An American spirit boldly comes of age
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd ColemanI started drinking whiskey (bourbon—no rocks, thank you) in the 1990s. In Upstate New York, where I'm from, there wasn't a lot to choose from: Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark. And you drank it straight—there were no whiskey cocktails on the local bar menus. Women were drinking Cosmopolitans and margaritas, and men, if they drank whiskey, were drinking Scotch. I drank Maker's, which I liked for its sweet bite and the softness that came from the wheat used as a flavor grain; I figured that would be it for the rest of my life. Imagine my delight when, several years later, a friend brought me a bottle of Tuthilltown Spirits' Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey, craft-distilled from 100 percent New York corn. Here was something different, a small-batch whiskey with a full taste—loads of vanilla and caramel with hints of honey—practically made in my own backyard.
Then, last May, I found myself at Finger Lakes Distilling's Kentucky Derby party, even closer to home. I was drinking a cocktail made with beet juice, apple cider, star anise simple syrup, and rye handcrafted by a third-generation moonshiner from Alabama, who had come to Upstate New York to be Finger Lakes' distiller. The earthy beet juice and sweet cider brought out the apple in the rye. It took just a few sips to realize that I wouldn't be settling for the mass-market stuff much longer.
This is what whiskey looks like now. The spirit that fell out of fashion throughout most of the country in the 1970s is seeing a foot-stomping revival, the recipe for which goes like this: Take 300 years of U.S. whiskey-making history and add the creativity of new, small distillers. Mix in the locavore movement, which has instigated a return to traditional technologies and recipes and a desire to create spirits with a regional character; garnish with a revival of specialty cocktails, and cheers: American whiskey has never tasted so good.
It doesn't hurt that a lot of the people now making whiskey are full of character themselves. Take Thomas McKenzie of Finger Lakes Distilling. His grandfathers on both his mother's and father's sides made moonshine in Alabama, and their grandfathers before them, he told me when I visited him recently. "My granddaddy would sell it in Coke bottles."
McKenzie makes corn whiskey, bourbon, and rye. His bourbon is aged, like all bourbon is by law, in new, charred oak barrels that infuse it with toasty vanilla flavor, but he finishes it in local chardonnay casks, which add mellow hints of tropical fruit. His rich, applelike rye is aged in small oak quarter casks that accentuate its woodiness, and finished in sherry barrels from local wineries, which add sweetness.
In many ways, McKenzie is representative of the entire movement—someone with a personal connection to the drink's history, a predisposition to individualism ("I don't much care for government," he told me), a love of local ingredients, and who is making something new and traditional at once. He distills his whiskey "the old-fashioned way," he said, "using barley malt to convert the grain starch to sugar," rather than employing commercial enzymes to break down the starches.