The Big Idea: The Rise of the Takeout Cocktail
The wave of lockdowns last March left even the most successful bars and restaurants seeing vultures circling overhead. Takeout, once a small fraction of the average restaurant’s income, was suddenly expected to keep the ship afloat, and with to-go cocktails prohibited in many municipalities, bars were facing an even more dire fate. Half of all restaurants fail within three years even under ideal circumstances.
So it was with no small relief that states quickly loosened restrictions on alcohol sales, allowing bars and restaurants to sell beer, wine and cocktails to go. Eventually, more than 30 states would allow takeaway alcohol sales. And many have decided to keep them going for the time being, with New York, sadly, deciding to do a quick about face this week and halt the practice.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the result has been an extraordinary showcase of ingenuity by the creatives behind our nation’s bars. Many places simply sold us the cocktails we know and love to enjoy at home—a treat in and of itself—but many more strived to shape their customers’ experience, infusing what could be a simple transaction with fun and wit.
Thunderbolt, in Los Angeles, used its vacuum sealer to create what are essentially frozen cocktail Otter Pops, sold in four-packs for maximum fun. At San Diego’s Fernside, the team has applied its talents to a rotating set of boozy slushies, from Irish Coffees to Singapore Slings to Trinidad Sours, selling more than 40,000 in the last year. Chicago’s tiki haven, Lost Lake, created a subscription service for monthly cocktail and rum boxes, like a pirate Amazon Prime, including exclusive access to classes, events, tastings and members-only pricing. On the East Coast, NYC’s Dante offers gorgeously illustrated bespoke labels for its to-go cocktail packs, which are garnished with a custom Spotify playlist so you can vibe out as if you’re hanging at the bar.
California state senator Bill Dodd recently proposed Bill SB-389, which would make this change permanent. Many other states are considering the same. To-go cocktails have been a silver lining in a year desperately in need of silver linings, and with any luck, they’re here to stay. Covid gave bars a puzzle to solve. They responded, as they always do, with hospitality, creativity and a double shot of joy and delight.
Bourbon: Four Roses, 2020 Limited Edition Small Batch
Bourbon fans love Four Roses as one of the best inexpensive bottles around. But the Kentucky distillery also has some high-end tricks up its sleeve, like its annual Limited Edition Small Batch. For the 2020 offering, master distiller Brent Elliott chose four of the distillery’s 10 unique recipes to blend, with bourbons in the bottle ranging in age from 12 to 19 years, a maturity that’s present on the palate with strong oak notes but without venturing into the overly tannic. This is a rich, deep bourbon with prominent flavors of ripe stone fruit, vanilla and caramel, plus a bit of spice from the mash bill’s high rye content. With just over 14,000 bottles available, Limited Edition Small Batch might be hard to track down, but it will be well worth the effort. $150
Single-Malt Scotch: Benriach, The Twenty Five; Cognac: Hennessy, Master Blender’s Selection No.4
Single-Malt Scotch: Benriach, The Twenty Five
Over the past few years, Speyside distillery Benriach has been gaining more recognition in the US for its impressive array of single malts, both peated and unpeated and matured in an array of cask types; a visit to the warehouses reveals a rainbow of barrels with different-colored tops. This year, coming on the heels of relaunching its core lineup in 2020, the distillery released three top-shelf whiskies aged for 21, 25 and 30 years, respectively. The 25, aged in bourbon, sherry, virgin-oak and Madeira casks, is the best of the bunch, a softly smoky single malt with delicate notes of tropical fruit, dark chocolate and baking spice dancing across the palate. $360
Cognac: Hennessy, Master Blender’s Selection No.4
The fourth edition in a limited series from renowned Cognac house Hennessy is also the second created by eighth-generation master blender Renaud Fillioux de Gironde, who says the special release was inspired by the sights, sounds and smells encountered during a winter walk in the mountains. The bottle contains eaux-devie aged for at least five years in French red-oak barrels, with apricot, candied orange and fruity spice on the palate, but with a lightness one might not expect from such a rich Cognac. The Master Blender’s Selection is truly a series of one-offs, a world away from the core V.S and V.S.O.P. expressions and never to be re-created, so each one—and especially this one—is worth a trophy position on your bar cart. $90
Aged Tequila: El Tequileño, Añejo Gran Reserva; Unaged Tequila: Mijenta, Blanco
Aged Tequila: El Tequileño, Anejo Gran Reserva
This new expression from the venerable El Tequileño ups the ante on aged agave spirits by focusing on the maturation process, using different barrel types to create a wonderfully deep añejo tequila. It’s a limited-edition release made with liquid that was aged for two years in American- and French-oak barrels and then blended with tequila matured for six years in American oak. The resulting nose is full of caramel and roasted agave followed by tropical fruits, brown sugar and a bit of caramel candy, all tied together with a bright, grassy undercurrent. It’s a lesson in how considered barrel selection, precise aging and meticulous blending can result in an aged tequila that retains its core agave character while reaching new levels of flavor and complexity. $90
Unaged Tequila: Mijenta, Blanco
The market over the last year has been flooded with new tequila brands, with the trend tilting toward premium releases. Mijenta stood out from the pack thanks to its vibrant flavor, attractive label design and focus on environmental sustainability (among other initiatives, the paper in the packaging is made from agave waste during the tequila-making process). Maestra tequilera Ana Maria Romero oversaw the spirit’s production, with a bright blanco kicking off the brand’s launch (a reposado is now available as well) with notes of pepper, citrus and earthy grass on the palate. It’s great in a cocktail, but the more time you spend sipping it neat, the more you’ll unravel the layers of flavor.
Rye: Barrell Craft Spirits, Seagrass
Louisville blender and bottler Barrell Craft Spirits has created one of the most unusual and flavorful rye whiskeys of the past year. Seagrass, a blend of Canadian and American rye sourced from different distilleries, was finished by Barrell Craft in three cask types—Martinique rhum agricole, apricot brandy and Madeira wine—selected by com pany founder Joe Beatrice. The caskstrength whiskey (at 118.4 proof ) has layers of apricot jam, fresh garden herbs and a touch of candied orange and brown sugar on the palate. But despite the various cask finishes, the rye whiskey’s identity is not lost, with core notes of spice and vanilla also shining through.
Cask-Finished Whiskey: Bardstown Bourbon Company, Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Finish II; Barrel-Proof Whiskey: Stagg Jr.
Cask-Finished Whiskey: Bardstown Bourbon Company, Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Finish II
This past winter, Bardstown Bourbon Company released the second whiskey in its Collaborative Series with California winery Phifer Pavitt. It’s a 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon (sourced from an undisclosed distillery) finished in the winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon barrels for an additional 18 months, then bottled at 100 proof. The lengthy secondary maturation allowed the bourbon to soak up additional flavors from the freshly emptied casks, imbuing it with decadent notes of grape, cherry and both milk and dark chocolates. The result is a perfect after-dinner bourbon, each sip bringing a new burst of flavor. $125
Barrel-Proof Whiskey: Stagg Jr.
The younger (and arguably better) sibling to George T. Stagg is released annu- ally as part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. Stagg Jr. is released in two batches per year, each with a different ABV depending on the barrels. It’s made with Buffalo Trace’s medium-rye mash bill No. 1, and the bourbon is uncut, unfiltered and aged for around seven to eight years. The 15th batch arrived last winter, clocking in at an impressive 131.1 proof, intense and delicious, with sweet notes along with butterscotch, candied cherry and a bit of char. Despite its hefty proof, Stagg Jr. has impressive complexity and flavor, especially mel- lowed out with some water or a large ice cube. $50
Gin: Monkey 47, Distiller’s Cut 2020; Rum: Black Tot, 50 Anniversary
Gin: Monkey 47, Distiller’s Cut 2020
Last year, German gin brand Monkey 47 celebrated its 10th anniversary with the release of its limited-edition Distiller’s Cut. The base gin is already a fragrant and intricate spirit, with a recipe of 47 botanicals (hence the name) that include angelica, acacia flower, chamomile and sage. This edition of Distiller’s Cut gets a further flavor boost thanks to time spent in expensive, highly sought-after Japanese mizunara-oak barrels. The maturation period infused the gin with notes of incense, sandalwood and vanilla. It makes for a fascinating martini, but it’s also a wonderful spirit to sip neat. $80
Rum: Black Tot, 50 Anniversary
The inspiration for this anniversary bottle from Black Tot dates to when the British Royal Navy gave a small daily ration of rum, known as a “tot,” to its sailors. It celebrates the half-century that has elapsed since the empire handed out its last consignment of the spirit. Just 5,000 bottles were produced, using a blend of rums from Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad—plus some of Britain’s original, un-rationed maritime stock—bottled at a hefty 109 proof to match the strength of what the navy once issued. Notes of brown sugar, vanilla and banana abound, making this a go-to sipper that competes with any other aged brown spirit for complex drinkability. $150
Ones to Watch: Fawn Weaver & Victoria Eady Butler
In 2016, Fawn Weaver ventured to Tennessee with the plan of researching a book about Nathan “Nearest” Green, the former slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Her ambition, after she arrived, grew exponentially. Weaver, a real-estate investor, bought the land where Nearest had passed down his distilling lessons in the 19th century; later in 2016, she founded Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey to celebrate this important but overlooked figure in the spirit’s history. Ever since, it has been a meteoric rise for the brand, which creates its Tennessee whiskey using what’s known as the Lincoln County Process, a maple-charcoal filtration method which Green helped perfect.
Part of Weaver’s mission with Uncle Nearest was to get Green’s descendants involved with the brand. Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great-great-granddaughter, retired from the Department of Justice before joining the company as director of administration in early 2019. That same year, Weaver asked if she wanted to be the first family member to blend a special-edition whiskey. The resulting 1884 edition racked up both sales and awards, so Weaver asked her to do it again. Butler continued crafting hits, to the point that she eventually became master blender across the whole portfolio—the first known African American to hold that job in the industry. Thanks to Weaver’s business acumen and Butler’s blending skills, as of this year Uncle Nearest has become the best-selling Black-owned and -founded spirit brand in history, with almost 2 million bottles sold. Weaver is now eyeing further expansion, with the company’s $50 million distillery reopening in June and more editions in the works.