Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: The Classic Whiskey Cocktail

For the next month, I thought I would do something novel: a series on the classic whiskey cocktail. Whiskey Wednesday will explore the composition of three classic American whiskey cocktails: the Sazerac, the Manhattan and the Mint Julep.

But Sku, you told us that serious whiskey drinkers only drink their spirits neat (or maybe with water). What's happened to you?

It's true that the best way to taste the true flavor of whiskey, and the only way to truly understand it, is to drink it neat or with a few drops of water, but that isn't to say it's the only way to drink it. You should similarly taste good chocolate plain to understand its flavor, but that doesn't mean you can't make a fabulous chocolate souffle with it. Like chocolate, whiskey can be enjoyed on its own, but also as an ingredient in a larger dish.

Now it's true that I went all snarky on Bourbon & Coke on Whiskey Minute, but that's a different story. Bourbon and Coke is a drink that masks the flavor of the whiskey to assist in the drinker's inebriation; if you throw anything short of motor oil in Coke, it will taste pretty much like Coke (and depending on the motor oil, maybe that too). The cocktails we are going to explore seek to highlight and enhance the flavor of the whiskey. The whiskey is as integral to the cocktail as chocolate is to a mousse.

Shouldn't you use the cheapest liquor you can find for your cocktails?

Absolutely not. If you were making a beautiful roasted chicken would you seek out the cheapest, third rate bird you could find? Of course not. The whiskey is the centerpiece of these cocktails. You should never make a cocktail with something you wouldn't drink.

Now, even I would tend to cringe at adding a really amazing whiskey in a cocktail, but why should that be? Going with our chicken analogy, shouldn't you want the best. In that spirit of experimentation, I will try some of these cocktails with a variety of spirits, some of which will make the whiskey geeks cringe.

Now, that being said, certain whiskies are going to make better cocktails than others. In a Sazerac, for instance, you need a strong rye to stand up to the Absinthe and bitters. I doubt I'd use a Sazerac 18 year old because it's too subtle. I might, however, use an Old Potrero because of its super-strong rye flavor. We'll see.

Why aren't you going to make any Scotch cocktails?

It's personal preference really. I like the taste of bourbon, and especially rye, in cocktails more than I do Scotch, but if you've got a winner of a cocktail that calls for Scotch, let me know and I'll try it out. And in the spirit of experimentation, I may well do the unthinkable and slip a Scotch into one of these things. Anything is possible.

How can I learn more about cocktails?

Compared to the small ghetto of whiskey related websites, there are oceans of websites and blogs dedicated to cocktails. Many of these, however, focus on icy, syrupy drinks with titles that include silly sexual innuendos. You could literally spend hours on YouTube watching imbeciles make drinks.

If you are interested in classic cocktails that highlight spirits, I would recommend three web-based sources. The first is Jeffrey Morgenthaler's excellent eponymously named website. Morgenthaler is an Oregon bar manager who posts drink recipes as well as super-amusing lists of things like what not to say to your bartender.

A second excellent source is Drinkboy which has numerous cocktail recipes and demonstrations.

Lastly, a real treasure, which I actually learned about from Morgenthaler's site, is the amazing YouTube series on New Orleans Best Cocktails by barmaster Chris McMillian which are available on this channel. McMillian is a font of knowledge about the history of various cocktails and makes near perfect versions of everything from the martini to the cosmo.

In fact, these sites are so good that I'm just going to refer to them for instructions on how to make these cocktails. I will concentrate on the flavors of these cocktails and the impact of using different whiskies.

Next Wednesday we begin the series with the Sazerac.

No comments: