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Whiskey: It is the drink of Honkytonks, of Country and Western, of saloons and the ballads sung in them. It is 42nd Street meets Michigan Avenue meets Heaven Hill, Kentucky. It’s the catch-all category wherein Scotch is connected to Bourbon and Irish to Rye. And to Canada and to Japan and to Panama and Peru, and wherever else a grain mash is built, fermented akin to beer, distilled a few times, then intentionally left to idle in wooden barrels to breathe, soften and take on notes of vanilla, coconut and spice. “Whiskey is as diverse as wine with a broad spectrum of flavor,” said Robin Coupar, Whiskey Specialist for Campari America. “Women are embracing whiskey too as they are attracted to its complexity.” Whiskey sings in the Mint Julep, the Old-Fashioned, the Rob Roy, in San Francisco’s Boothby Cocktail, and rarely is it better than in a Manhattan. It is known as Whiskey, or as Whisky, or Whisk(e)y in the seminal book on the tipple by Stefan Gabanyi.

And, whiskey can be very, very lovely.

As a coming-of-age drinker, I engaged in the usual compulsory period of Long Islands, Fuzzy Navels, Surfers on Acid, and various bomb shots. Then, at the robust age of twenty-three, on a night I’ll never forget, I was introduced to the Manhattan. Cold lightning in a glass, it was bracing, aromatic, balanced in an aggressive way I immediately cherished, and wholly delicious. Several rounds were ordered and enjoyed.

And, what was it about the little red cherry at the bottom of the glass whose burning sweetness felt so familiar? I dug deep into memory and recalled parties in my grandparent’s home nearly twenty years before, where, after dinner, the adults would gather and for the hour or two before I was put to bed. I made it my game to pop up from behind ottomans and chaise lounges and thrust my little fist into glasses full of what looked to be apple juice and swipe as many burning sweet and bright cherries as I could. The Manhattan cocktail was and is a crowd-pleaser.

Whiskey – no matter its point of origin or spelling – is defined by the U.S. Government as “Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at least 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).” This means that whiskey should always have a similar standard of quality and taste upon one’s palate.

Is the strength of whiskey in America due to the rise in popularity of cocktails, or to the expansion of the American palate, or rather to the simple increase of whiskeys now available to the consumer? “I see a direct connection of the resurgence of whiskey to the recent recession,” stated Aidan Demerast, proprietor of the spirits mecca Neat in Glendale, California. “People were looking for a strong belt of booze that told a story. We all wanted more bang for our buck, and whiskey provides that.”

In every category of whiskey there are a few new brands I recommend you look for on the shelf of your favorite backbar. Compass Box Scotch Whiskey was created by the expat American John Glaser as an homage to the art of blending Scotch. And that’s all that Compass Box releases: the best of many Single-Malts, blended together to make entirely unique, passion-driven Scotch. Then, there is Cyrus Noble bourbon, a recent release of a hundred-plus year old brand that had been hibernating off the market for decades. On the nose, Cyrus Noble offers a generous floral spice and then a round, masculine finish. And, then there is the nostalgic Templeton Rye, the one-time preferred tipple of Al Capone produced in Templeton, Iowa returned to the public once more. Taste it too in its second-infancy.

If, like me, you dine in restaurants with some regularity and you enjoy a cocktail as an aperitif, I suggest you request your barkeep to stir for you a Prize Filly: three parts Rye, one part Punt e Mes, one part Maraschino liqueur, dashes of Angostura bitters, and finish with a long orange twist. Yes, it’s quite similar to the cherished Manhattan, lovely and balanced, bold and spiced.

And that’s the point.

Posted by on April 24th, 2012

Duggan McDonnell owns and operates Cantina, the San Fran-centric cocktail lounge dedicated to Latin spirits and California cocktails. He operates Liquid Think Tank, a beverage consultancy, and co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. He also co-founded and serves as CEO and Master Blender of Campo de Encanto pisco, winner of the Ministry of Production’s Gran Medalla de Oro Best in Show gold medal (the highest honor for any pisco). Duggan’s many accolades include a Best Mixologist of the Year nomination at Tales of the Cocktail (twice) in New Orleans, and Leader of the American Cocktail Revolution from Food & Wine. A featured expert on the TV show “Great Cocktails,” Duggan also served as the spokesperson for the got milk? 2010 holiday cocktail TV campaign. He’s designed cocktails for the Sundance Film Festival and Aspen Food & Wine, and has consulted for spirits companies including Tequila Don Julio, Grey Goose Vodka and Cabana Cachaca.

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