According to many bartenders and mixologists, American whiskies—particularly Bourbon and rye—have more fans now than ever before. “The presence of American whiskey cocktails on menus and the velocity at which those cocktails are being ordered is significantly higher today than I used to see,” says Joe Riggs, brand ambassador for Redemption rye and Bourbon whiskies. “As a Kentuckian, I used to have a hard time finding a decent American whiskey on a back bar that I could drink neat, let alone in a Boulevardier or Sazerac. But today, it’s much easier to imbibe my favorite spirit in every market as awareness and demand are higher than ever. The Old Fashioned is now the go-to drink in many bars.”
Schuyler Hunton, beverage director at Saloon in Somerville, Massachusetts, has noticed a similar shift. “American whiskey has seen a huge surge in sales since the cocktail movement started,” he says. “Vodka is being overshadowed by more flavorful and interesting spirits like whiskey.”
Indeed, consumers are increasingly drawn to unique ingredients in their dining and drinking experiences. This shift has been a boon to American whiskey, which runs the gamut of bold flavors and serves as a base in innumerable cocktails, from classics to modern interpretations.
Full Of Flavor
Many mixologists point to the consumer desire for more robust taste profiles in their food and beverages as contributing to the popularity of whiskey-based cocktails. “In its heyday, vodka’s quality was judged on how much flavor was removed in the distillation process,” says Eric “E.T.” Tecosky, brand ambassador for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. “That tactic seemed to work until the food craze got a foothold. At that point, consumers started looking for flavor in spirits, and American whiskey is all about flavor.” Tecosky’s Sunset Strip blends Jack Daniel’s with Aperol aperitif and Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse Rose grapefruit liqueur.
Wes Henderson, chief innovation officer of Angel’s Envy Bourbon, also notes the movement toward bold flavors. “There’s increasing awareness of taste in both food and drink. This trend contributes to the popularity of whiskey, which is one of the most versatile and complex spirits,” he says. Angel’s Envy “whiskey guardian” Angel Teta created the Ciudad Vieja, blending the brand’s Bourbon with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, Berg & Hauck’s Creole bitters and Angostura bitters.
“We can’t keep enough good Bourbon in stock,” says Shawn Thomson, general manager of Chicago bar and restaurant Twisted Spoke. “People want the full mouth feel of Bourbon.” Thomson notes that the top-selling whiskey cocktail at Twisted Spoke is his Whiskey Sour ($10), featuring Basil Hayden’s Bourbon, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white. A close second for most popular is his Old Fashioned ($10), which is made with Rittenhouse 100 Proof rye whiskey, sugar, maple syrup, house-made orange bitters, and muddled orange and cherries.
Dustin Parres, director of operations for St. Louis–based Gamlin Restaurant Group, has noticed an increased use of high-proof whiskies in cocktails. “I think the cocktail boom and consumers’ desire for new, different things and bigger, bolder flavors have driven bartenders and industry professionals to create demand for more high-proof whiskies, which are great canvases for cocktail making,” he says. At Gamlin Whiskey House in St. Louis, the GWH Manhattan ($15) is a customer favorite and features the 60-percent alcohol-by-volume Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon, Dolin Blanc vermouth, cherry juice and Angostura bitters.
For Maker’s Mark, New York City–based mixologist and president of the New York chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) Pamela Wiznitzer created The OG OF, featuring the brand’s high-proof Cask Strength Bourbon combined with Cocktail & Sons Spiced Demerara syrup, Angostura bitters and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.
Since the revival of cocktail culture in recent years, consumers are better educated and more open to trying new flavors. Jacquelyn Zykan, master Bourbon specialist for Old Forester Bourbon, notes a shift away from drinks that emphasize intoxication without the alcohol burn. “The goal of the cocktail order has moved toward experiencing the ingredients in the glass and learning about why they taste the way they do,” she says.
Parres notes that the clientele at Gamlin Whiskey House prefer simple whiskey cocktails, with ingredients that complement the spirit rather than mask it. “With spirits like vodka, cocktail-making is about artfully hiding the taste,” he explains. “With whiskey cocktails, the spirit is the star of the show.”
Less Is More
Old Forester’s Zykan concurs that the best way to highlight American whiskey in a cocktail is to have fewer ingredients, allowing each—and especially the base spirit—to stand out. “With American whiskey, the less-is-more approach can be gorgeous, as it allows the character of the spirit to really shine through,” she says. “There has been a wildfire trend in the past to put a massive number of ingredients in a drink, but I personally relish a three- or four-ingredient cocktail.” Her Old Fashioned features Old Forester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon, Demerara syrup, Angostura bitters and Fee Brothers Old Fashioned bitters.
Many bartenders point to the classics as the most common way consumers drink American whiskey. “The most popular cocktails at Saloon are the classics: the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sazerac. They sell like crazy,” Hunton says. And nearly all classic cocktails feature a simple recipe of three to four ingredients.
Allen Katz, cofounder of New York Distilling Co. and director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, agrees. “Classics reign because they are simple, familiar and delicious,” he says. Katz created a twist on a classic Hot Toddy with the Rock Your Face Off ($11 at the Shanty in Brooklyn), which features Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye rock candy–flavored rye whiskey, fresh lemon juice, homemade honey syrup and Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel bitters. “There’s a whole new category of consumers that have been introduced to American whiskey through flavored variants,” he adds.
Zykan notes that cocktail culture in general has been a way to introduce a new set of drinkers to brown spirits. “Cocktails allow people who have been hesitant to venture into the brown spirits category to find a way to enjoy drinking them,” she says. “The old-school way of thinking—that you’re ruining a whiskey if you add anything to it but ice or water—is dying out.”
Indeed, nearly every American whiskey brand on the market today includes a list of cocktail recipes on its website and in its marketing strategies, and these drinks often adhere closely to simple, minimal-ingredient classics. The Basil Hayden’s Wintry Night Toddy, created by Miami-based mixologist Luza Zanirato, mixes Basil Hayden’s Bourbon with honey, hot water, star anise, cinnamon sticks, and orange and lemon zest. I.W. Harper Bourbon’s Old Fashioned comprises I.W. Harper, cherries, brown sugar, and Angostura Aromatic and Orange bitters. Pikesville rye whiskey, meanwhile, touts its own Pikesville Old Fashioned, blending the brand with Demerara syrup, and Angostura and The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter bitters. Pikesville also promotes a Boulevardier that features the brand with Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and Campari aperitif.
Focus On Ingredients
Redemption’s Riggs notes that today’s consumers take a more thoughtful approach to what they drink. “The slow food movement has caused consumers to be more cognizant of what they’re drinking and how those products were created,” he says. “Because of this, the standard production of cocktails is much higher than ever before. Fresh juice no longer sets a bar apart from its competitors—it’s become industry standard.” At Louis’s the Ton bar in Louisville, Kentucky, the Butchertown Sour ($9) is made with Redemption rye, Peychaud’s bitters, and fresh lemon and blood orange juices. For Jack Daniel’s, Tecosky created the Cherry Bomb, featuring the brand with fresh cherry juice and homemade dark brown sugar syrup. He stresses the importance of using 100-percent cherry juice over others with additives.
For Sacramento-based Paragary Restaurant Group, beverage director and president of the Sacramento chapter of USBG Brad Peters created two cocktails that are available at all of the restaurant group’s venues around the city. The drinks mix Corbin Cash rye and blended whiskies—produced by California’s Sweet Potato Spirits—with fresh fruit juices. The California Gold Rush ($12) comprises Corbin Cash Merced rye whiskey, house-made honey simple syrup, fresh-strained lemon juice and Angostura Orange bitters, and the Atwater Buck ($12) features Corbin Cash blended whiskey, fresh-strained Meyer lemon juice, simple syrup, Angostura bitters and a fresh strawberry.
Like Riggs, Old Forester’s Zykan notes that the rise of mixology in recent years has upped the cocktail-making game. “With whiskey-based cocktails, there has been a noticeable evolution in technical execution,” she says. “Bars are better outfitted with tools and fresh ingredients, and the craft of bartending has been pushed even more into a professional culinary field. Today’s mixologists take a more epicurean approach to cocktail-making.”
When making cocktails with American whiskey, Zykan thinks critically about each ingredient she chooses. “It’s important to use flavors that complement American whiskey’s barrel notes—vanilla, caramel, baking spices—as opposed to layering on similar flavors,” she explains. “That approach really brings the spirit to life. Old Forester has great rose petal notes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m grabbing the rose water. I’d be more interested in seeing what happens when the rose notes are elevated through the complementary use of cardamom, saffron, coconut or even mandarin orange.” Zykan’s Honeymoon Cocktail comprises Old Forester, pineapple juice, Kalani coconut liqueur, heavy whipping cream and Angostura bitters. “The technique used to produce the end result is the most basic and yet the most important aspect of making a proper cocktail,” she adds.
Art Tierce, brand mixologist for Oregon’s Ransom Wine Co. and Distillery, created the Red Rope cocktail by carefully layering different flavors to complement the company’s Henry DuYore’s rye whiskey. The drink mixes the whiskey with Ransom dry vermouth, Cherry Heering liqueur, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel bitters and Peychaud’s bitters. “It’s a lighter or dry-style Manhattan, but the addition of Cherry Heering adds body and sweetness and pairs perfectly with the rye,” Tierce says. “The Whisky Barrel bitters help highlight the spice associated with rye, and the anise character of the Peychaud’s provides another layer of depth.”
Saloon’s Schuyler took a similar approach to making the Little Italy ($11), which blends Bulleit rye with Cynar aperitif, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, a house-made salt solution and Fee Brothers Orange bitters. “This drink was originally crafted by Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club in New York City, but I added the salt and bitters to brighten it up a bit and draw out some of the nuances of the Cynar,” Schuyler explains.
The use of house-made ingredients is another way today’s mixologists show off their skills and chef-like approaches to mixing cocktails. “I see a lot of house-made bitters, syrups and infusions being used in various cocktails,” says David John Souza, founder and head distiller of Sweet Potato Spirits. At the New York City restaurant Obicà, the Vizio ($15), created by beverage manager Fabrizio Argiolas, includes Jim Beam (ri)1 rye whiskey, Cynar, Disaronno amaretto, and house-made rhubarb and orange bitters.
What’s Old Is New
“Until the start of the most recent cocktail renaissance, drinks menus were overflowing with ’tinis of all shapes, sizes and flavors that were made with prepackaged mixes, artificial juices and so on,” says Tecosky of Jack Daniel’s. “Once bartenders had better ingredients at their disposal, it didn’t take long for them to figure out the best ways to use them. As it pertains to whiskey cocktails, the tide started turning toward classics like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac. And over the past couple of years, bartenders have started reaching for new or unique flavors to create original cocktails.”
Indeed, classic recipes can be the starting point to create something new and fresh. “The Manhattan will always be a stalwart, but it’s also a launching pad for related cocktail ideas,” New York Distilling’s Katz says.
At Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, California, bar manager Aaron Ranf created a twist on the Manhattan called the Angeleno ($14), comprising Redemption rye, Atxa red vermouth, Grand Poppy herbal liqueur and Scrappy’s Orange bitters. In Ponte Verde, Florida, the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa’s Bourbon Bar offers the Rosemary Maple Bourbon Sour ($14), which was created by assistant manager Brittany Sandidge. An infused variant of the classic Whiskey Sour, the cocktail blends Knob Creek Bourbon with house-made rosemary-maple simple syrup and fresh lemon juice. In another twist on an American whiskey classic, celebrity chef Michael Symon’s Knob Creek Mulled Old Fashioned features Knob Creek Bourbon, homemade mulled Demerara syrup and Angostura bitters.
“I don’t think the rise of American whiskies has come close to reaching its plateau,” Tecosky says. “People are still discovering whiskey for the first time and in turn discovering classic and modern whiskey cocktails.”