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In Defense of Flavored Whiskey: The Best Bottles to Try

The time has come to take flavored whiskey seriously.

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene takes a look at the distillers doing flavored whiskey right.

A couple of weeks ago, I posed a simple question on my social media outlets and to a few personal contacts: "Have any of you tried a good flavored craft whiskey that I might not know about?" Here are a few of my favorite responses:

Finding a good craft whiskey is like trying to find the best-looking person in a room full of ugly people. / Are you dreaming????? / I would think of it as the least worst flavored whiskey.

Oh, whiskey purists! Please don't throw anything at me, and sit down for this: Flavored whiskey isn't exactly new, and I've found a few flavored whiskeys made sans cynicism and without the added mystery chemicals from which most of our experienced whiskey palates run screaming. These brands embody that authenticity and integrity that large liquor companies pay big bucks to look like they do.

On-site at Colorado's Leopold Bros. distillery. Photo: Courtesy Todd Leopold

Flavored Whiskey Existed Well Before Fireball

It wasn't unusual to find rye whiskeys infused with spices and sugar in bars and in homes pre-Prohibition. Whiskey rectifiers — merchants who rebottled or blended whiskeys from various distillers — often added macerated fruits, spices, and black tea to their whiskey to give it a unique and proprietary personality. Should the rectifier's whiskey source change, they could rely on that black tea note or added fig juice to provide a reasonable amount of product consistency.

"Whiskey doesnt all have to be so highbrow."

The added ingredients also smoothed the rough edges of a rotgut whiskey. An old manual dated from 1885 entitled The Art of Blending and Compounding Liquors and Wines by Joseph Fleischman states, "All newly-distilled liquors and spirits have a rough and pungent taste, which must be remedied before they can be used as beverages. This is done by fruit juices or flavors, which are mainly alcoholic extracts of fruits or other substances, and are employed by certain proportions to counteract the raw taste of the new spirits."

Some argue that today's availability of an excellent whiskey is precisely the reason why we don't need flavored whiskeys anymore. Whiskey is now good enough to drink on its own. But for today's craft producers, that's not the point.

Flavored Whiskey Can Be Delicious

"When you hear the words 'flavored whiskeys,' many people think chemicals, and of large producers that maybe add weird stuff. If it says 'apple whiskey,' it often doesn't come from a real apple," says Todd Leopold, one of the founders of Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver, which produces several flavored whiskeys. Naturally, Leopold is creating flavors with real ingredients in-house, and all the whiskey makers featured below make excellent infused whiskeys for merely the sake of making a delicious product. They're neither covering up a crappy whiskey, nor are they producing solely to reach the non-whiskey drinkers. So if you're a whiskey purist who thinks a flavored whiskey can't be done well, or you're simply interested in trying something new, read on:

New York Distilling Company Rock & Rye

Allen Katz, founder of New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, makes a flavored whiskey called Mister Katz's Rock & Rye. Katz does not work with flavor houses the way your Fruit Loop-vodka maker does — rather, he does it all in-house. Each bottle of his Rock & Rye starts with a legal rye whiskey (the mash bill contains 72 percent rye, 16 percent corn, and 12 percent barley). The liquid is blended with just enough macerated raw candy sugar, bing cherries, cinnamon bark, and orange peel to keep the whiskey tasting like, well, whiskey. And it tastes good, especially with a few drops of bitters, an orange peel, and some ice.

Katz explains that there is also a tremendous upside in the development of flavored whiskeys: They've given rise to a micro-category of brands that connect our American drinking history to present-day production — and offer something extra tasty. "And some of it is just fun," he adds. "It doesn't all have to be so highbrow."

Photo: New York Distilling Company

Leopold Bros.' Flavored Whiskies

"It's an agricultural byproduct that is about food at the end of the day," says Leopold Bros. distillery's Taryn Kapronica of its fruit-flavored whiskies. The distillery begins by making a small-batch bourbon, which it says "hugs" the variety of fresh fruits blended into it. Four different variants are produced out of Leopold's small-batch bourbon base: peach, blackberry, apple, and cherry. Overripe peaches are plucked from the western slope of Colorado. Blackberries sourced from the northwestern region of the Rocky Mountains lend a deep rich flavor to the blackberry whiskey, and tart Michigan cherry whiskeys celebrate one of that state's excellent harvests. New York, with its long-history of quality apple-growing, rounds out the portfolio in an apple whiskey.

If your mouth doesn't water by the mere descriptions of the production process, you might very well be better off with water: Fruits are flash-steamed to remove pips or skins. The pulp is macerated before the juice is thrown in with the bourbon. Once blended, Leopold puts the whiskey back into 53-gallon, charred oak barrels for additional aging. The peach whiskey is ready to be bottled after just two months, while the blackberry stays in casks up to eight months. "We wouldn't put it out if there wasn't a market for it, and at the end of the day it has to taste good," Karonica explains.

Photo: Leopold Bros.

Three More Flavored Whiskeys to Try

Sons of Liberty Pumpkin Spice Flavored Whiskey

Are you ready for this? Rhode Island's Sons of Liberty Spirits Company recently wrestled with 32,000 pounds of pumpkins to make this season's offering. "It's stupid insane," says owner Mike Reppucci. "We wash each pumpkin, chop it in half, and then a bunch of us scoop the middle part out with Walmart ice-cream scoopers." The team rents large convection ovens and puts them into a nearby parking lot to roast the pumpkins. Once the juice is pressed, it's blended back into whiskey with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and vanilla. The result is a surprisingly dry whiskey with pumpkin and spice notes, making it perfect for someone who doesn't want to trigger memories of Halloween candy. "We are not trying to make a sweet flavored whiskey," he says, "Our goal is to make it still taste like whiskey." When pressed about why he got into making his pumpkin offering, Reppucci explains, "Anyone who opens a distillery is just an idiot that just likes whiskey. Making something good once is easy. Repeating that is hard. We are not growing as fast as we could, but that's good." As such, the limited-edition whiskey will sell out, so buy your bottle soon.

Image credit: Sons of Liberty/Facebook

Wigle Walkabout Apple Whiskey

The distilling team at Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey distillery worked with food studies graduate students, food scientists, and a local orchard to develop this apple whiskey. Just 400 small and 800 full-sized bottles will be released this season, produced in two batches. The apply whiskey is distilled from rye, wheat, corn, and barley and then aged in new, charred oak barrels with applewood staves. The liquid is then proofed down to 42 percent with apple cider from Soergel Orchards in Wexford, Pennsylvania (whiskey that comes out of a barrel is normally proofed down with spring water). The whiskey is crisp and refreshing, reminiscent of a good cider. I made a version of an Old Fashioned with the whiskey by using dark maple syrup as a sweetener, a few drops of Fee Brothers old fashioned aromatic bitters, and lemon oil essence. "It tastes like a fall orchard smells," said one of my guests. Because no preservatives were used in the making of this flavored whiskey, the team at Wigle recommends drinking it within a couple of months: "It will not spoil or mold, but the natural apple flavor may reduce." The bottle didn’t even last a weekend in my house, though.

Image credit: Official

Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskeys

Beer lovers unite around Charbay Distillery and Winery’s hop-flavored whiskies, which are actually distilled from high-quality craft beers. The whiskies are spicy, rich, and pungent, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. These are sipping whiskies: I enjoyed them on the distillery grounds with a variety of cheeses and nuts, comparing the distilled product to the various beers from which they originated. Marko Karakasevic, the 13th- generation distiller who makes whiskey with his father Miles, asked me to notice some of the same floral, hoppy beer aromatics echoed within the finished spirit. His theory is that if you distill from something exceptional, you will have an exceptional distilled liquid. Charbay whiskies are pricey and coveted among those who know of their excellent quality and complexity. The latest offering, Hop-Flavored Whiskey Release IV, costs $475 and the waiting list for acquiring a bottle, according to Charbay's website, is already full. Should you manage to score one of their bottles, sip it alongside your Thanksgiving dinner in lieu of beer or wine. It also helps save some room for more pie.

Image credit: Official

Or Just Make it Yourself

Texas chef Michael Brantley invited me to a ranch somewhere between Austin and Waco back before flavored whiskey was a "thing." While rich oil moguls shot at trapped dear and imported lions during the day, he'd grill pork chops and prepare post-safari libations at the ranch. One of these drinks came from a large jar in which Maker's Mark whiskey, six cinnamon sticks, and two sliced apples mingled together for four days. He poured me a dram over some ice, and we toasted to the good life.

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.
Lead image: Shutterstock
Interstitial images: Leopold Bros., Shutterstock


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