In Defense of Flavored Whisky
Like most great Americans, I love whiskey. And as a genuine whiskey enthusiast, I frequently go exploring in the category. That means I have tried flavored whiskey—both commercially produced versions, and mason jars of homemade infusions (typically bacon, pepper, or vanilla) that my friends and I have whipped up at home.
If your palate is accustomed to regular ol’ delicious brown gold, a glass of flavored whiskey on the rocks may come across as too sweet—or too … other-flavor-besides-whiskey. I get that, and yet, I firmly believe that flavored whiskey has a legit place in our drinking culture—and your home liquor cabinet.
WAIT, DON’T GO! Before you get mad, check out the following three points I think all whiskey lovers can agree on: (1) no spirit offers higher quality across a range of prices than whiskey; (2) great whiskey is arguably best served neat; and (3) neither of the first two points lowers the demand for, or enjoyment of, a well-made whiskey cocktail.
Are you with me? Ok, so ... what is a whiskey cocktail other than whiskey + flavoring elements?
Originally, the term “cocktail” meant any distilled spirit (in the U.S., pre-Prohibition, that was usually whiskey) mixed with sugar, water, and bitters. The additional ingredients diluted and improved the flavor of the spirits, which were generally a bit rougher back then than they are now. (Even today, an expertly mixed cocktail will elevate a mid-level whiskey.)
Eventually, as bartenders began mixing drinks with gin instead of whiskey and liqueurs and vermouth instead of sugar, some nostalgic—or perhaps inflexible—drinkers would specify that they wanted their cocktail “Old Fashioned.” (Liquor snobs exist in every century.) Hence the name of the classic whiskey cocktail that, along with the Sazerac and Manhattan, laid the groundwork for whiskey’s representation in early cocktail culture.
Whiskey predominates in all three of those foundational cocktails, but it’s flavored (and sweetened) with small amounts of additional ingredients. So why should it be sacrilegious to simply drink a flavored whiskey on the rocks? There are varieties out there (infused with honey, vanilla, apple, ginger and more), that are well-balanced, smooth and delicious. Kind of like a well made cocktail.
Additionally, if flavored whiskey on the rocks isn’t a full-fledged cocktail in its own right, it can certainly be a head start on a great cocktail. I once gave a bartender I trusted vague instructions based on my mood and tastes; he muddled fresh sage and mixed it with bourbon, elderflower liqueur, and grapefruit juice. It was transcendent, a symphony of flavor I never could have imagined on my own. I asked him what it was. He shrugged. Just a quicksilver flash of chance and inspiration.
Of course, cocktails can be time-consuming to prepare, especially if you’re having people over. Anyone who’s ever hosted a Kentucky Derby party can tell you that making a couple dozen Mint Juleps is … let’s just say, labor intensive. It also fills your sink with the pulverized remnants of hundreds of muddled mint leaves. A smart party planner will make a batch of juleps in advance — and this is another opportunity for flavored whiskey to prove it belongs in the drinks enthusiast’s liquor cabinet.
Yes, you could muddle an entire mint plant in a five-gallon jug, add a couple handles of inexpensive bourbon and an industrial-sized hummingbird feeder of simple syrup, then stir it all with a broom handle to appease a roomful of people in seersucker and fancy hats coming to your theme party for a two-minute horse race. And more power to you. Personally, though, I’d rather prop up my feet and watch a YouTube playlist of skateboarders injuring themselves until my guests show up, then pour some mint-flavored bourbon over crushed ice for them. But that’s just me: I value my time.
In addition to being much more sippable on the rocks than you might think, and a welcome labor-saving option, flavored whiskey is also a gateway to the category. It helps make whiskey accessible to a new audience of drinkers—and the more the merrier, I say. In fact, flavored whiskey is the prime grower in whiskey right now. In a recent year, it accounted for almost 75% of whiskey’s overall growth. I’d never look down on something that contributes to the overall health of whiskey.
And let’s be honest, no one is born a whiskey lover—with the possible exceptions of people from Scotland, Ireland, and Kentucky. As a younger person, I wanted to drink Scotch with my dad, but I didn’t have an organic love for the rugged flavor. So I started by drinking North American whiskey with cola before I moved on to bourbon with a splash of ginger ale. Once I developed a taste for whiskey with a mixer (and then less of a mixer), Scotch on the rocks wasn’t quite so daunting. My dad and I now have a second thing to talk about once we cycle through the sports news.
So, make a little room in your bar for a flavored whiskey. You might be surprised by its balance and drinkability, you’ll definitely be able to experiment with new cocktail combinations, and you may just sway one of your whiskey-novice friends over to the brown side.