Warm Your Spirits

Monica Parpal |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

Approaching a new spirit—or perhaps one that's haunted you from your first foray into the world of alcohol—can be daunting. And beyond that, there are so many variants, so many labels, and so many options for how to drink it. It can leave your head spinning before the bartender even lays down a cocktail napkin.

The good news is that with the change of seasons comes a fresh opportunity for your taste buds. Now that summertime mojitos and vodka lemonades are waving their goodbyes, guests can turn more confidently in the direction of a longtime cold-weather favorite—bourbon whiskey.

Before you turn the page, consider this: bourbon is one of the oldest and heartiest American spirits—declared “America's Native Spirit” by Congress in 1964—but it's also finding itself in the rocks glasses of the modern drinker. Today's bartenders are guiding guests through an interesting paradigm shift; just because bourbon was your father's drink doesn't mean it cannot be yours.

Delving into bourbon—and any whiskey, really—you're bound to hear your share of Prohibition tales and even further prohibitionary tales of bourbon's legendary after-burn, that perhaps a good bourbon is an old man's drink. And perhaps it is. But it's also a woman's drink, a grandmother's drink, and your best friend's drink. And now that the weather's getting colder, it'll be easy to find and even easier to drink. So here's to bourbon—whether you're an old friend or a new lover.

Drumbar {201 East Delaware Place, Rafaello Hotel, 312.924.2531} is a good place to start. Here, new Beverage Director Alex Renshaw—named one of the “Top 10 Bartenders to Watch” at the Tales of Cocktails Awards in New Orleans—considers bourbon one of the most classic spirits in America. He explains that, at its most basic, bourbon is made up of at least 51-percent corn (the maximum is about 79-percent). The secondary ingredient is usually rye, which contributes to the overall spiciness of the spirit. “Fall is a great time for whiskey. Whiskeys and bourbons are darker spirits that often go well with cinnamon and other baking spices, and the high-alcohol content makes people feel warmer in the cold weather,” Renshaw says. This season, he'll be mixing up heavier cocktails focused on spices and herbs. “I love everything Buffalo Trace is doing right now,” he says. “And I also like Eagle Rare. As far as rye whiskeys, I've always loved Rittenhouse and Bulleit. These two have greater notes of spice throughout, which makes them nice for the winter.”

Just the straight spirit, however, can be pretty aggressive for someone new to bourbon. “I think a cocktail is a great introduction to a new spirit. I like to serve classic cocktails like the Brown Derby, which is bourbon, grapefruit juice, lemon, and honey,” Renshaw suggests. Drumbar will roll out more new bourbon-focused cocktail recipes later this fall.

At The Barrelhouse Flat {2624 North Lincoln Avenue; 773.857.0421}, guests encounter a speakeasy-esque modern bar where exotic bitters, housemade syrups, and herbaceous liqueurs give classic drinks a memorable punch. A major player on the liquor list here is bourbon, which, relatively speaking, is simple, straightforward, and smooth—especially if you pick the right one. For Owner Stephen Cole, the right bourbon is Pappy Van Winkle, a true Kentucky bourbon known for its rarity. “It's less sweet than many other bourbons, without being bitter,” Cole says. “From the aroma standpoint to what it does going down, this is by far one of the best bourbons out there.” Cole insists that bourbons of this standard are solely for sipping—either straight, or with a few drops of water.

Depending on the bourbon, Cole suggests serving guests bourbon masked as a cocktail. “I mix it up depending on the brand and the type. Bourbon cocktails can be enjoyed up, on the rocks, or in a great Manhattan—especially with simple, familiar brands like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels,” Cole says. “I'll also use those bourbons in desserts. They have a good sweetness and caramelize like a dream.”

Similarly, Matt Sokol of The Motel Bar {600 West Chicago Avenue #4; 312.822.2900}, believes bourbon and whiskeys are ubiquitous in the drinking culture. When Hubie Greenwald created The Motel Bar, he wanted a place where guests could try classic drinks without paying a steep price. “We try to stick to the classic cocktails—made properly and served in the right glasses,” Sokol says.

When enjoying a spirit, Sokol believes that less is more. “We want people to taste the spirits themselves—to learn how they're aged and what goes into them—and not dilute that too much in cocktail form. My go-to is the Old Fashioned. Like its name implies, it's a timeless drink. The sweet vermouth and sugar mellow the whiskey bite. We've also invented a few, like the Sonny Liston, with Maker's Mark, Malbec, and ginger ale. It's great for the season, but also refreshing and light.”

This season, Sokol encourages guests to come in and pick up a Motel Bar Cocktail Marathon Passport. “This is something we came up with—a booklet with stories and drink recipes,” Sokol says. “Each time you buy a drink listed in the passport, we put a stamp in the book. When you complete all 40 drinks—hopefully not all in one sitting—we give you your own cocktail guide and an engraved glass.”


"Recognizing the parts of your palate is the first thing. Then you can drink spirits straight and understand the nuances.” —Tom Hogan


Encouraging guests to try new drinks and learn about classic spirits is one of Mixologist Tom Hogan's favorite parts of his job. He tends bar at Bernard's at the Waldorf Astoria {11 East Walton Street; 312.646.1300}, an intimate, whiskey-focused bar where the experience is both educational and experimental. “Serving whiskeys of different types, from different regions and with different ingredients, helps guests define the differences between spirits,” Hogan says. Part of that process is learning how bourbon is unique.

He describes the process of tasting bourbon as one would wine: “When it comes to taste, bourbon fills the midsection of the palate. A sweet aroma on the nose then builds to flavors that might include butter, oak, vanilla, banana, and pineapple, before tapering off to a subtle burn in the back of the throat as it goes down.” Although not all bourbons have to be from Kentucky, they must all be aged in U.S. virgin oak casks. This helps give off that buttery, vanilla aroma. “Rye, on the other hand, is very different,” Hogan says. Rye delivers an inverse effect, with a bold front and back, and a shallow mid-palate. “The first notes are spicy and more floral than a bourbon. Then you finish with lots of heat.”

Hogan notes that classic cocktails are making a comeback, and that it's the bartender's job to guide people in their choices. “Whiskey has a rich history, and people want to try it because it's become popular,” Hogan says. “It's up to the bartender to guide them, since many are approaching it for the first time. We have to cultivate that experience. I do it through cocktails.” One of this favorites is the Promontory Point. “The rye gives off a floral taste, and where it lacks in the mid-palate, the sweet vermouth, yellow chartreuse, and herbal bitters pick up. The Sherry rounds out the whole cocktail with an earthy, savory finish. Recognizing the parts of your palate is the first thing. Then you can drink spirits straight and understand the nuances.”

One thing he doesn't recommend? Drinking bourbon with food—especially a gourmet meal. “Bourbon is best for after dinner. I'd never recommend drinking it during a meal, because it totally takes over the palate. It prevents you from experiencing the food like you should.”


Bottles to Buy:

Black Maple Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon from Bardstown, Ky. ($45)

This 95-proof bourbon whiskey is a mysterious and coveted spirit, produced in small batches every several months. It boasts a nice, rich corn bouquet with a smooth caramel, vanilla finish and not a lot of burn.


Koval Single Barrel Rye Whiskey from Chicago, Ill. ($50)

This hands-on, local, small-batch distiller descends from generations of spirits-makers originating from Austria, making everything from scratch in their Ravenswood Distillery. Theirs is an organic/kosher whiskey produced from a single-grain in a single-barrel system, and made with 100-percent rye. Upon first sip, notes of spiced apple and butterscotch fill the palate, while the finish is warm and peppery.


Great Lakes Distillery Kinnickinnic Whiskey from Milwaukee, Wis. ($42)

This blend of straight bourbon, malt whiskey, and rye whiskey is a primary feature of Great Lakes Distillery. The nose offers aromas of pear and oak, while the finish is spicy yet fruity with hints of cinnamon. This whiskey has a hint of heat, perfect in cocktails, over an ice cube, or with a splash of water.


Templeton Rye Whiskey from Templeton, IA($45)

This subtly spicy rye spirit displays a deep amber color, and emits an aroma of dry, grassy Christmas spices. The taste offers a hint of caramel, butterscotch, toffee, and allspice, Templeton lingering on the palate with a slightly “chewy” texture, but finishing with a clean, silky smoothness. Pair it with ham, turkey, or roasted dishes for maximum flavor potential.

Find these and more at The Noble Grape {802 North Bishop Street; 312.846.1204; www.noblegrape.net}


Recipes to Try:

The Zodiac

from Mark Brinker of The Barrelhouse Flat

In shaker tin, combine 1-1/2 ounces Larceny Bourbon, 1/2 ounce Laird's Apple Brandy, 1/2 ounce lemon juice, 1/4 ounce grenadine, 1/4 ounce cinnamon syrup, 1/8 ounce St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, a dash absinthe, and a dash Angostura bitters. Add ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into a coupe glass and serve.


The Promontory Point

from Tom Hogan of Bernard's Bar in the Waldorf Astoria

In a mixing glass with ice, add 2 ounces Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, 3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse, 3/4 ounce Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, 3/4 ounce Lustau Palo Cortado Sherry, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, and 2 dashes housemade orange bitters. Stir. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with a lemon twist and an Amarena cherry.


The Sonny Liston

from Chris Trejo of The Motel Bar

Pour 1-1/2 ounces Maker's Mark, 1-1/2 ounces Crios Rose of Malbec, and 1 teaspoon lemon juice into a Collins glass with ice. Top with ginger ale and garnish with a lemon wedge.


The Boulevardier

from Alex Renshaw of Drumbar

In a mixing glass with ice, add 1 ounce Campari, 1 ounce sweet vermouth, and 1 ounce bourbon of your choice. Shake, then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel.