The cocktail has undergone a renaissance among consumers who emphasize where their products come from, how they’re made and the story behind their production. In this regard, American whiskies—Bourbon and rye in particular—have advanced significantly in the last decade.
“Since the resurgence of classic cocktails, I’ve seen rye whiskey grow considerably,” says Tom Macy, head bartender at Clover Club in Brooklyn, New York. “In general, there’s a growing preference for whiskey. It’s become the default drink for many.”
Susie Hoyt, beverage director at The Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky, has also noticed her guests favoring whiskey, which she attributes to the appeal of its history and elaborate production. “Consumers have become increasingly concerned with the ingredients, the process and the aging,” she says. “A spirit like Bourbon is the full package when it comes to detail in production—it has a great story that’s captivating.”
Hoyt also credits American whiskey’s strong ties to classic cocktail recipes as a winning quality among consumers. “Bartenders are finding different classic cocktails to try out every day, and a lot of them call for whiskey,” she says. “I think that’s one of the main reasons why American whiskies are so relevant today.”
Iconic And Timeless
Most bartenders at cocktail lounges—particularly whiskey-focused venues—cite the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan among the most popular drinks with consumers. “Classic American whiskey cocktails, led by the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, are becoming more and more of a ‘must have’ on cocktail lists,” says Bobby Gleason, master mixologist for Beam Suntory. “No other cocktail showcases the nuances of a whiskey more than the Manhattan, and bartenders are featuring different vermouths and bitters in the drink.” His Triple Wood Manhattan features Maker’s 46 Bourbon, Martini & Rossi Rosso sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and Fee Brothers Cherry bitters.
“Whiskey has always stood out in the world of cocktails—that’s why some of the most iconic drinks like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan are still so popular today,” says Dan Levine, senior brand manager of American whiskey at Diageo. The Bulleit Rye Manhattan, created by Alchemy Consulting mixologist Toby Maloney, comprises Bulleit rye whiskey, Dolin Dry and Rouge vermouths, and Stirrings Blood Orange bitters.
Larry Kass, director of trade relations at Heaven Hill Brands, the owner of Rittenhouse rye whiskey, points to classic recipes as helping bring not only Bourbon to the forefront, but rye as well. “Rye was relatively unknown and novel when it first reappeared in the mixology scene, but many classic whiskey cocktails that are commonly made with Bourbon originally used rye,” Kass explains. “Now, as both consumers and mixologists have become more accustomed to it, rye cocktails are showing up everywhere.” At Hog & Rocks in San Francisco, bartender Michael Lazar’s Nardini Black Manhattan ($12) blends Rittenhouse rye with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Nardini amaro. At Clover Club, the most popular cocktail is a twist on the Old Fashioned called the Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($12). It features Rittenhouse, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Angostura bitters, Pernod absinthe and simple syrup. “I appreciate the importance whiskey has played in cocktail history,” Macy says. “When I’m making classic cocktails, there’s a sense of connection to the past. American whiskey is in several iconic cocktails, so it will never go out of style.”
With a nod toward the classic recipes that feature American whiskey with both a bitter and a sweet component, many modern cocktails call for bitters, aperitifs, liqueurs or syrups to create a balance between those flavors. “Amaro works amazingly well with whiskey, and spiced syrups are also great,” says Chris Hannah, manager of the French 75 bar at Arnaud’s restaurant in New Orleans. The venue’s Winter Waltz ($10) features Bulleit rye, Averna amaro, St. Elizabeth allspice dram and Dale DeGroff’s Aromatic bitters. At The Silver Dollar, Hoyt’s Autumn Leaves ($9) comprises Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Ramazzotti amaro, Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters.
“Things like vermouth, bitters and amaro are natural accompaniments to whiskies,” says Clover Club’s Macy. “On the more refreshing side, flavors like honey, grapefruit and mint are go-to ingredients. We even had a cocktail on our menu this past year that had kumquats and oregano.” That drink, called the Smash of the Titans ($13), mixed Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon with simple syrup, lemon juice, muddled kumquats and fresh oregano leaves. “Amaro, citrus, stone fruits, berries and herbs all work well with whiskey,” says Casey Wallin, bartender at Decoy in New York City. His Ain’t That a Peach ($14) features Tincup American whiskey, Averna amaro, Meletti amaro, lemon juice, house-made peach shrub and Fee Brothers Peach bitters.
“Bartenders frequently use ingredients that play off of rye’s inherent spicy, bitter and fruity flavor, such as bitters, amaro, absinthe, anise, citrus and berries,” Heaven Hill’s Kass says. At Alibi cocktail lounge in Las Vegas’s Aria Resort & Casino, mixologist Michael Monrreal devised the Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed ($18), comprising coffee-infused George Dickel rye, Cocchi Barolo Chinato fortified wine, R. Jelinek fernet liqueur, Angostura bitters and Scrappy’s Chocolate bitters. And at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, beverage manager Dan Sabo’s Ghostlight ($13) is made with Rittenhouse rye, house-made cardamom spice syrup, Angostura bitters and Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters.
Kass adds that “today’s more innovative bar chefs are now using herbs like thyme and cumin and such herbal liqueurs as Bénédictine and Chartreuse.” At Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar in Boston, The Remedy cocktail ($11) blends Rittenhouse rye with Green Chartreuse liqueur, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Fernet-Branca amaro and Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters, while at Marc 49 in Oakland, California, bartender Desmond Turner’s Brando ($10) features Rittenhouse, St. Amant Tawny Port, Bénédictine, lemon juice, house-made gomme syrup and The Bitter Truth Aromatic bitters.
Not Like The Other
Although many of the same flavors work for all types and styles of whiskies, no two spirits are truly alike. “What most people don’t know is that each distillery uses different mash bills in their whiskies,” French 75’s Hannah says. “Some are high rye, some are high wheat and some are high corn.”
Perhaps the biggest differences can be found between Bourbon, which must be made primarily from corn, and rye whiskey, which contains mostly rye. “Rye whiskey itself is a very different animal from other American whiskey styles—as different as a smoky Islay single malt Scotch whisky is from a softer, sweeter Irish whiskey,” Heaven Hill’s Kass says. “Whereas Bourbon is all about rounded edges, rye is sharp and spicy.” Within the American whiskey category alone, nearly any palate can be accommodated thanks to the wide variety of styles and flavors available from brand to brand.
“My favorite thing about working with Bourbon and rye is their versatility—these whiskies switch out so well for other spirits in classic cocktails that we all know and love,” The Silver Dollar’s Hoyt says. “For instance, one of my absolute favorites is a modern classic from mixologist Phil Ward called The Final Ward.” The drink is a variation on The Last Word, which is equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and lime juice, but switches out the gin for rye whiskey and lime for lemon juice. “The combination of herbal Chartreuse and spicy rye whiskey with the sweet and sour notes from the Maraschino and lemon really put this cocktail over the top,” Hoyt notes.
Though she recognizes the versatility of Bourbon and rye, Hoyt urges bartenders to know the brands and styles well when creating cocktails using these whiskies. “The most important thing to remember when building a cocktail is to choose a Bourbon or rye that can stand up to the other ingredients, the style of cocktail or the ice that’s being used,” she says. “We like to feature a lot of bonded Bourbons in our cocktails. They can be a little hot and intense, but have great character from the four-plus years in oak and also have the high-proof backbone to stand up to the dilution of a cocktail.” The Silver Dollar’s Gold Rush ($9) mixes Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon, honey syrup and muddled lemon.
“The diversity achieved from one whiskey to another contributes great leverage behind the bar,” says Lucinda Sterling, bartender at Middle Branch in New York City. “Some are oaky, some have more vanilla, some are spicy. Tincup American whiskey’s high rye content lets other ingredients develop on the palate as the drink is consumed.” Her Rocky Mountain cocktail ($15) highlights Tincup with Leopold Bros. Georgia Peach whiskey and The Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters. Touted as a Bourbon-style whiskey, Tincup has a powerful and spicy flavor more akin to rye. “Tincup gives you the best of both worlds, so it allows plenty of flavor freedom when using it in cocktails,” Decoy’s Wallin says. “There are so many craft whiskey distillers in the country today doing a great job making approachable and interesting whiskies. This variety makes it easy to concoct delicious cocktails that can be enjoyed by any palate.”
Indeed, it appears all types of drinkers are clamoring for American whiskies at the bar. Whereas in decades past a drink like the Old Fashioned was associated with men of a certain age, today’s cocktail-driven bar scene has made whiskey drinkers out of nearly everyone. And classics like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan have been given new life thanks to this growing interest in cocktails and the history behind them.
“American culture is undergoing an incredible renaissance right now where consumers care about how things are made and where they come from,” Diageo’s Levine says. “There’s no greater example of that in our industry than in the popularity of American whiskies and well-made cocktails.”