I ’ve been studying whisky cocktails for years, and I do mean studying. A few years back I did a seven-month long study of the Manhattan cocktail with a colleague, in which we broke the cocktail down into its various parts to see how they all worked together. It was an enlightening experience. Not only did I learn what goes into my favourite Manhattan cocktail, but I also learned how each of the ingredients interact with each other. Understanding how all the ingredients go together goes a long way towards understanding how whisky cocktails work, and what went wrong when they don’t.
Whisky can have some pretty strong opinions. One might be loud and spicy, while another might be delicate and sweet. Whenever I see a recipe that specifies ‘whisky’ my brain goes into overdrive. My immediate response is to analyse the other ingredients in the recipe and extrapolate based on my knowledge of certain whiskies which one might work well in the recipe.
The people who write recipes don’t always know what’s going to be available to the reader, so they keep it general in order to make the recipe more widely accessible. To the untrained eye, however, a classic 2-1-2 Manhattan recipe can turn into an unexpected disaster. The whisky you choose to pair with a certain vermouth can be exquisite or it can be a disaster. The bitters are your spice rack, and depending on which one you choose you can overseason or underseason your cocktail.
The professionals making drinks in high end whisky bars already have an encyclopaedia of flavours in their knowledge base, so they can take a call for a certain brand of whisky and know which vermouth and which bitters are going to play best.
For old cocktail recipes, a lot has been lost to history. A ‘wine glass’ is a measurement that translates to two ounces, but if you aren’t a seasoned bartender you may not realise that when you read a recipe from the 1800s, which could lead to some strong and unbalanced cocktails.
Bartenders use the knowledge they have gained on the job to give you the best experience possible, but they also use this knowledge to build and create recipes, old and new, based on recipes or completely original.
Starting with a whisky base is tricky because you have to tailor the other ingredients. While spirits like vodka and rum do have variations in flavour from brand to brand, swapping one out for the other is unlikely to drastically alter the final product. Whisky, on the other hand, varies by style, producer, bottling proof, mash bill, and more. If you use Japanese whisky in place of Bourbon or rye whiskey in place of Scotch you might be in for a surprise.
A bartender’s job is to make sure that you enjoy your drink, so don’t be offended if you ask for something specific and they question you to ensure you are going to be getting what you want. They are doing the maths in their head as you order to ensure the end product is enjoyable.
When you have a bartender you trust, you can ask them to make something a little different based on your tastes. Bartending is like applied chemistry class, and yes, there’s also sometimes fire.
There’s an art to remembering what each ingredient tastes like and also to understanding what you are tasting when you try something new. Building drinks from scratch was something that was lost in the ‘convenience era,’ but I’m glad it made such a strong and lasting comeback. I’m happy to wait ten minutes for an exceptional cocktail. What’s the hurry, anyway?
In order to appreciate the process, try making your own whisky cocktails at home. Experiment with different products in different combinations and notice the differences.
The combinations are of course endless, but you will eventually discover you have preferences.
Once you have a good feel for the complexity of whisky drinks, be sure to visit your local whisky bar and talk to the bartender. Take some time to order a really good drink and watch it being made. It really adds to your appreciation of the process, to understanding of the hard work and thoughtfulness that goes into a really great whisky cocktail.