Stereotypical is the hardened man of the West, sitting by a campfire and taking swigs from a bottle of whiskey. We’ve all seen this in ads and pop culture: whiskey is a man’s drink! In my opinion, these portrayals have done a disservice to the spirit. It’s given whiskey an identity of being a rough beverage, one that needs to be thrown back to show off your masculinity. Many drinks in our culture seem to be tied to gender, which from a culinary standpoint, never made much sense to me. Marketing aside, even without the gender bias of whiskey, lots of individuals have or once had an aversion to the taste of whiskey. This is likely, in part, due to our run-ins with the spirit in our early days of alcohol consumption when our taste palates were less of a priority. Putting in the work to acclimate yourself to taste can be really rewarding. Think of your first impression of coffee or beer. Did you give it a second or third chance? No matter where you are in your tasting journey, whiskey is worth the try. Cake vodka, on the other hand, might be better left behind.
If you are not well acquainted with this spirit, you may assume that all whiskeys taste alike, which couldn’t be more far from the truth. Whiskey has many types and subtypes, classified by mix of region, ingredients and methods. For this article, we are going to focus on the two heavy hitters in American whiskey: Bourbon and Rye. We will leave Scotch, Irish, Canadian, etc. whiskey for another time and stick to our western theme. I hope those of you that have already taken a deep dive into the whiskey universe will enjoy some of what this article has to offer. But, given I only know of a few whiskey aficionados firsthand, I’ve created this piece for those that still aren’t too sure about what whiskey can do for them.
Bourbon is by far the biggest category of American whiskey. To be classified as bourbon, the whiskey must be made with at least 51% corn. Bourbon must also meet government regulations that you can Google for yourself, if you are the curious type or just want to add to your trivia knowledge. The ratio of grains along with the age are what impart the flavor differences when comparing whiskeys. Bourbons will usually be made up of some ratio of rye grain, corn and other grains, like barley or wheat. When compared to rye, Bourbon will be sweeter and have a stronger ‘whiskey flavor.’ This makes it a great choice for drinking by itself with a couple of ice cubes. But bourbon is also a good choice when mixing a cocktail where you want the whiskey notes to take the front seat.
For a budget friendly bourbon, a great place to start would be Buffalo Trace and/ or Elijah Craig Small Batch. Both of these bottles can be found for under $30 and hit all the quintessential bourbon tasting notes. Then move onto Wild Turkey 101, if you are looking for something with a little more spice and herb notes.
Rye has been around for as long as America has been colonized. Before prohibition, if you were to ask for whiskey you would most likely have gotten rye as corn was not the cash crop it is today. Rye must be made with at least 51% rye. Rye contains a lot of rye; makes sense, right? Like bourbon, rye will usually be made up of some ratio of rye grain, corn and other grains, like barley or wheat. As I mentioned before, these grain ratios impart more flavor differences, but even more so than bourbon. Rye has a spicier side and is lighter in flavor; it’s my go-to for a well-balanced cocktail because you don’t get the overt sweetness and whiskey flavor.
For your entry into rye, I’d recommend Rittenhouse, which is 51% rye and 39% corn. This is great if you want a little bit of those bourbon notes. If you’re wanting a full rye ensemble, at 95% rye, Bulleit is your answer. Expect a strong spicy taste from this one; it’s great for cocktail experimentation. Both rec’s hover around $25.
“Okay this all sounds interesting, but every time I try to take a sip my body recoils.”
With strongly flavored liquors and foods, it’s common to not have a love-at-first-taste experience. This evolutionary driven reaction used to keep us from being poisoned or sickened during our hunting/gathering days. Oftentimes a flavor just takes some getting used to, in order to fully appreciate it. The most common example of a taste being acquired is coffee. What once used to taste bitter and burnt, now tastes fruity and chocolatey and brings you the notion of a productive morning. It’s unlikely this happened overnight. Maybe it was out of desperation to take advantage of the caffeine jolt or maybe it was that you wanted to taste the ‘apricot note’ the hip barista swore was there, either way, most of us can’t imagine a morning without coffee. If you are willing to put in the effort, I promise there is 90% chance of coming out of this with a newfound appreciation for whiskey. Here are some methods that have helped many, including myself, achieve this.
1 \ Pour yourself a small glass of whiskey, I mean small, not much more than a tablespoon. Your pour shouldn’t feel overwhelming; we’re not doing shots. Now take tiny sips. Again, I mean tiny. Rinse and repeat. Add an ice cube or a little water, if the alcohol burn is a little much.
2 \ Mix it! If you are already a cocktail fan, then you know that cocktails are a great introduction to base spirits. Try one of the cocktails below; I’ve given a few options. If you’re not ready to go all mixologist, the Whiskey Highball is about as easy as a cocktail comes … otherwise, start with a Coke or Club Soda and slowly increase the soda to whiskey ratio over time, as your taste buds get acclimated.
New York Sour
A slight variation on the classic sour that we featured in a prior issue. The red wine gives the drink more of a jammy flavor vs. the original.
- 2 oz. whiskey
- .75 oz. lemon juice
- .75 oz. simple syrup
- 1 egg white
- .5 oz. red wine
- Serve it up in a coupe glass or down in a lowball glass filled with ice
- Pour all ingredients, except wine, into a cocktail shaker
- Shake without ice (dry shake) for 20 seconds
- Add a handful of ice to shaker and shake another 20-30 seconds, or until your hands are freezing (doesn’t take long)
- Strain into a coupe glass
- Float the red wine on top of the drink by pouring it over the back of the spoon and giving it 30 seconds to settle before serving
A good intro into whiskey cocktails, easy to drink and refreshing + very simple. Use a good quality ginger ale or beer to give the drink more of a ginger zip. Use club soda, if you already have a taste for whiskey and want to keep the calories low.
- 2 oz. whiskey
- 4 – 6 oz. ginger ale (or club soda, enough to fill)
- Garnish: Lemon twist or wheel
- Fill a collins glass with ice
- Add whiskey
- Add a squeeze of lemon, if you’d like
- Fill to top with your soda and garnish!
A true classic cocktail. The botanical flavors and bitterness from the vermouth complement the rye whiskey in this spirit forward beverage.
- 2 oz. rye whiskey
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 4-6 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Garnish: A good quality maraschino cherry, my favorite are Luxardo
- Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, fill with ice
- Stir drink ~ 30 times until chilled and sufficiently diluted
- Strain up into a coupe glass or down on a lowball glass filled with ice
- Garnish with a cocktail cherry