American & Whiskey Blends: The Spirits of a Continent

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2004

“Never follow good whiskey with water, unless you’re out of good whiskey,” Will Rogers once quipped as he sauntered into the Polo Lounge
at the Beverly Hills Hotel, his favorite hangout before Prohibition. No doubt he then ordered an American whiskey, straight, and you can bet it was a damn good one.

With more than 250,000 Scotch-Irish immigrants living in Colonial America in 1776, the origin of North America’s whiskey-making tradition is obvious. Like their old-world antecedents, the earliest American whiskeys were produced from grain, including rye, which gave the spirit an edgy character. But by the 1820s, Kentucky’s Bourbon County was using corn to produce a smooth American whiskey that later became known as bourbon. Canadian whisky, spelled without an e, arrived on the market a few decades later thanks to distiller Hiram Walker, but it did not gain a competitive edge over its rivals in the States until after Prohibition, when the products of the Seagram company flooded the newly opened American market with Canadian whisky blends.

Since Winston Churchill’s Brooklyn-born mother concocted the first Manhattan at a party she hosted in New York in 1874, North American whiskey has enjoyed a prominent role in mixology. Its mellow, smoky notes lend a seductive allure to traditional whiskey cocktails, such as the whiskey sour and the old-fashioned. For those who prefer drier drinks, a dash of bitters can neutralize bourbon’s sweetness.

The lean, dry, Canadian whisky blends make ideal cocktail spirits. Use them liberally and often. From the simplicity of a clubby whisky and soda to the more complex Whisky Flip (whisky, raw egg, powdered sugar, sweet cream, and nutmeg), whisky is a barman’s standby blending spirit; the Canadian Club and Classic 12 brands belong on every barman’s top shelf. The latest entry in the Canadian market is nutty, toasty Forty Creek Barrel Select, which, when served over ice with a splash of maple syrup and a maraschino cherry, becomes a Maple Leaf cocktail.

A favorite on the roster of rye whiskey cocktails is New Orleans’ Sazerac, an anisette-flavored drink (use Pernod or Ricard) with a dash of bitters. The Valley Forge cocktail, a bracing, masculine drink with malty notes and a hint of rum sweetness, is made with a new American classic, Old Potrero Straight Rye, created by San Francisco brewer and distiller Fritz Maytag. The rye is made by following an 18th-century American recipe that specifies 100 percent rye malt distilled in copper pot stills and aged minimally in uncharred oak barrels.

Sophisticated home bars stock the supple, polished Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece bourbon ($300).  For serious collectors, Jack Daniel’s Single
Barrel—a rich, concentrated charcoal-filtered Tennessee whiskey—can be purchased by the barrel ($9,000).

Green Derby
{Julep purists need not apply}
2 oz. Old Forester small-batch bourbon
1 oz. green crème de menthe  |  Juice of half a lime
1 tsp. sugar syrup, or to taste  |  6 small mint leaves
2 oz. crushed ice  |  Club soda  |  Mint sprig for garnish
Blend first five ingredients in a bar glass. Muddle leaves well. Add mixture
to a blender with crushed ice and mix. Pour into a chilled collins glass
and top with soda. Garnish with the mint sprig.

Rye Smile
{A tasty hello from the Big Easy}
1¼2 tsp. Pernod or Ricard
1¼2 tsp. sugar  |  1 Tb. lemon juice
Dash of bitters  |  2 oz. Sazerac rye whiskey
2 oz. ice cubes  |  Lemon peel for garnish
Coat the inside of an old-fashioned glass with Pernod or Ricard. Discard excess and add sugar, lemon juice, and bitters. Muddle until the sugar is dissolved. Add rye whiskey and ice cubes and stir well. Twist the lemon peel over the drink and drop in for garnish.

Manhattan
{The name says it all}
2 oz. Crown Royal Special Reserve
1¼2 oz. sweet vermouth  |  Dash of bitters
3 oz. ice cubes  |  Maraschino cherry for garnish
Combine ingredients in a large mixing glass and stir well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a cherry.

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