Chicago restaurant Big Star boasts a wide selection of high-end and rare American whiskies, including numerous single barrel expressions that can only be found there. “The other afternoon a group of gentlemen who were in town from Kentucky and had heard of our list came in while doing a bar crawl of aged Bourbons,” beverage director Laurent Lebec says. “They sat down—remember, it’s about 1 p.m.—and shared pours of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the latest Four Roses Small Batch, and more, while joyfully comparing notes.” Lebec adds that this wasn’t as common in previous years as it has become now. “Our guests are driven and educated about spirits in a new way,” he explains. “It’s been highly enjoyable to watch.”
The growth in enthusiasm and education about high-end whiskies is influencing the way mixologists approach cocktail-making. “A lot of brands are vying for spots on the menu, which has made it more common to see all types of spirits in cocktails,” says Jake Strawser, co-owner of Billy Club, a restaurant and bar in Buffalo, New York. “And with it being more common to see higher-end whiskies on menus, people are then more apt to try them in cocktails.”
Though there are some in the field who are still hesitant to mix an 18-year-old Scotch with any ingredients other than ice, others are embracing consumers’ excitement about these spirits and their willingness to spend a little more for a unique drinking experience. “I believe that consumers’ palates have become more sophisticated due to their exposure to more upscale dining and drinking venues,” says Shawna Wright, bartender at The Whiskey Ward in New York City. “They want to satisfy their refined tastes, which has led to greater demand for high-end whiskies and more complex cocktails.”
Maurice DiMarino, beverage director for San Diego-based Cohn Restaurant Group, notes that although he doesn’t think it’s monetarily feasible to have an entire cocktail menu at a top-tier price point, featuring one such drink or devoting a section of your menu to these drinks can be successful. “At our downtown venue, Bluepoint Coastal Cuisine, the bar team makes a barrel-aged cocktail with three different expressions of Hudson Bourbon, which is a fairly expensive brand, especially for a cocktail menu,” he says. “But they do really well with that drink, and they charge accordingly.” The drink, called The New Yorker ($16), is a twist on the Manhattan comprising a house-aged blend of Hudson’s Baby Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, and New York Corn whiskies, as well as Dolin Rouge vermouth and house-made blueberry bitters.
“I believe that great taste can be found across the board from the low end to the high end—though I always relish a guest calling for a Pappy Van Winkle Old Fashioned or a Parker’s Heritage Manhattan,” Big Star’s Lebec says. “There’s depth and complexity to older spirits that can be transportive in a different way than younger Bourbon. My favorite high-end mixer is Booker’s—it’s younger compared to a lot of aged spirits, but old enough that it retains the base character of the corn.” His Booker’s Bourbon Manhattan ($18) mixes Booker’s with Cinzano 1757 Rosso and Dolin Dry vermouths and Angostura bitters.
At Reserve 101 in Houston, the bar team doesn’t shy away from using top-notch whiskies in cocktails. “We’ve always believed in using premium brands in our cocktails and listing them on the menu so guests know what they’re getting,” says co-owner Mike Raymond. “The beauty of these spirits is that they have a deep range of flavors that makes them extremely versatile—but as with any cocktail, balance is the most important factor to keep in mind.” His King’s Reward ($12) comprises Dalmore 12-year-old Scotch, Cynar amaro, and Bittercube Blackstrap bitters, served with a side of house-made sea salt tincture, while bartender Leslie Krockenberger’s Rosemary’s Baby ($12) blends Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon, house-made honey apricot cordial, lemon juice, and fresh rosemary.
At New York City bar Highlands, beverage director Andrey Kalinin’s The Lily & The Thistle ($21) comprises Glenlivet 15-year-old French Oak single malt Scotch, Maker’s 46 Bourbon, brown sugar, and The Bitter Truth Drops & Dashes bitters. “To complement whisk(e)y in a cocktail, I like to use honey, natural sugars, different bitters, and fortified wines,” Kalinin says. His Fine Smash ($16) blends The Macallan 10-year-old Fine Oak single malt Scotch with house-made heather honey syrup, fresh Meyer lemon juice, mint leaves, and club soda, while his Blood & Sand Vol. 2 ($17) mixes Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12-year-old single malt Scotch, Cherry Heering liqueur, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, Fonseca Ruby Port, and fresh blood orange juice. “Single malt Scotch is my favorite to play with because it’s always a fun challenge to pair it with the right ingredients,” Kalinin adds.
Even when using the finest complementary ingredients, there’s still some resistance to making cocktails with top-tier whiskies within the bartending community. “I think people are more apt and have the pockets to experience cocktails with expensive whiskies, but this sometimes comes at the detriment of the actual spirit,” says Justin Goo, general manager at San Francisco bar Bourbon and Branch. “Cocktails evolved because the spirits available were of inferior quality and bartenders were trying to make them more palatable. When you use certain top-quality whiskies in a cocktail, it masks all the nuances and deliciousness that you could have had if you enjoyed it neat or on the rocks.”
Cohn Restaurant Group’s DiMarino notes the literal cost of incorporating these whiskies into a cocktail menu. “Sometimes the whisk(e)y at the base will be so manipulated that it doesn’t show through, so why spend $50 on a bottle that you’re just going to cover up in a cocktail when you can use one that’s only $10?” he asks. Goo adds that if he’s tasked with creating a cocktail with a high-end whisk(e)y, he usually reaches for rye. “It has a spiciness that stands out when you add other ingredients,” he says. “In the past I’ve used Lock Stock & Barrel rye whiskey to make a high-end Old Fashioned.”
At Bar Argos in Ithaca, New York, the Bagpipe Mariachi ($11) comprises Pueblo Viejo Blanco Tequila, house-made apple-fennel shrub, house-made celery bitters, lemon juice and a Laphroaig 10-year-old single malt Scotch float that lends smoky and peaty aromas. At The Whiskey Ward, Wright’s Late Hit ($15) mixes Glenfiddich 12-year-old, Q ginger beer, lemon juice, and a Laphroaig 10-year-old float. “Currently, my favorite high-end whiskies to use in cocktails are the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich 12-year-old Scotch whiskies, as well as Laphroaig 10-year-old,” Wright says. “Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are classic, smooth single malt whiskies that mix well with other high-end, fresh ingredients, and Laphroaig has a rich, bold flavor that adds a delicious smoky taste to a cocktail.”
Billy Club’s Strawser believes that as bar programs continue to highlight top-shelf whiskies, using these spirits in cocktails will become the norm, saying, “I think the days of bargain ingredients in cocktails are over, especially as consumers become more aware of the quality out there.”