Friday, August 28, 2009

oh whiskey, you villain

Three whiskeys

In my glamorous work as a writer, I sometimes say that I know more about science than most humanities people, but less than actual science people.  That's the position I'm in with regards to cocktail coverage on this blog.  There are some fantastic cocktail blogs out there; before I started reading them, I learned about cocktails from Chuck Taggart's occasional cocktail posts on The Gumbo Pages (see the sidebar on this page) and Ted Haigh's "Dr Cocktail" column (there is an Amazon link to the second edition of Ted's ridiculously great and groundbreaking cocktail book at the bottom of this page).

I know much more about cocktails and liquor than most people, even most other cooking-oriented people.  But I know significantly less than many of the people who maintain cocktail blogs (and many who don't), particularly those of my age or older.  (Looking through blogs linked by blogs linked by blogs linked by blogs I read a couple weeks ago, I found a cocktail blog that went on and on about recently available but still obscure ingredients and molecular gastronomy notions, before coming to a post about how the author had never had a gin and tonic.  While it was sort of interesting to see someone come at the idea of a gin and tonic from that perspective -- as something new and exotic to their palate -- it made me feel so distanced from the blogger that, rightly or wrongly, I didn't feel there was much we had to say to one another on the topic of drinks.)

There are a few factors limiting my expertise, aside from simply "other people know more than me":

1: I rarely have more than one drink, maybe two.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing or anything, but it means it takes me a week to try even basic variations on a drink, so my learning curve is slowed.

2: I even more rarely go to bars.  I've never understood this collegiate nonsense about drinking at home, by yourself or otherwise, being stigmatized.  It comes close to suggesting there's no reason to drink except to get drunk, which is like saying there's no reason to eat except to get fat.  I don't object to bars, I have no problem with bars, but for $20 I can get a bottle of premium liquor, or I can get two or three premium drinks, depending on where I am.  Come on.

3: For the last three years, I've lived in New Hampshire, which has state-run liquor stores and restrictions on alcohol shipping.  Though the shipping restriction only (I think) requires the shipper to have a state-specific permit, and though the state has the highest per capita alcohol sales (because the prices are low and Vermonters and Massholes bordercross to take advantage of them), it's only very recently that it's been possible to order cocktailian ingredients by mail -- and none of them are available in the liquor stores.

I see people online talking about how allspice dram, for instance, is already "over," and meanwhile you can't even buy maraschino liqueur in New Hampshire.

I buy things in Massachusetts or online -- has been good to me -- and I certainly give the NH stores their share of business.  Whiskey is good and cheap here, as is any domestic liquor.  It's been years since I've bothered with bottom shelf college kid bullshit.

So that's my cocktail background, my cocktail situation.  Right now I'm going to talk about whiskey, about three whiskeys of my recent acquisition -- none of these are available in NH: Bernheim wheat whiskey, Old Gristmill corn whiskey, and Baby Bourbon aged corn whiskey.

What I know about whiskey

Like beer, whiskey starts with fermented grain mash -- barley, rye, wheat, corn, there are a lot of possibilities.  Unlike beer, whiskey is then distilled, and usually aged.  Aged whiskeys are generally aged in oak barrels.  Aging in oak involves a flavor exchange -- the wood soaks up some things, and imparts others into the liquor, including vanillin, a flavor compound found in vanilla beans, roasted coffee beans, maple syrup, and oatmeal, and generally used in "vanilla flavoring."  (One reason vanilla flavoring is so weak compared to vanilla is because the real thing contains so much more than just vanillin.  It's like trying to express "chili con carne" with cumin.)

There is a LOT of variation within the possibilities laid out by that description, but whiskeys tend to fall into specific categories.  Bourbon whiskey, for instance, must be distilled from a mixture of more than half corn, aged in new charred oak barrels.  It doesn't have to be from Kentucky.  The mash generally includes wheat, rye, and malted barley in addition to the corn, and bourbons are often referred to as "wheat type" or "rye type" according to which is most prominent.  One of my standard household bourbons, for instance, is Bulleit, which is so heavy on the rye it can practically substitute for a rye whiskey in cocktails.

Rye, wheat, or corn whiskeys are whiskeys made with a mash dominated by that grain, by a minimum amount determined by labeling laws.  None of these are all that common, though rye whiskey is the most common -- you can find Old Overholt, Jim Beam rye, or Wild Turkey in most states.  Canadian rye is not the same thing as rye whiskey -- "rye" became the word for "whiskey" in Canada long ago, and is used synonymously there, but Canadian whiskeys are usually blended (meaning that the whiskey flavor has been diluted by adding neutral grain spirits).

Unaged whiskeys aren't found very often, though these days, as microdistilleries become the new microbreweries, you can sometimes find them sold locally by distilleries that need a way to generate revenue while they wait for their aged product to be ready for market.  The one type of whiskey often sold unaged is corn whiskey -- often called moonshine, though moonshine wasn't always made with corn.

If you tour a distillery in Kentucky, you'll get the chance to sample the unaged product after it's been distilled, on its way to the barrels.  It's interesting stuff, but harsh, and the flavor profile hasn't developed as much as it will in the barrel -- at least that was my one experience with it.

Okay, so that's whiskey.  It's a broad category.  

Bernheim Wheat Whiskey

This is, as far as I know, the only wheat whiskey in existence, and although I was curious how much it would stand out -- there are plenty of wheat-type bourbons, and the wheat pretty much overpowers the corn in them -- the difference is certainly there.  Oh, in a blind taste you might think it was bourbon, if only because "wheat whiskey" just isn't a category in your head.

What's interesting about the difference is how smooth and light and clean this whiskey is, almost crisp -- this, in an age when differentiating your product so often means going to Flavor Extremes.  It's nice.  It's very pleasant.  I'll be honest, I don't know if nice and pleasant are enough to get me to pay mail-order prices on it a second time, but it's a good sipping whiskey, so the fall may change my mind on that.  It's certainly very very drinkable.

Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey

This whiskey, good lord.  I am such a fan.

This is an unaged corn whiskey made from New York corn at Tuthilltown Spirits, one of the only (THE only, maybe? I don't know) distilleries in New York.  I've had several Tuthilltown products now, having bought one of their apple vodkas for a Remake The Appletini project I'll blog about in the fall when it's appropriate.  I'm hugely impressed.  Their stuff is expensive, especially by New Hampshire standards, so I'm trying to force myself to go slow ... but honestly, when I head into the bar part of the kitchen to make a drink, if I don't already have something specific in mind, Old Gristmill is one of the first things I reach for.

Though unaged, this is very unlike the white dog I'd sampled at Buffalo Trace a few years ago, and that may partly be because it's 100% corn, or it may be because the Buffalo Trace product wasn't meant to be drunk unaged.  There are probably proof differences, too -- I'm sure they told us the proof of the Buffalo Trace stuff at the time, but I didn't make a note of it.  Old Gristmill is 80 proof, about standard for a base liquor.

It's extremely flavorful, with a sweet nose that reminds me of cachaca more than whiskey, and of the few vodkas I've liked.  The flavor is slightly sweet, and not harsh at all, with surprisingly little burn.  I guess because of what it is, because of the moonshine associations, I was expecting something hotter -- but after all, it's 80 proof, not 151.  There's a fruit-like character to it which made immediate sense because this time of year, New England has finally given up the goods, and the farmstand has corn on the cob sweet enough to eat raw.  Raw liquor that hasn't had the flavor distilled out of it tends to have an earthiness to it, a funkiness, and that's what I get here.

I love this stuff.

Hudson Baby Bourbon

Another Tuthilltown Spirits product, this is an aged corn whiskey which I assume starts out the same as the Old Gristmill.  It's "baby" bourbon for three reasons: it's aged for only three months, in small charred new oak barrels, and sold in 375ml bottles (which cost more than I usually pay for 750ml of bourbon, so this won't be a frequent purchase).  

Unlike other bourbons -- every other bourbon, as far as I know -- the Baby is 100% corn, and that alone would be enough to make it markedly different.  This is one of those little conceptual pockets produced by labeling laws: bourbon must be at least 51% and aged in charred oak.  Corn whiskey must be at least 80% and, if aged, cannot be aged in charred wood.  Corn whiskey aged in charred oak, then, must be bourbon, provided it follows the other minor provisions (which have to do with the proof to which it's distilled and whatnot).  The smaller barrels make the most of the brief aging -- by increasing the ratio of surface area to the volume of the aging liquor -- which pushes the flavor profile pretty far from Old Gristmill.  

This is actually less smooth than Old Gristmill, believe it or not, which might in part be the higher proof (92 instead of 80).  There's a hint of burn, and lots of barrel flavor, but it's still mellow.  Not mellow like the Bernheim, but you certainly wouldn't guess this baby was only a trimester old.  There's caramel and pepper, some citrus flavors -- it's a very good bourbon, and though I've been having it mostly straight or in whiskey sours, I'm looking forward to trying it in cider when the weather turns cold.

I'd like to see more from Tuthilltown in the future.  They have a rum and several whiskeys I haven't tried, so that'll keep me occupied.  I'm hoping they have some longer-aged spirits in the works, and I'd definitely try unaged rye or multi-grain whiskey if it were available.

Whiskey cocktails

There are a million things you can do with whiskey, but there are a few standbys I always come back to, and use when trying out a new whiskey.

The Old-Fashioned

One of the oldest cocktails around, this gets fucked up all the time by people adding a handful of fruit and topping it with soda water.  That just isn't this drink.  The benefit to this drink is it's a good way to explore a new whiskey or a new bitters.  It also doesn't use anything fresh like citrus, so when you're out of everything, you can usually still make an Old-Fashioned.  Trust me on that.

Add a little icewater to a rocks glass.  Add a little sugar to it and swirl until it's dissolved.  Add 2 ounces of whiskey and 2-3 dashes of bitters.  Add ice.  Add a couple cherries -- either fresh tart cherries or alcohol-preserved cherries.

The Whiskey Sour

Still one of the best drinks around.

about an ounce of fresh lemon juice

a little sugar dissolved in the juice, to taste (I never measure this, you can figure it out)

2 oz whiskey

Shake with ice and serve on the rocks.

The Last Word variant

Normally this drink is made with gin, but you can sub in just about any other base liquor and you've got something nice.  It's a great example of an "equal parts" cocktail that manages a really fine balance.  It's also the reason I'm almost out of Chartreuse.

Maraschino liqueur, in many ways the central figure of the cocktail revival, may need an explanation.  Don't confuse it with maraschino cherries -- they're related, but don't taste anything alike (and maraschino is "mar a SKEE no").  Maraschino liqueur is made with Marasca cherries, the crushed pits of which contribute a funky almond-like flavor (almonds, like cherries, are members of the prunus genus).  Maraschino cherries, on the other hand, are in most cases made with sweet cherries that have lost most of their flavor and been partially candied in a dyed and artificially almond-flavored syrup.

Old Gristmill is especially good in a Last Word.  The Bernheim wheat whiskey becomes a little lost to the Chartreuse.

1/2 oz whiskey

1/2 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice

1/2 oz green Chartreuse

1/2 oz maraschino liqueur

Shake with ice, strain.


  1. Haven't tried Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey , but I've had the others. I can't find your contact info on this page, please drop me a line at . I'd like to chat with you sometime. Tom /

  2. Tuthilltown Spirits has dropped the OLD GRISTMILL brand and renamed the goods: NEW YORK CORN WHISKEY, and bumped the proof up to 46%. Otherwise unchanged recipe. But much more flavor as a result of the increased proof. Also rebottled in our apothecary bottles. Enjoy. And thanks for your kind comments.
    Ralph Erenzo, Tuthilltown Spirits.

  3. Hi Ralph,

    Thanks for checking in. One question -- the New York Corn Whiskey seems to be bottled in 375ml bottles instead of 750ml. I understand the proof has been bumped, but hasn't the price effectively been doubled (judging from what Drink Up NY is charging vs what I paid for the Old Gristmill)? I love the corn whiskey, but I couldn't make it a staple at that price.

  4. Wow,

    What an incredibly well written article. You really did your research. Your assessment of American whiskey styles is spot-on. Certainly more authoritative than most of what's written (and understood) by more "official" publications. Kudos!

    I just wanted to clarify a few things. Aging times depend on barrel size. The smallest barrel we use (3 gallon) generally goes for 4-5 months (not 3). Larger barrels age longer, but almost everything we release is aged less than 2 years.

    I double-checked the price you paid for Old Gristmill vs. NY Corn. We still sell 375 ml unaged corn to our distributor at the same price we always did regardless of label, what the retailer marks up is up to them. In the next few weeks we'll also be releasing our NY Corn in 750 ml bottles which will be an even better deal!

    Thanks so much for your glowing reviews! Try the NY Corn in Eggnog this winter. You may have trouble maintaining your one drink every few days streak.


  5. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for clarifying. Whiskey -- as you can probably tell -- fascinates me, in part because of all the misconceptions (how many times have you seen a movie where someone rattles off their liquor options as "gin, bourbon, whiskey," as though bourbon isn't a whiskey?) and in part because of the whiskey styles that have been under-explored, like corn and wheat.

    Hopefully it's clear how much I love Tuthilltown's corn whiskey -- I'll be looking for the 750ml bottle -- I just didn't like the idea of paying more for largely the same product.