Bar Talk: Beyond Shots

Bartenders embrace flavored whiskies for use in cocktails and infusions.

The Cookies, Coffee and Cream cocktail uses honey-flavored whiskey and Benne wafers, a Charleston, South Carolina, specialty.
The Cookies, Coffee and Cream cocktail uses honey-flavored whiskey and Benne wafers, a Charleston, South Carolina, specialty.

While flavored whiskies have been on a growth spurt, the segment is still on the fringe of the cocktail movement, with an on-premise role relegated largely to shots. But flavored spirits can play a sophisticated role in mixology—in fact, they always have.

At the Laundry Room in Las Vegas, bartender Dan Marohnic elevates the shot occasion with the Dirty Laundry ($12). The drink features a shot of maple whiskey that’s infused in-house and garnished with a fresh apple slice. Marohnic serves the shot on a mirrored tray adorned with short lines of powdered allspice, fig preserves, cinnamon and brown sugar. “You dip the apple in whatever spices you want, take the shot and eat the apple,” Marohnic says. “The flavors work together really well for late fall and winter.”

Marohnic took his inspiration from a traditional dessert drink, an equal blend of Canadian rye whisky and maple syrup that he admits is too sweet for modern tastes. His version uses a spicy high-proof rye, such
as Rittenhouse or Wild Turkey 101 rye, which he blends with amber maple syrup in a five-to-one ratio to tone down the sweetness. Then he lets the mixture set for a few weeks, which allows the flavors to integrate. The shot has resonated with customers. “It’s festive and fun,” he says.

At the Thoroughbred Club in the Belmond Charleston Place hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, bar supervisor Malachi Topping has created a drink uniquely rooted in his city’s history. His Cookies, Coffee and Cream cocktail ($12) is made with cinnamon- and vanilla-infused Wild Turkey American Honey whiskey, Kahlúa coffee liqueur, Cathead Pecan vodka, and half and half, with a rim of crushed Benne wafers, which are sweet sesame seed cookies. “Benne wafers are a Charleston tradition dating back to colonial times,” Topping says, adding that the cookies were the impetus for the drink. “When people come down South, they want to order whiskey-based drinks. It’s a neat way to tie in something local that speaks to the history of Charleston.”

Topping uses the same Wild Turkey American Honey infusion—which rests for at least 36 hours—in the Clydesdale ($12). The drink blends the flavored whiskey, DeKuyper Crème de Cocoa Dark liqueur and ice cream. “It’s basically a Brandy Alexander, but with Wild Turkey in place of brandy,” he says, adding that both dessert drinks are quite popular.

The proliferation of flavored whiskies is no surprise to Anthony Caporale, cocktail historian and brand ambassador for the Scotch whisky liqueur Drambuie. “The flavored whisk(e)y craze isn’t new—it’s a rediscovery of the way we started drinking spirits,” he says. “We consider Drambuie to be the original flavored whisky.” The liqueur, which has been an ingredient in classic cocktails like the Rusty Nail since its commercial debut in 1893, has benefited from the growth in flavored whiskies. “Drambuie is playing a larger role in the bar world than it has since the 1950s,” Caporale says, adding that the liqueur may be used to replace dark spirits or sweeteners in most cocktails to create variations on the Old Fashioned. “Drambuie can turn even something as ubiquitous as a Margarita into a craft drink.”

Even Fireball, the hot cinnamon-flavored whisky that dominates the shot scene and the flavored whisk(e)y category, has joined the cocktail club. As part of its Southern cuisine-themed fall menu, the 481-unit burger concept Red Robin launched the Fireball Peach Smash ($6.49), made with Fireball, peach purée, lemon wedges, fresh mint, and house-made sweet and sour mixes. “It’s based on the Whiskey Smash, which goes way back—it’s related to the Julep,” says master mixologist Donna Ruch.  “The cocktail has a spicy hot flavor, but it’s well-balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the peach.” The offering has been a hit, earning a spot on the year-round menu alongside the Angry Fireball (pricing varies), a popular highball made with Fireball and Angry Orchard Crisp Apple cider. Ruch embraces the success of flavored whisk(e)y cocktails. “We talk about brown spirits being so popular, but they’re still such a small piece of the overall spirits category,” she explains. “So many people haven’t opened up to whiskies yet. These flavored whiskies are great ways for them to realize they can be whisk(e)y drinkers.”

The role of flavored whiskies in the cocktail scene can only increase as bartenders come to embrace the category and as more high-quality offerings enter the market. “Whiskies have always been mixed with a little sweetener and some flavors,” Drambuie’s Caporale says. “People are rediscovering how important and versatile flavored whiskies are for the first time in a hundred years.”