Before there was brunch, there was elevenses, the late-morning English tea break which landed on American shores in the early 1800s—with an New World twist. During its brief stateside stay, American elevenses meant whiskey.
Then, as now, in the fertile soils of the Midwest, carbohydrate- and sugar-rich corn grew wildly well. When new farmers found themselves saddled with harvests far too bounteous and heavy to cost-effectively ship to more populated areas of the new nation, they turned much of it into liquid: gold corn whiskey sent to fill the bottomless flasks and jugs that quickly became a part of every American day. All gatherings, including those at workplaces, featured a nip or more, including the 11 a.m. social lubricant and pick-me-up that we now think of as a coffee break. As contemporary newspaperwoman Anne Royall noted in W.J.Rorabaugh's The Alcoholic Republic, "When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey—in Ohio, too much whiskey—in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey." Soon Prohibition would settle in, but the memory of those days still lives on faintly, including a cocktail nod to them, created by Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey: The Elevenses calls for tea and whiskey, with raspberry preserves stirred in.
All gatherings, including those at workplaces, featured a nip or more ...
While we don’t advocate returning to the nation’s most alcohol-fueled days, it’s hard to deny the measure of joy in a before-lunch pour, especially when the offering seems tailor-made for day. To do American elevenses right this time, we looked for whiskies on the softer, prettier, gentler side, brushed with vanilla, daintily floral, refreshingly grassy. From American rye to French single malt, here are five whiskies fit for morning.
Producer: Templeton Rye
Whiskey: The Good Stuff Rye Whiskey
The original whiskey of the United States, Pennsylvania- and Maryland-produced American rye faded away during Prohibition, and stayed faded, until its very recent resurgence, fueled by our tastes for all things old-timey. There’s a flavorsome blip in between. During the Depression, Midwestern farmers found themselves unable to sell their crops: as industriousness met increasing desperation, many turned to distilling the grains they grew. Legend has it that in tiny Templeton, Iowa, rye farmers discovered a hidden talent—making quality rye whiskey for the new speakeasy-driven black market. Whatever the real story there, the spirit itself is alive and well. Today’s Templeton Rye is distilled in Indiana to resemble its ancestor, for a final product that is elegantly floral and feminine.
To be called American rye, a whiskey must be made of at least 51 percent rye, with corn and barley the most likely other constituents. Templeton’s rye content clocks in at 91 percent; once distilled, it’s aged for at least four years in charred new white-oak barrels (another rye requirement). Luscious and straightforward, with candied fruit and strawberry jam notes plus aromas of sweet rose petals, it’s an eye-opener that doesn’t require much thinking to enjoy. Pair with grilled tomatoes and toast, or, come warmer weather, sliced melon and ham.
Whisky: Coffey Grain Whisky
From: Tōhoku, Japan
Quietly "intense yet ordered," in the words of The World Atlas of Whiskey author Dave Broom, Japanese whiskey was born of a love of Scotch. In 1872, a case of Grand Old Parr arrived in Japan and part of it handed to laboratories, where research into just how to replicate it began. By the early 20th century, the first Japanese malt whiskey distillery was rolling at the hands of pharmaceutical wholesaler Shinjiro Torii. Then chemistry student Masataka Taketsuru set off for the University of Glasgow’s organic chemistry program and Scotch-making apprenticeships from Speyside to Campbeltown, returning home with a Scottish wife and the know-how to run Torii’s plant—which would become today’s Suntory. There, in 1923, Japanese whiskey—Scottish techniques subtly calibrated to Japanese tastes—was born: Scotch-like, yes, but with deep, concentrated, deceptively simple flavor, heightened by sandalwood- and coconut-scented Japanese mizunara oak. Taketsuru would go on to found Nikka, Japan’s other historical though lesser-known whiskey distillery when he built the Yoichi single-malt facility on Hokkaido island, in 1934.
The term grain whiskey generally indicates a blended one. Nikka’s Coffey Grain is, unusually, a single-grain distillate, created from corn mash in two-column continuous stills that were invented by Irish whiskey tax collector Aeneas Coffey in the early 19th century. Broom calls this one the "golden standard of grain," and it’s easy to see why. Created at Nikka’s second distillery, Miyagikyo, which Taketsuru built in the 1960s as an outlet for his blended whiskies, the Coffey Grain has a deeply clean profile, with fresh herbs and grapefruit rind notes, and a perfumed quality reminiscent of cilantro, for a daytime sipper that is both gentle and profound. It should be paired with honest foods like soft handmade tofu or the freshest pieces of fruit.
Whisky: Scotch, 12-Year
From: Islay, Scotland
The rugged island of Islay, its lowlands blanketed in softly tangled sheets of peat moss and bathed by the North Atlantic Ocean—whose salty spray is carried inland to those peat bogs during winter storms—is one of Scotland’s five protected-status whisky designations. Its distilleries date back to the 18th century. Many of its Scotches, by brands like Laphroaig and Bowmore, are known for a strong smokiness that veers intense, along with briney, medicinal notes some say come from the island’s water—stained brown with peat moss particles and kelpy flavors. That the smokiness is often described as peatiness isn’t just a matter of poetry: heat from dried peat set afire is used to dry the malted grain during production, granting aromas along the way.
Bunnahabhain, founded in 1881, at the mouth of the Margadale River, from which it also sources its water, is one of Islay’s softer-spoken producers. Its malted barley is unpeated, instead left to dry by the island’s saline ocean breezes. The brand’s youngest, the 12-year, is exhilaratingly pretty. Think jasmine-steeped honey with uncultivated herb notes, too: sweet marjoram, bitter wild thyme, and tea leaves. It begs for a salty farm-fresh egg, butter-fried or spoonably soft-boiled.
Producer: Rough Rider
Whiskey: Straight Bourbon Whisky
From: Long Island, NY
In the 18th century, the then-commonwealth of Kentucky offered free land to would-be settlers, under the condition that they would use it to grow corn. It’s easy to guess what happened next: golden, but often harsh, liquor-filled barrel after barrel, supplying towns along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, down to New Orleans. It got better over time. Rigor came to the new whiskey grounds, some say in the form of Scotsman James Crow, to develop production methods that included sour-mashing, a technique much like that used in sourdough bread in which fermented grain from a previous batch is used to start fermentation in a new one. This fermentation comes from the air: local yeasts naturally present there gravitate to the sugar-rich mash and grant it a taste of place that grows stronger batch by batch—sour mash is also a perfect flavor match for Kentucky’s famous limestone-rich water, which goes into the mix as well.
Like rye, bourbon is required to have a 51 percent specific grain component, this time of corn. A Kentucky origin isn’t necessary for a bourbon designation: it can be made in any of the States, though it must be aged in charred new-oak barrels. Enter the Long Island Sound–cooled wine country of the North Fork on New York’s Long Island: the Rough Rider distillery opened there in 2007, the island’s first since the 1800s. Its Straight Bourbon Whisky—the "straight" means it was aged for at least two years in those oak barrels—was further aged in ex-merlot and -chardonnay casks. At 60 percent corn (the rest is mostly rye, with a handful of malted barley thrown in), its notes are predominantly of medium-toasted caramel, with fruity and ash aromas in there, too, along with a lean, stony texture. A coffee chaser is its most obvious accompaniment. For food, go austere and bready: an English muffin, a Southern biscuit.
Breton Single Malt Whisky
Producer: Distillerie Warenghem Whisky: Armorik Breton Single Malt Whisky
From: Brittany, France
Apples and celtic roots: the culture of France’s Brittany region was forged on them. A visit to the area yields posh beaches, fairy tale medieval villages, and seemingly enchanted forests and orchards, along with invigorating drinks like cider, apple brandies, and herbal elixirs. With iodine-y sea spray–filled air, and weather that mirrors the storms in the Scottish highlands but within a warmer climate, it might seem a natural fit for whisky, too, but hardly anyone there makes it. Fortunately, the Distillerie Warenghem does, now offering more than half a dozen takes on this polished spirit. Founded in 1900, with the release of its 35-plants Elixir d’Armorique, the distillery then took on liqueurs before adding whiskies—double-distilled in traditional copper stills—25 years ago.
Warenghem’s Armorik Breton single malt is made with 100 percent French malted barley, and the clear granite-tinged waters of nearby Rest Avel. Upon distillation, the whisky is poured into ex-bourbon casks and larger ex-sherry butts, made of Spanish oak. It doesn’t hide its proximity to the area’s famous orchards: heady notes of unfiltered, cloudy apple juice are apparent throughout, and rounded up by savory aromas and a soft smokiness. It's a robust, elegant whisky that points straight to bacon and sweet sausages.