Whisky Roundtable #15

It’s fallen upon me to host the 15th installment of the Whisky Roundtable, and since it’s summer and damn hot in some places, I thought I’d steer the conversation towards a more light-hearted, yet no less delicious whisk(e)y issue…that of the high-end whisk(e)y cocktail. With speakeasies, pre-prohibition recipes, DIY infusions and bitters, and specialty ice littering the bar scene lately (especially in the US), the art of cocktail making has been elevated from the rail swill and swizzle to what’s basically a culinary art form. Yeah, sure it might take a half an hour to make your perfect Sazerac now, but…it’s a perfect Sazerac, isn’t it worth it? Well…is it? Is it worth using high end, usually-for-sniftering-and-sipping Scotch and Bourbon for these complex libations? Here’s the question I posed to the esteemed 12:

Whisky cocktails…love ’em or hate ’em? We’re not talking Jack & Coke, 7&7’s, or Rusty Nails from the rail here, we’re talking top shelf single malts, single barrel bourbons, and craft distillery ryes, shaken or stirred into a classic pre-Prohibition cocktail or a new, creative libation. What do you think, is it an affront to the whisky gods to use the good stuff in a cocktail, an abomination nonpareil? Or is it a terrifically delicious, if not spendy, use of our favorite spirit? Feel free to share your favorites and where you had them as well…or, as it may turn out, your least favorites and where you wasted your hard-earned money…

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Keith from Whisky Emporium

Whisky cocktails?

Peter, are you turning all trendy and neon in a whisk(e)y kind of way?

Well, I can imagine that some whiskies with extreme characteristics may appeal to cocktail mixologists, perhaps those drams with extreme peat or fruit tendencies, but for me, a self-confessed old Luddite who thinks the only thing that should be added to whisky is another two fingers of whisky or perhaps 3-4 drops of still water, this is something of an enigma; just why would anyone wish to ruin, or perhaps more accurately camouflage dram good whisky in this way?

Oh well, back to my Ludditistic ways as I pull up the drawbridge to Schloss Emporium for another month.

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Gal from Whisky Israel

Well, That’s a good question mate! Living in Israel, which is a hot country, essentially calls for whisky cocktails or any cocktail for that matter. During summer it’s very hard to sip on whisky if your AC is not turned on MAX. But, for some reason I do not find myself preparing a lot of cocktails. Lazy? Maybe.

When I made my first steps in the Single malt/Whisky world I would not hear of anything other than NEAT whisky in a Glencairn / Copita glass. And had considered anything made from quality top class whisky which is not drunk neat, Blasphemy. Happily those days are gone, and I’m willing to experiment now. I am not opposed to making classy cocktails with top shelf malts, as long as they do contribute to the cocktail and as long as you are in peace with yourself when making it.

Making a great cocktails means also using the best ingredients you can get. I’m not saying you should use a Mortlach 70 as a base for a snazzy cocktail, but I see no harm in using top notch Islay malts to add some smoke to your cocktails, or a Glenfarclas sherried to a wintery cocktail. I’m for it.

As it happens a few months ago i was asked by The master of Malt to participate in a series of blog posts they were making on cocktails based on their 8 year old blended whisky. Now, blended whiskies are used many times in cocktails, so nothing is new here, but I wanted to create something i liked, and on top of a sweet home-made liqour made of Carambola (Star fruit), i added a measure of some Laphraoig Quarter Cask,which is an excellent whisky IMHO. The cocktail was uplifted a few level by that addition, and the smokey characters of that QC shone through. I’ve tried adding more Islay single malts (Ardbeg mostly) to other recipes, and some were excellent, while some were not that good, but I am willing to experiment.

I still take 98% of my quality malts neat, but there is indeed room for using those, in your cocktails. try, and you will not regret it.

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Joshua from The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society

You know, Peter, had you asked me this prior to April I would said you were crazy to have even suggested that you mix anything with a single malt or top shelf rye.  You bring up a good point — it’s a very spendy thing to do (this $h!t costs money!).  HOWEVER, while at a baby announcement party I had a “cocktail” that was so very delicious (and perfect for the morning).  Now, this was not some high end super over thought cocktail, this was a simple Bloody Mary but in place of Vodka, the party host used Ardbeg 10yo!  Imagine the lovely lemony quality of Ardbeg 10 plus the added smoky notes to the drink — delicious!  I think I’ll make one this morning…

On top of that, just over a month ago I was at St. Andrews bar in NYC with a friend and he introduced me to a drink they have called the “Auld Alliance”.  It consists of The Macallan 10yr with Cointreau, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup served straight up.  What was nice is the character of the Mac10 still came through but the overall experience was that of a fresh, refreshing summery drink.

My suggestion is to try drinks like these while out on the town, at a good cocktail bar (if you can find one who makes top shelf single malt drinks).  That way you’re not dipping into your stock!  But hey, if you’ve got a lot of whisky and enough money to replenish your stock, go ahead an experiment!  It’s all about enjoyment!

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Chris from NonJatta

The whisky god is dead, so basically you can do what you want with your bottle of single malt. I am sure it is a very good worktop cleaner, too. It does seem a bit of a waste though to be putting an expensive single malt in a cocktail. In my limited experience, cheaper whiskies are perfectly good for these uses.  Perhaps if the cocktail is being made absolutely perfectly using absolutely the best ingredients by a superb cocktail maker and that cocktail maker determined that a particular single malt`s taste was exactly what was needed with his combination, then I might drink it with some interest. But for all practical purposes in my life this would just be a waste of money and good whisky.

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Mark from Glasgow’s Whisky

My first reaction to any question like this is that if you have paid for the stuff then you can do whatever you like with it, as long as you are not harming anyone else. I know of a top cocktail guy here who makes whisky sours with Talisker which are highly rated by those who know their whisk(e)y sours. Ultimately it’s a good thing if it gets people drinking more whisky and benefits everyone. Let’s face it, it’s that or vodka and I know which I’d rather was being drunk. There’s perhaps a little too much snobbery around whisky, although it is the best spirit in the world and deserves some respect for all the hard work and years of maturation that goes into making it. Having said that I am pretty sure that the folks making it would be happy that their spirit is being drunk and wouldn’t be in any way unhappy if it was mixed with other ingredients.

I can’t comment on any particular cocktail or drink made with whisky as that’s not really my thing, but if that’s what floats your particular boat then it’s all good. I recently had a drink called a Sweet FA which is made with a new, local blended whisky called The Finnieston. This whisky has been specially blended to be used in long drinks and they have created a set of whisky bitters to go along with it. This is a fresh approach to this idea of mixing whisky and one that I’m really pleased to have tried. For your info the Sweet FA uses their whisky plus a few dashes of their peppermint bitters topped up with fresh apple juice. Perfect for the little heatwave we just had here in Scotland (well, this part of it anyway!).

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Chris & Lucas from Edinburgh Whisky Blog

I recently attended the launch of a new cocktail in Bramble Bar in Edinburgh. The great mixologists there collaborated with Glenmorangie to create a cask-aged cocktail of excellence and I can honestly say – they succeeded on every level. They (re)created a fantastic beverage (which its traces history to the 1850s), drummed up lots of attention for their establishment and generated some great PR for malt whisky in general and Glenmorangie in particular. Now, in what way is this bad? How can this be called a blasphemy? The very fact that they invited all the key whisky commentators in Edinburgh to the event proves that they are truly proud of the outcome – both Bramble and Glenmorangie. Dr Bill Lumsden was personally involved in the project, in fact it was he who suggested ageing the cocktail in several different casks: a light, medium and heavy toast new White American Oak ones and a sole Frenchie – also new oak. The amount of love, attention and expertise that went into the project can only be compared to the amount of money it must have costed to have those tiny 4.5 litre casks made to order. As to the result… make the pilgrimage and see for yourselves! And no matter how geeky you feel about neat whisky, suck it up and get on with the fact that whisky is not all about snifter glasses and pipettes of water.

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Neil & Joel from Caskstrength

In our opinion, whisk(e)y cocktails represent a great transition in the whisk(e)y industry from the ‘heather and weather’ imagery of old into a new progressive era. Of course, not everyone will grasp it with both hands, but to enjoy the delights of a beautifully balanced Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sour or modern creation is to experience whisk(e)y in a brand new light.

We don’t buy into the adage that the only thing you should add to a whisky is ‘another whisky’ and to be honest, who the **** has the right to tell you how to drink it!

That said, to use, for example a 50yo Highland Park in a Whisky Sour would probably be slightly irresponsible, given that the inherent flavours in the whisky will shine through without any assistance. Perhaps the absolute extreme would be the ‘World’s Most Expensive Cocktail’ served at the Burj al-Arab Hotel in Dubai, combining a 55 yo Macallan from a Lalique decanter, passion fruit sugar and dried fruit bitters. It costs $7450. Absurd, but someone will undoubtedly buy one, at $400 dollars a sip… and we doubt anyone would turn down a chance to try one to adhere to their puritan beliefs.

Experimentation is the key – whether you find a peated Blood & Sand with Ardbeg 10yo more preferable to one made using Cutty Sark Original, the fun is throwing yourself right into the mix…

Personally speaking, we advocate using The Glenrothes 1985 as the whisky in a ‘Fruity Whisky Sour’, with homemade orange marmalade syrup to sweeten and a twist of grapefruit zest to garnish. A truly zest laden experience.

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Matt & Karen from Whisky for Everyone

A great question Peter and one that seems very relevant as more and more whisky based cocktails appear. We love a good cocktail and our view is simple – there is nothing wrong with using top shelf single malts, single barrel bourbons or craft distillery whiskies in a cocktail, as long as they are being used for the right reasons. This is actually true for any ingredient in any cocktail. The correct reasons have to be primarily based around the flavours present within the whisky and whether these compliment and combine well with the other components found in the final drink. Too many times, you can walk in to a trendy bar and find an expensive single malt based cocktail that leaves you wondering whether they used whisky for the sake of it or to increase the cost or because whisky is ‘en vogue’ right now … The argument that the use of premium whiskies in cocktails is somehow sacrilegious seems out-dated to us, especially as cocktails are a good way to get more new people drinking whisky. Premium whiskies shouldn’t be solely the domain of the old school whisky connoisseur, and good cocktails are a way of introducing them to a wider audience. Whisky is no different to any other premium spirit (be it aged rum or tequila, vodka, gin, brandy etc) in the respect that, if used correctly it can add considerable depth and complexity of flavour to a cocktail. After all, most blended whiskies and cheaper bourbons are designed to be taken with a mixer or within a cocktail anyway. Therefore, the step to using single malts or single barrel bourbons is not as big a one as many people think. The skill of the bartender or mixologist is to select complimentary characteristics, matching these to other ingredients sympathetically and with respect to the product used.

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Ruben from Whisky Notes

I don’t think anyone would be tempted to add a slice of lemon, sugar syrup and an umbrella to a single cask Brora, thinking that it would be great as part of a cocktail. But apart from that, for me there’s no such thing as sacrilege when it comes to using whisky for other purposes than “anorak” savouring.

It’s just that I hardly know cocktails where my collection of Scotch whisky would really work. The rounder, sweeter profile of American whiskey (or Irish or Canadian) is just more suited to be mixed. Sure, there are recipes for some of my favourite cocktails (mint julep, whisky sour, Manhattan…) made with Scotch whisky, but for some reason they don’t come off in the same way. Most Scotch whisky is too dry, too spicy and too grainy I guess, at least for these classics.

And even when the profile is right, you wouldn’t notice much difference between a high-end whisky and a low-end supermarket bottle. In a cocktail the balance between different ingredients is the key element, so even the whisky shouldn’t impress you with its flavours, it should blend in with the rest. That’s why I have a couple of specific “mixing whiskies” at home (Makers Mark, Jameson and a white label supermarket blend) that I don’t like to drink on their own, but that work perfectly in a cocktail. No need to even consider a higher quality spirit.

As a final note, I’d like to pass on a variation on a whisky cocktail that really stands out for me: “Blood & Sand” made with Laphroaig. Usually the recipe will simply say “Scotch whisky” but with the right balance Laphroaig 10yo will add a very interesting twist. The smokiness complements nicely with the sticky sweetness of Cherry Heering, while vermouth adds a touch of bitterness and spices. Excellent, certainly during winter time, just don’t overdo the amount of Laphroaig.

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Mike, Mike & Dan from Whisky Party

As per usual, it depends.  Not only does it depend on the cocktail maker and cocktail itself, it depends on one’s definition of “the good stuff.”We all agree that in spending above the regular $6 or so for a cocktail (think $10-$15), that we’d rather it be a good whisky that we are familiar with rather than an average whisky.  For instance, at a bar without much in the way of a whisky catalogue, I’d much rather have a Johnnie Walker Black mixed with my coke than whatever is on rail (which admittedly, Johnnie Walker Black may come close to that rail definition).

The same classification holds true if you’re working with a mixologist.  The caliber of that mixologist matters.  Recently at the Alembic in SF, I had a Blood and Sand, but spoke with the mixologist a bit about what I was looking for (not only for flavor, but also cost).  We settled on her making a smokey Blood and Sand with mainly Black Bottle and a dash of Caol Ila 12.  It was phenomenal.  Really blew my mind.  Not top shelf whisky, but definitely better than rail.  And for what I was looking for at the moment, it was definitely better than either of those whiskeys separately. At the infamous Bourbon and Branch, I’ve had it both ways.  I think that their Laphroaig Project (made with Laphroaig Quarter Cask) is amazing.  It turns that incredibly strong flavorful drink into a tropical cookout – in a good way.  I always order it when I go there.  It’s a known quantity to me, and I love being able to tell what they’ve done with the drink and how they have improved upon it.  However, I’ve also had some other drinks (i.e. The Phantom) where I was quite underwhelmed.

If one defines “good stuff” as something a bit more than Laphroaig Quarter Cask, I personally don’t believe I would take it in a cocktail.  When I enjoy what is left of my Laphroaig 30, or take a tipple of Highland Park 25, it’s to enjoy that whisky as it is.  The taste that you get by augmenting whisky with cocktails can be mimicked with drams that may be more easily replaceable than your top shelf.  And when I’m in a bar that has a ridiculous whisky catalogue, I’m going to want to try what I haven’t before, and have it in its pure form.

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Jason from Guid Scotch Drink

So not to be terribly boring or anything but…  I’ve never had a whisky cocktail.  Of any description.  No Whisky Sours, no Rusty Nails, not even a Bell’s and Irn-Bru.  It’s not that I have anything against the mixing of great single malts with fruits, sugar syrup, liquid nitrogen or whatever else the mixologist can think of it’s more that the flavors aren’t usually of any interest to me.  With that said, however, if we’re going to cook with whisky, pair meals with whisky, and smoke cigars with whisky then bar folk with the appropriate skills ought to be working diligently on exploring complimentary flavors and making damn fine whisky cocktails.

My first visit to 1022 South in Tacoma resulted in me drinking one of my first ever cocktails (I have a hard time considering gin & tonic a cocktail, of which I’ve had many, many glasses!).  I had the opportunity to meet the owner of the bar and wasn’t shy about telling him that I don’t tend to like the flavors normally found in cocktails.  However, after describing my flavor likes and dislikes to him he recommended a smoky little offering that, while lacking whisk(e)y, featured mezcal (a little something I’ve been exploring recently thanks to Joshua Hatton), reishi (a mushroom), horny goat weed, goji berry, and Angostura bitters.  Sure, it was $10 but it was fun, featured ingredients I had to Google on my phone, and challenged my palate.  I’d be more than happy to explore a similar cocktail featuring Laphroiag 18 or Talisker 18.

Let’s encourage our local mixologists to explore whisk(e)y flavors and pairings.  More importantly, let’s encourage ourselves and our whisk(e)y loving friends to explore our whiskies in new ways and new forms.  If nothing else, it’s a fine excuse to keep drinking whisk(e)y, no matter the weather!

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I’m of two minds when it comes to single malt Scotch or high-end bourbon used in cocktails. A small part of me wonders why in anyone’s right mind would you dilute/add-to/mix-in that which is perfectly complex and even beguiling on its own. By creating a cocktail with, say, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, sure you might be combining a winning combination of flavors, but in doing so, you’re taking something away from what is a great whisk(e)y simply by itself. Heresy and ruination!

A much, much larger part of me, however, thinks that just because you have a bunch of the best carrots on Earth, you don’t have to only eat them raw, there’s no reason not to use them in a mirepoix to help make the best soup ever. The same holds true for cocktails as it does with cooking, better ingredients yields better results. Granted, I’m not saying that you should go out and spend $450 on some Highland Park 30 or some ridiculously rare independent bottle just to make a pitcher full of Blood & Sands (though that’d probably taste pretty good), but using a high quality, complex, excellent-on-its-own, scotch or bourbon like Laphroaig Quarter Cask or Sazerac Rye in combination with high quality liquors, bitters, etc., is going to make a cocktail lightyears beyond something made with Clan MacGregor and corn syrup-sweetened bargain bin schnapps. Of course, it is a little hard to crack open a bottle of Lagavulin 16 at home and start splashing it around, experimenting, mixing it with diet orange soda, six blueberries and an eggplant garnish (don’t…please…), but in an establishment that knows what it’s doing, a whisk(e)y cocktail can be an absolutely wonderful thing. Here in San Francisco, Bourbon & Branch’s “Laphroaig Project” is the perfect example of using good, but disparate sounding booze components (Laphroaig QC, Green & Yellow Chartreuse, Fee’s Peach Bitters, lemon juice, and a little maraschino) to make a novel, fantastic, refreshing drink whose sum is at least as good as its parts. To eschew a top shelf whisk(e)y cocktail is to miss an opportunity for a whisk(e)y to showcase itself in a completely different, yet no less delicious, manner.

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10 thoughts on “Whisky Roundtable #15

  1. Interesting discussion! To say I’m torn would be an understatement. Here’s my two cents…

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about whisky, beer, cocktails, and just about anything else you can eat or drink. It is my understanding that one of the biggest reasons for the creation of the cocktail (or mixed drink) was because the quality of the primary spirit was of such poor quality that bar owners were simply trying to make their booze drinkable via some bartending prowess (dare I say mixology?). They took a sub-par spirit and added whatever they could to make it palatable and of course, highly profitable. Don’t get me wrong… a beautifully made cocktail is a wonderful thing, but would I put some top flight whisky into a cocktail? I doubt it. Then again, when it comes to the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, there is a world of difference between one made with standard issue Jim Beam Rye and one made with Sazerac or even Russell’s Reserve Rye. As most of you have said, there are exceptions to every rule.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    1. Interesting point, G-LO. I guess that just like other “foods born of necessity”, the cocktail has gone from low-brow to high-brow. Just look at the way offal is treated in restaurants these days. 100 years ago, offal was the cheapest meat people could afford…now you have celebrity chefs charging mightily for plates of the stuff.

      …and just to bring that full circle, yes, I have had cocktail made with bacon infused Bulleit…

      1. Aha! I was gonna go there as well with the offal reference but am not quite eloquent enough to squeeze that in to my comment AND still make sense (assuming that I made any sense to begin with).

        So you made the bacon infused Bourbon cocktail. Awesome! Is it as tasty as it sounds? I have a vat of Buffalo Trace. Would work well with this. Details please…

  2. I recently bought a bottle of Highland Park 12, and it came with a free sample of HP18. When I tried the 18 yr, I had a bit of HP12 around so I could compare. The 18 yr was so good, that Highland Park 12 – an amazing whisky – tasted almost cheap in comparison! The moral of the story is, let’s not forget that the “low-end” good whiskies are still great!

  3. Is there anyone left in San Francisco who has not had Laphroaig Project? Seems to be the be-all and end-all of single malt based cocktails …. and I’m in NYC.

    P.S. It is damn delicious.

    1. Unlikely. They actually make you buy and drink one now when you come through the gates of the city…it’s like a toll. If you don’t drink alcohol, you then have a choice between several locally made Kombuchas. Usually at that point, even non-drinkers go for the Laphroaig.

      The Laphroaig Project has definitely become a poster child for this kind of high-end cocktail.

      I hear NYC has a hoity-toity cocktail place or two…

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