There’s a common belief among whisk(e)y enthusiasts that the older the liquid, the better the quality. But as Katie Tobin, bar manager of The Aquifer bar at New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky notes, craft whiskies are helping to dispel this idea. “Whisk(e)y and Bourbon, craft or not, have long lived in a market where ‘young’ has meant lesser quality than the 23- and 24-year-old heritage brands—but today people are spending more time drinking 4- and 5-year-old craft whiskies, whether straight or in cocktails, and celebrating them for the quality of such young products,” she says. “In many ways I believe craft distilleries have raised the bar for the entire industry—they aren’t pumping out young, over-proof whiskies anymore and calling it a day. Instead, they’re spending more time creating quality products and educating folks on how to use them behind the bar.”
Brian Christenson, CEO of Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana, California, says that he’s definitely noticing a greater amount of craft whiskies on bar menus today. “Bartenders, like chefs, are increasingly looking to use locally made products and ingredients that speak to their unique regions, and craft whiskies fit that bill,” he says. “And bars with thoughtful cocktail programs like to feature craft whiskies, which tend to be more rare and not as widely available, so that they’re not serving the same whiskies commonly found at most bars.”
Craft spirits have certainly benefitted from a more educated and curious bartender community, says David Powell, brand ambassador for Hudson Whiskey, which is produced by Gardiner, New York-based Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery. “We tend to think of bartenders as an extension of our advocacy and ambassadorship work—they’re usually the people who are introducing the drinking public to new spirits, cocktails, and flavors.”
Twist On Tradition
Craft whiskies are truly having a moment behind the bar, and it’s because they’re at once familiar and new. “As our name indicates, our whiskies offer a new riff on an old tradition,” New Riff’s Tobin says. “Our Bourbon and rye, though very different, both have notes of vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, clove, and rye spices. The orange and cinnamon notes in the Bourbon play beautifully with the Demerara simple syrup we use in our house New Fashioned, and our Rye Perfect Manhattan balances the earthiness of the sweet and dry vermouths and bitters with the spice and sweet toffee finish of the rye.” Both created by Tobin, the New Fashioned ($8) features New Riff’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Demerara simple syrup, and Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters, and the Rye Perfect Manhattan ($8) comprise New Riff’s Kentucky Straight rye, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Contratto Bianco vermouth, and Bittercube Blackstrap bitters.
“Craft whiskies tend to push the envelope of the traditional flavor profile,” says Brandon Habenstein, beverage director for Bardstown Bourbon Co. in Bardstown, Kentucky. “The flavor profiles of our core whiskies, Fusion and Discovery, vary with each release. And our Collaborative Series of whiskies is a whole different breed—each release is finished in barrels from other types of producers. These will have held anything from grape-forward brandy or wine, dark and malty beer, Sherry that tastes like figs, or even orange Curaçao.”
Hudson’s Powell notes that most craft whiskies use small batch pot stills, whereas mainstream American whiskey brands use continuous column still distillation. “The pot still leads to a more robust flavor profile, whereas the continuous still creates a more neutral spirit,” he explains. “Our single grain approach to our mash bills creates distinctive flavor profiles right out of the bottle that will change any cocktail that they’re featured in to something a bit more unique than if you were to use a ‘standard bearer’ brand of Bourbon or rye.” At Dear Irving on Hudson in New York City, the Balto Old Fashioned ($18) blends Hudson Baby Bourbon, American Fruits Barrel Aged Apple liqueur, maple syrup, and Angostura bitters, and at Fine & Rare in New York City, the Smoking Rye Old Fashioned ($20) mixes Hudson Manhattan rye, Demerara simple syrup, and Angostura bitters, and is smoked with the guest’s choice of wood: hickory, Bourbon oak, maple, cherrywood, applewood, or pecan.
“There are so many unique craft whiskies, each with their own flavors, mash bills, and intricacies that allow us to really experiment with how different ones can make the same drink taste totally distinct,” says Andrew Yancey, co-owner and operator of Tarnished Truth Distilling Co. in Virginia Beach, Virginia. At the distillery’s tasting room and bar, the Hunt Room, bartenders James Ah You and Matt Sopata offer several classic whisk(e)y-based cocktails that feature their own unique spin. The Smoked Old Fashioned ($12), featuring Tarnished Truth High Rye Bourbon, Demerara simple syrup, and Angostura and Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters, is smoked with ground Bourbon barrel wood. The Black Manhattan ($16), meanwhile, mixes the distillery’s Old Cavalier 11-year-old Bourbon, Averna amaro, and Angostura and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.
Another common feature of craft whiskies that distinguishes them from their mass-produced counterparts is their regionality. Blinking Owl, for one, uses California-grown grain and oak, while Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon, finishes its Bourbon in Pinot Noir barrels from the local Elk Cove Vineyards. “This aging process helps smooth out the tannins from the oak and adds some light fruit notes to balance it out,” says Freeland Spirits hospitality manager Brooke McKinnon. “These flavors pair well with classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, but are also complemented well in more fruit-forward drinks.” Available in the distillery’s tasting room, McKinnon’s Cinnamon Old Fashioned ($14) comprises Freeland Bourbon, house-made cinnamon Demerara syrup, and Angostura and Fee Brothers Orange bitters, while her Cranberry Smash ($15) features Freeland Bourbon, Som Cranberry cane vinegar cordial, lemon juice, simple syrup, and muddled mint. “Bars and restaurants have really switched gears in the past decade to focus on seasonal, local ingredients in their drinks and food,” McKinnon adds. “This change has helped craft whiskies become more well-known and has increased the creativity behind each cocktail.”
The Sky’s The Limit
As U.S. craft whiskey distillers have upped their game, bartenders have followed suit, notes Rob Dietrich, master distiller and blender for Blackened whiskey, a collaboration between the heavy metal band Metallica and the Santa Monica, California-based Sweet Amber Distilling Co. “Craft cocktails and the craft distilling industry have been organically spiraling upward together at a rapid pace, and both industries continue to innovate,” he says. “I think the creativity of craft whiskies is what drives the bartender to go beyond the norm and create something special.” At the House of Machines in Los Angeles, the Proper 86 ($14) blends Blackened whiskey, Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth, Faretti Biscotti liqueur, and house-made chocolate bitters. The drink was created by Bad Birdy, global cocktail creative for the venue. At Halyards in Brooklyn, New York, the Gold Rush ($11) blends Blackened with honey syrup and fresh lemon juice.
“The sky’s the limit in terms of what you can create with craft whiskies,” Hudson Whiskey’s Powell says. “To me it really all centers on that unique flavor profile out of the bottle—you want to make sure you accentuate what’s great about the spirit you’re working with.” In his Hudson Valley Cooler ($10 at the Tuthilltown Spirits visitor center), Powell does just that: He blends the Hudson Maple Cask Rye with maple syrup, lemon juice, and apple cider. “Whisk(e)y has always been a versatile spirit, so it follows naturally that people are getting more and more creative with how it’s employed in cocktail development,” Powell adds.
At Tarnished Truth’s Hunt Room, Ah You and Sopata’s White Lie ($12) features the High Rye Bourbon in a modifier role rather than as the base, complementing the distillery’s Old Cavalier Bourbon Cream liqueur and Belle Isle Cold Brew moonshine. Their Portrait of a Gentleman ($16) is a Sour variation, blending the Old Cavalier 11-year-old Bourbon with grapefruit and lemon juices, Demerara simple syrup, and Bittermens Burlesque bitters. “Since craft whiskies are a little more adventurous with their mash bills and finishing techniques, they offer the opportunity to play around with different flavors and combinations of ingredients,” Yancey notes.
At New Riff Distilling’s The Aquifer, Tobin’s Everybody Hurts ($10) is her own take on a tiki cocktail, blending New Riff Kentucky Straight rye with Diplomático Mantuano rum, pineapple and lime juices, Coco Reàl cream of coconut, Monin blood orange syrup, and Bittercube Blackstrap bitters. “I’m constantly surprised by how versatile our products are,” Tobin says. “Our Bourbon and rye both hold up and blend nicely with vermouths, citrus, fruity flavors, and sweet elements. There are times when I try something with them and think, ‘This shouldn’t work but it’s delicious.’”
While Blinking Owl’s Christenson says that timeless cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, more creative and modern whisk(e)y cocktails are gaining prevalence. “Simple, classic applications really let the spirit shine, but our whiskies also work great with a variety of other flavors like coffee, chocolate, ginger, blueberry, lemon, maple, cinnamon, hibiscus, and coconut—and can be used in variations of both classic and modern cocktails.” Available in the distillery’s tasting room, the Bourbonade ($18) blends Blinking Owl California Straight Wheated Bourbon, Alessio Bianco vermouth, house-made apricot and vanilla syrup, lemon juice, and soda water, while the Ryeball ($15) is a mix of Blinking Owl California Straight rye, Fever-Tree club soda, and Fee Brothers Plum bitters. “I think we’re going to see growth in split-base cocktails combining craft whiskies with other spirits to create unique blends,” Christenson adds. “I also think the craft whisk(e)y highball trend is going to continue to gain favor.”
At Bardstown Bourbon’s Kitchen & Bar, Habenstein offers the Rickhouse Spritz ($10), which is a highball and also features a split base: It blends equal parts Bardstown’s Fusion Series Bourbon and Cocchi Americano aperitif, as well as The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter bitters and soda water. His Fleur de Fusion ($10), meanwhile, comprises Bardstown’s Fusion Series, Lillet Blanc aperitif, Tattersall amaro, Crème de Fleur floral liqueur, rich simple syrup, and Crude “Pooter” Smoke & Salt bitters. “I love stretching the versatility of the whiskies as far as possible,” Habenstein adds. “Truly the only guideline is ‘make it taste good.’”