THERE ARE FEW more satisfying winter tipples than a glass of whiskey. A finger or two of warming spirits charms many of us on a cold winter’s night. Perhaps the sheer number of such nights in the Hudson Valley has spurred local distilleries to produce a number of superior whiskies—including rye, white, corn, bourbon, single malts and special blends.
With the profusion of local distillers, you might think that finding a local whiskey that suits your personal taste would be easy—but with more than 50 available (at last count), where do you start?
We brought a group of drink enthusiasts with varying degrees of experience and expertise—from casual drinker to expert mixologist—together to sample and evaluate Hudson Valley whiskies. They tasted their way through 30 in all and found a satisfying spectrum of spirits being produced with a distinct American style.
Meet the tasters: Kelly Verardo, consultant and expert mixologist, currently at the Harrison Room of Pier A Harbor House in New York; Jason Schuler, bar man and founder of More Good, a Beacon-based manufacturer and retailer of hand-crafted soda syrup concentrates, teas and bitters; Jerry Novesky, editor of The Valley Table; and Tim Buzinski, The Valley Table Drink columnist, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and owner of Artisan Wine Shop, a retail wine and spirit store in Beacon.
By definition, whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash then aged in wooden barrels. Perhaps more than any other distilled spirit, whiskies are rich and diverse in flavors. While the aging process makes a difference, it starts with the grain. Grain varieties include wheat, rye, barley and corn.
A Pouring and Tasting Vocabulary
The most basic request for an order of whiskey might be for two fingers, either straight up or neat. The former refers to the depth of whiskey—it roughly corresponds to the height of two fingers on the side of the glass; straight up and neat simply mean “without ice.”
A few drops of water or a single ice cube literally “opens” the whiskey, allowing a wider range of aromas and flavors to escape. Furthermore, when considering higher-strength whiskies (cask strength, barrel strength, high-proof or overproof), a bit of dilution is wise.
There are several schools of thought on what kind of water to use when making ice. If your water is a highly chlorinated city variety, consider using bottled water—“chlorine” is not a term you want to use when describing the nose of a whiskey. The key factor when using ice is to use a large piece—it will chill the whiskey quickly with minimum dilution. The shape of the ice also can be considered. Flexible, soft rubber or plastic molds are available that make extra-large cubes or spherical ice “balls” that, in addition to being visually appealing, have a smaller surface area than an equal amount of water frozen in a standard “cube” shape, further slowing dilution. If large cubes aren’t an option, a quick swirl of the drink with ice, removing it before it melts, will have just about the same effect—it will open the aromas and cool the dram slightly.
Take bourbon, for instance. It’s 51 percent corn, and is aged in new charred oak barrels. You may have heard, “all whiskey is not bourbon, but all bourbon is whiskey.”
The mash bill and aging process determine stylistic differences among bourbons. Many aficionados develop elaborate tasting grids to chart each taste that emerges in a bourbon, its focus on the grain or on certain spices (such as cinnamon or nutmeg) or other, more mellow notes. All bourbons share one characteristic: a distinct caramel nose and flavor imparted by the casks used to age the whiskey. This is particularly evident in Black Dirt Distillery’s Bourbon ($46, 750 mL), the latest batch aged three years in new American oak barrels.
Of course, there also is a robust cocktail culture surrounding bourbon, and drinks like an Old Fashioned draw on the richness of the corn for a mellow introduction, highlighted by a few dashes of bitters and a whiff of citrus on the nose.
And just to clarify: while bourbon got its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, (around 1800), and while Kentucky remains the epicenter for bourbon production today, contrary to popular opinion, there is no limitation or requirement as to where a bourbon must be produced (like Champagne). Kentucky may be famous for its bourbon, but the whiskey may come from anywhere–including the Hudson Valley.
While rye’s popularity diminished in the surge to produce a naturally richer, sweeter bourbon from less-expensive corn, rye whiskey production in the U.S. never ceased entirely. (Canadian distillers are quick to remind us that rye-based whisky was widely produced north of our border and readily available even when supplies were thin here at home.) Current regulations for rye production closely echo those for bourbon, the difference being the use of at least 51 percent rye rather than corn. The difference in taste between a corn-based whiskey and a rye-based whiskey, however, is startling: Rye offers none of the sweetness of corn, but rather opens up with a spicy, herbal flare that can tingle the palate. It’s a complex taste experience that can be challenging for neophyte sippers, but it’s precisely that characteristic that has led to the modern resurgence and interest in rye. Mixologists have eagerly embraced the new ryes, a good example being Coppersea Distillery’s Raw Rye Whiskey ($60, 750 mL). With its striking floral, fruit and pepper notes, it invites crafting both new and classic cocktails that draw on the grain’s distinctive character.
Rye offers none of the sweetness of corn, but rather opens up with a spicy, herbal flare that can tingle the palate.
The Manhattan is an essential rye drink that allows the spice of the grain to shine, balanced by a little sweetness from a good Italian vermouth. Similarly, a Sazerac is a bold entry into the world of rye-based cocktails—the absinthe rinse interplays wonderfully with the spice of a good rye.
Of all the whiskies in production here in the U.S., wheat whiskey probably is the most underappreciated. This is surprising, since wheat-based whiskey delivers so many of the pleasurable elements whiskey drinkers seek. According to Brendan O’Rourke, chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits, the wheat in a typical whiskey blend would contribute more weight and texture to the dram, though rye and corn would act as major flavor components.
When evaluating a wheat whiskey, the first notable characteristic is the color—a beautiful amber hue. The aromas and flavors are gentle, allowing varied nuances to come through (drinkers are often able to suss out hints of grass and floral aspects), while the finish can be long and pleasant. Wheat whiskies are excellent for sipping neat, or as a substitute in a Whiskey Sour or even a Manhattan.
If the myriad local whiskies described here don’t make your head spin, maybe this will: Conventional guides decree that whisky distilled anywhere but America and Ireland be spelled without the “e”—American-made whiskey includes the cute little vowel. That’s all the grammar you need for one day.
White (Un-Aged) Whiskey
Un-aged, or white, whiskies may be produced from a single or blend of grains—each grain brings its own unique characteristics to the glass. Corn whiskey is by far the most popular of the un-aged whiskies. It must be produced from a mash bill of at least 80 percent corn; flavors focus on the corn and the nuances drawn from the grain itself—sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy.
Corn whiskies pack a punch, however, and often are best used in cocktails. Mixologists use them in updated versions of classic cocktails like a White Mint Julep. Rye Dog Unaged Rye ($41, 750 mL), from Delaware Phoenix Distillery in Walton, offers a wide range of woodsy and herbal aromas perfect for a White Manhattan.
DOWN WHERE THE MOON DON’T SHINE
Corn whiskey emerged as the dominant American spirit throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because corn was cheap to grow or purchase, it was relatively easy to set up a clandestine operation to distill moonshine—the term used to describe the illegal, unregulated, untaxed, usually potent and sometimes dangerous corn liquor. The term also is commonly used to describe any illegal (untaxed) liquor.
The term “single malt,” often associated with scotch, sometimes leads to confusion, in part due to the name and its origins. First and foremost, only whisky distilled in Scotland can be labeled scotch. In Scotland, whiskies typically are made using a blend of malts and grains produced in various regions; single-malt scotch must be produced from a single malted barley and distilled at a single location.
American craft distillers generally produce single malts, but there is a vast contrast in style between a traditional scotch and its U.S. counterpart due to the required aging in new charred oak. Single-malt scotch typically is aged in used oak that previously may have held sherry, port or even bourbon—and the barrels contribute subtle nuances to the flavor of the whisky aging inside. American versions, amped with oak notes from spices to cocoa, offer a new and different experience, whether sipped straight up or used in traditional scotch-based cocktails, like a Bobby Burns (an oak-assertive single malt combined with the herbaceous notes of Bénédictine and the sweetness of red vermouth). John Henry Single Malt Whiskey from Harvest Spirits ($56, 750 mL) offers a typical American single malt nose with interesting notes of apple.
For distillers who want to produce a spirit with a somewhat different profile, perhaps using an unconventional blend of grains, the option to classify their creation as American whiskey is useful. Regulations governing fermentation and percentage of alcohol apply, but the whiskey designation simply requires the use of grain, and aromas and tastes characteristic of a whiskey. The important point is the freedom this designation gives distillers—this catch-all category provides a platform on which to introduce new styles. Catskill Distilling Company’s Otay Buckwheat ($70, 750 mL), for example, is technically not a whiskey (buckwheat is a cereal, not a grain), but creative mixologists can use the 80 percent buckwheat, 20 percent corn and malted barley blend to introduce new flavors to new (or old) cocktail recipes.