The Third Rail: Raising the Bar for Whiskeys


I’ve spent a lot of time testing cocktail recipes (I know; who would have guessed?). But there’s a gap in my knowledge when it comes to the finer points of whiskey. That gap can usually be defined as the spot where the bar’s bottom shelf meets the bar’s upper shelves. I can’t recommend the rare spirits that a true whiskey devotee can. And so this week, I though I’d bring in a ringer: Kate Hopkins, author of 99 Drams of Whiskey and maven behind Accidental Hedonist.

Full disclosure: 99 Drams of Whiskey was published by the company where I spend the pre-cocktail hours of every workday. I never had the pleasure of working on the book, but even so I wouldn’t presume to review it. Instead, I’ll let her expertise speak for itself with this trio of suggestions for enlivening classic drinks with a higher standard of booze:

“When it comes to using whiskey as a mixer, I must admit that I am a bit hesitant. Simplicity is my motto, and there’s nothing quite as simple as whiskey neat with water back.

“That being said, there are times in which mixed drinks are appropriate. While I realize that mixology is all the rage at the moment, with certified mixologists doing what they can to find new and innovative recipes for liquors, I prefer to stick to the old recipes. Instead, I look to lesser-known brands of whiskey for my innovations. The end result? I find that I can make drinks that end up a little different than what I can get from my local bartender.

“For example, some bartenders presume that a Manhattan, with its basic recipe of rye whiskey, red vermouth, and angostura bitters, works well with a Canadian blended whiskey what with its use of of the rye grain in their mash. But when I make a Manhattan I head toward Old Potrero, a full on 100 percent rye malt whiskey, creating a livelier, more… ahem… spirited drink. Where the classic Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey comes across as Hamptons’ debutante, one made with Old Potrero makes the deb seem as if she’s taken a few salsa lessons.

“Then there’s the classic Rusty Nail, in which the sweetness of the Drambuie sometimes dulls the nuances of the blended Scotch whiskey used. So I use the fuller bodied Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, an American Whiskey made in the Scottish style (read: barley instead of corn), but has a taste that’s very much its own.

“My point here is that classic cocktails can even be updated by using quality ingredients, which in this case means using quality whiskeys. And while some may be a bit skittish on using ‘the good stuff’ on mixed drinks, if you’re a fan of cocktails, using quality whiskey is the only way to go. If the whiskey is chosen carefully, even the old standby, Irish Coffee, can seem new and unique. Using the Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Sherry Finish, instead of the well standbys of Jameson or Bushmills, provides the coffee with an unusual hit of sweetness within the whiskey, and works to make one’s coffee a bit bolder. It adds a nice touch of character to a drink that’s often looked upon as a red-headed stepchild.

“There’s no shame in liking mixed drinks, no matter what the whiskey snobs will have you think. And there’s no reason why you should have to use second-rate whiskey in your drinks, simply because that’s what has always been done. Quality results in quality. Use quality ingredients, and you’ll increase your odds of ending up with a quality product.”

Manhattan 2 ounces Old Protrero Rye Whiskey 1 ounce sweet vermouth Dash of angostura bitters 1 maraschino cherry

Rusty Nail 1 1/2 oz Colorado Whiskey 1/2 oz Drambuie 1 twist of lemon peel

Irish Coffee 2 oz. Tyrconnell 10 Year Old Whiskey w/Sherry Finish 4 oz. hot coffee 1 1/2 oz fresh cream 1/2 tsp brown sugar

All recipes courtesy of Kate Hopkins.