’s all hold hands, and take a breath.
Whiskey, my friends, is primarily distilled from some of your favorite cereal grains - wheat, barley, corn and rye. Scotch, bourbon, rye and “whiskey,” like American whiskey and Japanese whiskey, all count as whiskey. Yes. You heard me. It’s all whiskey. (Sounds of minds being blown.)
To be called a “Scotch,” the stuff has to be distilled barley mash, aged in oak and smoked with peat moss. That’s why Scotch is sweet and smoky with vanilla notes. And, it has to be made in Scotland. So, if it tastes like one, you may want to check the label to see if it’s worthy of wearing a tartan kilt. Oh, and it’s spelled whisky in Scotland, sans the “e”.
Bodacious Bourbon 101
Bourbon is also what’s called a “grain spirit,” but has to be made with at least 51% corn mash and must be made in the U.S. Bourbons contain what’s known as a “mash bill,” which is a combination of wheat, corn and rye. The different ratios give rise to different bourbon styles. By the way, contrary to what some think, bourbon does not have to come from Kentucky. Although, the Blue Grass State is the bourbon capital, many other states, including Illinois, Indiana and yes, New York, make excellent bourbons. Ok, now that we have an overview, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Wheated Bourbon (Think more wheat + sweet): There are “wheated” bourbons, which have, you guessed it, a higher content of wheat and usually no rye. Wheated bourbons are sweeter than their high-rye cousins (rye is drier and spicier!), and not as common. The most commercial wheated bourbon is Maker’s Mark which anyone would look like a champion drinking.
High Corn Bourbon (Think corny!): Most bourbons are high-corn (which are not called “corned” so don’t say that at the bar while you are trying to impress your date). That makes them less sweet than wheated.
High-Rye Bourbon (Think fruity + spicy): There are high-rye bourbons, which tend to be on the fruity and spicy side (cinnamon, nutmeg etc.). A “rye,” at least in America, is made from at least 51% rye, and a combination of corn and barley. Remember, ryes are similar to bourbons, except they are drier and spicier (like my sense of humor!).
Whiskey: Some whiskeys are simply called whiskeys. You may have heard of that little devil known as Jamison, (Irish whiskey), or Jack Daniel’s, (Tennessee whiskey). Other whiskey players include an international set from Canada (Crown Royal) and Japan (Suntory à la Bill Murray in Lost in Translation). Japanese whiskeys are rare in the U.S. (i.e. very expensive). Most bars and liquor stores will carry a handful at most. I don’t love them enough to write a whole article on the subject, but if you haven’t ever tried Japanese whiskey, get to it. To me, they actually taste like a hybrid of Scotch and American or Irish whiskey.
One quick note about how to actually drink whiskey once you buy it. I am not what’s known as a “rocks guy”. I refuse to spend good money at a bar or liquor store just to drown my drink in a cup full of ice. I actually prefer to drink whiskey “neat”. This means no ice and no water. Ok, the real reason I drink it neat is because I like to feel the heat from the alcohol. However, there is a middle ground. Most whiskey experts will tell you that adding just a drop of water or a tiny chip of ice to a glass of whiskey will bring out the flavors. And, they’re right. Try it next time before you decide to dump 80 ice cubes into a glass and ruin a perfectly fine whiskey. You’re better than that. Oh, and we drink whiskey either out of a snifter (bulb-ish glass for drinking brandy) or a tumbler (short, fat, standard bar glass), and the occasional white wine glass. But don’t get too carried away with the stemware. If you happen to be sans suitable stemware, John Belushi will be smiling at you from Heaven, saying, “what would Bluto do?” [Animal House!]
Okay, sorry. Enough background. I’m here to keep it titillating and economical. I live in New Yawk, which, if you didn’t know, is a quaint, yet somewhat pricey little island colony within the United States. I like to avoid paying for, well, anything, but if I can pay a little less, that’s just super. That alone is a great reason to drink American whiskeys because they’re relatively affordable. Whereas most good Scotch will cost you at least $80-$150, you can grab an excellent bourbon or rye at an average of $50 - that is if you know what to look for. With that, please let me give you a short list of my favorite bourbon and rye under $90.
Few Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey (Evanston, Illinois). Powerful stuff, (wo)man. Few is what’s known as “cask strength,” which means the bourbon comes straight from the barrel after aging into the bottle, without adding water to cut down the alcohol by volume (“ABV”). Most cask strength whiskeys are around 57-60% ABV. However, please please please don’t ever let that scare you. You’re not going to spontaneously burst into flames at the first sip – well, maybe your heart will, metaphorically. Instead, the beauty of cask strength bourbon will allow you to add some ice or water if you want to make the flavors really pop without sacrificing the heat, which, to me, is an intricate part of good whiskey. With lovely flavors of plum, cherry, vanilla, spicy rye, clove, black pepper…please, wipe that drool off your ‘stache …and even some candied ginger, Few is one of my absolute favorite bourbons. At $69.99 (caskers.com), you’d be a fool, (pardon my French ladies), to overlook it.
Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey (Bardstown, Kentucky). There’s a reason that Noah’s Mill is on top of many whiskey enthusiasts’ lists. At $54.99 (caskers.com), this cask strength gem is shockingly smooth for a 114 proof bourbon. (For my friends who are unsure about the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) vs. proof nomenclature here you go.) Noah’s Mill has lively notes of corn, vanilla, mint and rye and, might I add, a touch of rock candy. Because of Noah Mill’s popularity, you can easily find it at almost any decent liquor store.
Elijah Craig 12 Year (Bardstown, Kentucky). This stuff is amazing at only $30 a bottle. Elijah Craig 12 Year has notes of sweet corn, vanilla, honey, caramel, tobacco and some spice. At a modest 94 proof, it’s extremely drinkable and best for those who want something complex without the burn of a cask strength bourbon. Did I mention that you can buy it for $30? That’s the price of two drinks at a New Yawk bar. Do the math and get a bottle.
Few Rye Whiskey (Evanston, Illinois). Woah, wait a sec. Am I recommending two whiskeys from the same distillery? Yeah I am. It must something in good in the Chi Town water. This one’s their rye, so it’s spicier than its cask strength cousin, with notes of caramel, honey, vanilla, all spice and peppercorn, and still plenty of heat to keep you warm. I really dig this one. $54.99 (caskers.com)
Willett Rye 6 Year (Bardstown, Kentucky): This was my introduction to finer whiskeys back in the day. I’d never tasted a brown liquor that was better suited for sipping out of a crystal goblet rather than a disgusting bar tumbler. On the nose, I get violets and roses, which reminds me of a Bordeaux. When you get pass the heat, complex notes of vanilla, cinnamon, tobacco, clove and pepper emerge. This Kentucky staple is rare and very hard to find, but if you can, even if that means selling your baby teeth and getting funding through Kickstarter, please buy a bottle. I volunteer to quality test it for you. $89.99 (drinkupny.com)
Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey (Hudson Valley, New York). I couldn’t make any kind of list and not include a local product. Hudson whiskeys, which are produced by the Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery in Gardiner, New York (basically the Hudson Valley), are pretty gosh darn delicious. The rye and bourbon are some of the smoother whiskeys I’ve tried. And, believe you me, I’ve tried a lot. I like their rye because, aside from its smoothness, there’s a prominent honey-cinnamon note, and a nice buttery aftertaste that you don’t normally find with most ryes. The only catch with Hudson is that they’re pricey and are only sold in 375ml and smaller bottles, which cost the same as a regular-sized bottles. But, if you’re in the mood for a local treat, sample what they claim is the first true rye made in New York in over 80 years. At $44.95 per 375ml bottle, my advice is to take small sips and savor it. Now, go on and test out your whiskey palette.
Jon Rich is In the Midfield's Men's Lifestyle Editor. He is also a practicing attorney in NYC.
Few Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey
Few Bourbon Whiskey
Elijah Craig 12 Year
Few Rye Whiskey
Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey