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.
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 doesn’t 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."
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.
Three More Flavored Whiskeys to Try
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.
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