“Whiskey is America’s spirit, and a good Whiskey Sour is truly better than most things,” says Zach Overstreet, resident mixologist for Chicago’s Koval Distillery, adding that U.S. consumers have come a long way in their appreciation for the spirit. “People are beginning to know not just the styles, but also the mash bills and names of their local distillers, which is very cool.”
Nathan Lithgow, beverage director at Holy Ground in New York City, agrees. “People are looking more toward smaller production, hand-made, unique products, which has changed the game for craft whiskey,” he says. “It’s not all about what’s on the billboards anymore.” Indeed, there’s growing excitement about the craft whiskey segment in the mixology community, notes Jason Shelly, resident mixologist at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, Texas. “Guests are excited when they’ve ‘discovered’ a new whiskey, and tend to order craft now over other big-name brands,” he says. “And bartenders are more easily able to connect with a craft brand, which helps them provide their guests with better experiences. Often there’s a story behind each craft spirit, adding to the authenticity—especially if it’s local.”
Amanda Beckwith, guest experience and education manager at Virginia Distillery Co. in Lovingston, Virginia, agrees that bartenders and consumers seem to have a strong attachment to craft brands with unique stories. “There are so many passionate bartenders and cocktail imbibers who take pride in learning about spirits and visiting the distilleries that make their favorite products,” she says. “That’s been an enormous gift to craft whiskies, and we’re very grateful for it.”
Old And New
As much as the craft mixology boom has inspired a renewed appreciation for historic spirits and ingredients, it’s also stirred a desire for new products—particularly locally produced ones. Craft whiskey checks both boxes: It’s a fresh new take on a classic spirit. “Like the craft beer boom in the early 2000s, craft spirits are everywhere now, and it’s become trendy to know your whiskies,” says Andrew Holmes, corporate food and beverage director for First Hospitality Group, which operates restaurants in Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky, as well as hotels throughout the country. “I compare it a lot to how wine is discussed. Guests are seeking regional whiskies, they know the mash bills, and they know if the whiskey finishes hot or sweet.”
Pedro Shanahan, spirit guide at the Los Angeles whisk(e)y bar Seven Grand, says that interest in craft whiskies among his guests is at an all-time high. “As people explore the burgeoning world of whiskies, their curiosity to try new things grows as well,” he notes. “Our Old Fashioned menu includes four craft whiskies to encourage such experimentation.” These options include cocktails made with exclusive single barrels of Wyoming Whiskey Bourbon ($16) from Kirby, Wyoming; Westward single malt whiskey ($29) from Portland, Oregon; Hudson Manhattan rye ($18) from Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York; and Westland 3-year-old Single Cask Nation American single malt from Seattle ($26). “People seem familiar enough with classic cocktails that they’re willing to try a new whiskey in one, knowing that, if nothing else, they’re still getting a great Old Fashioned, for instance,” Shanahan adds.
Whiskies and classic cocktails are a natural pairing due to their historical ties and also because they tend to feature minimal ingredients, allowing the base whiskey to truly shine. “I think simple is best for highlighting craft whiskey,” Holy Ground’s Lithgow says. “Something from the early headspace of the ‘spirit, water, bitters’ holy trinity always works: An Old Fashioned, a Sazerac, or even a Julep can be the purest way of thinking about a specific whiskey.”
Koval’s Overstreet notes that having a house Old Fashioned has become expected at all types of establishments. Koval partners with the Blackstone Hotel to offer the Blackstone Old Fashioned, which is available to hotel guests who opt into the “Tapping the Barrel with Koval Distillery” package as part of their stay. The drink features a special barreling of Koval Bourbon exclusive to the hotel, as well as house-made bitters and a sugar cube. “There are endless Old Fashioned variations one can play with, so you can really make something for everyone,” Overstreet adds. At Firestone & Robertson’s Whiskey Ranch, Shelly offers the Pecan Old Fashioned ($8), comprising TX Bourbon, house-made pecan syrup, and Angostura bitters. “Our TX Bourbon has a uniquely Texan flavor with hints of cinnamon and oak that works beautifully in simple, classic drinks,” Shelly notes.
At Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits in Waco, Texas, Balcones Distilling’s whiskies—made right in Waco—are featured prominently on the menu. The Baby Blues Old Fashioned ($17), created by the venue’s co-owner Alina Mikos, comprises Balcones Baby Blue corn whiskey, house-made vanilla bean syrup, and Fee Brothers Lemon bitters. “I love taking a cocktail that someone’s had 100 times and using a different whiskey, which changes the drink entirely,” says Leighton Bagley, Dichotomy’s bar manager. “For example, for a whiskey lover who wants to branch out, I recommend a Whiskey Sour with Balcones Brimstone, which is a roasted blue corn whiskey aged in a smoked scrub oak barrel that is reminiscent of a great summer campfire. Balancing that smoky flavor with citrus and sugar is a way to create a new take on something familiar.” Dichotomy offers the Brimstone Sour for $10.
Bagley adds that he turns to Balcones single malt to make a refreshing Whiskey Highball ($17.50) with Topo Chico mineral water and lemon zest. “Another fun cocktail to make is a classic Manhattan with Balcones rye, which brings out an amazing chocolate flavor in the whiskey,” he says. The Balcones Rye Manhattan ($16) blends Balcones rye, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters.
“I love classics, but I usually do a little spin on them,” says Beckwith of Virginia Distillery. “We have a beer-finished malt whiskey called Brewers Batch; Brandon Ramsey, our visitors center operations lead, and I created the Brewers Batch Old Fashioned, which enhances what’s already in the whiskey. It’s ridiculously easy to make, but I can sip it all day long.” Offered at the distillery’s visitors center, the drink ($10) features the Brewers Batch, brown sugar simple syrup, and Blackwater Bitters Co. Hot Cocoa bitters.
“I’m a history geek, so I love playing around with punches too,” Beckwith adds. “George Washington used to write to Martha about a punch called the Cherry Bounce, and I recreated that with our whiskey.” The punch ($10) comprises the distillery’s Port Cask Finished malt whiskey, fresh cherries, granulated sugar, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and seltzer water. “I also love finding a cocktail that’s traditionally been made with another spirit and substituting our whiskey to see it really shine,” says Beckwith. “I did a riff on a French 75 using our whiskey instead of gin and it’s become a new favorite.” Called the Virginia 29 ($12), this take on the classic mixes the Port Cask Finished whiskey with simple syrup, lemon juice, and Veuve Clicquot Reserve Cuvée Brut Champagne.
While there are certain regulations craft distillers must follow during the production process, there’s also a lot of freedom to be creative and push the boundaries of what an American whiskey can be. Dichotomy’s Bagley notes that craft whiskey makers have found innovative ways to create unique flavor profiles. “One example is variation in aging, such as using Caribbean rum casks or Sherry casks to bring out different flavors rather than sticking with the traditional new charred oak barrels,” he says. “These nuanced flavors challenge bartenders to create cocktails that enhance and showcase the spirit. It may be more challenging than using highly versatile spirits like gin and rum; however, when done right, a well-executed craft whiskey cocktail is tough to beat.” Bagley’s Jalapeño Business ($11), for example, mixes Balcones Brimstone, jalapeño-infused Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. The addition of jalapeño flavor makes a good match for the roasted corn character of the whiskey, he says.
Creative and unique craft whiskies lend themselves to similarly singular cocktails. “Whiskey cocktails used to be a pretty limited category, focusing on ‘brown, boozy, and bitter,’ but now you’re starting to see a broad range of applications and flavor profiles that run the gamut and venture into more light and approachable territory,” says Ryan Maybee, vice president of sales and hospitality for J. Rieger & Co., a craft distillery in Kansas City, Missouri. At the distillery’s Monogram Lounge, beverage director Andrew Olsen features J. Rieger Kansas City whiskey in such approachable cocktails as the Shift-kicker ($11)—mixing it with a blend of Barbadillo Amontillado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez Sherries, house-made seasonal berry syrup, and lemon juice—and the American Royale ($10), which blends the whiskey with Barbadillo Oloroso Sherry, Bouvet Excellence Brut rosé, lemon juice, and Kansas City Canning Co. clementine marmalade. “The primary difference with our whiskey is the small addition of 15-year-old Oloroso Sherry,” Maybee adds. “It’s truly in a category all its own and works differently in cocktails because of that. The layers of complexity due to the blend of three different whiskies and the Sherry lend themselves to a very wide range of cocktail styles and flavors.”
Holy Ground’s Lithgow notes that bartenders are becoming more discerning when creating drinks with craft whiskies. “They’re looking more critically at specific styles in very constructionist ways, designing drinks around certain flavor profiles or idiosyncratic bottlings within the category,” he says, adding that Sagamore rye whiskey from Sagamore Spirit in Baltimore is currently his go-to craft whiskey. “It has a really pure and focused grain expression, in a savory and complex style,” he says. “It’s all about what the grain wants to say, which I think is how all rye should be. It means you can really isolate the essence of the grain and pair it clearly against other flavors.” His The Smoking Priest ($18) blends Sagamore Cognac Finish rye, Whiskey Del Bac Dorado single malt whiskey—made in Tucson, Arizona—Giffard Crème de Peche de Vigne peach liqueur, simple syrup, and Angostura Orange and Peychaud’s bitters. Holy Ground bartender Marc Rizzuto’s The Fox Club ($17), meanwhile, comprises Pinhook Bourbon from Frankfort, Kentucky, Laird’s Applejack brandy, house-made cranberry cordial and star anise tincture, and Angostura bitters.
“Our TX blended whiskey is soft with virtually no bite, and being vanilla-forward makes it a pleasure to work with,” Firestone & Robertson Distilling’s Shelly says. “It works just as well in a simple Whiskey Sour as in a crazy tiki-style cocktail.” His Maple Whiskey Cider ($7) blends TX with Martinelli’s still apple cider and maple syrup, enhancing the whiskey’s warm vanilla notes. His Texas Bluebonnet ($7), on the other hand, features TX with Jumex guava nectar, lemon juice, and house-made blueberry and lavender honey syrup, showcasing the spirit’s versatility with various fruit and floral flavors.
“Because Virginia Distillery creates whiskey with a ton of depth and complexity, we have a lot to work with,” Beckwith says. “Sometimes that means finding a few supporting ingredients to enhance the flavors that are already in the whiskey, and sometimes it means finding a totally opposite set of ingredients that play off the whiskey in surprising and beautiful ways.” In her Port On Port ($12), Beckwith plays up the Port notes in Virginia Distillery’s Pork Cask Finished whiskey by mixing it with Sandeman Founder’s Reserve Port, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, and Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters. Conversely, in the My Cup of Tea ($12), which she created with Ramsey, the Port Cask Finished is paired with opposing flavors from St-Germain liqueur, house-made chamomile honey syrup, lemon juice, seltzer water, and Fee Brothers Plum bitters.
Beckwith adds that Virginia Distillery’s whiskies are distinct because they feature 100% malted barley, are distilled in pot stills, and are made in a unique climate. “Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we have a lot of humidity and massive temperature fluctuations,” she says. “It took some time to figure things out, but we’ve been able to adapt to the area and give our whiskies a real sense of place—and when people taste them, they’re transported.”
At the First Hospitality venue The Keep in Columbus, Ohio, the Harvest Sky ($17) features locally produced Watershed Distillery Bourbon, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, Cynar amaro, and Dashfire J. Thomas Decanter bitters. Holmes appreciates that sense of place that craft whiskies embody. “It gives you the feeling of being a part of something handmade and community-driven,” he says. “Knowing the distiller by name and where they source their ingredients from—that’s something you can’t put a price on.”