Caramel. Vanilla. Peat. Maybe a bit of chocolate and some nebulously defined conglomeration known only as “red fruit.” If you drink enough whiskey, you will notice certain adjectives start to make an inordinate number of appearances, which inevitably drives people to the bizarre nether regions of descriptors that describe tastes and smells in terms of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo or, even more esoteric, comparisons to treacle tart.
Whiskey is a defined term with a defined process, and while being such makes it much easier to control the sort of spirit that can and cannot call itself “whiskey,” it also makes for a spirit that can be a bit, y’know, predictable. Not in a bad way, mind you. A great whiskey is one of the finest pleasures, even if all one can say to describe it is “it tastes like great whiskey.” But this adherence to the rules has cost whiskey in the past, seen it labeled as stodgy, an old man’s drink -- Perry Como, when everyone else is listening to The Beatles.
The current resurgence in whiskey’s popularity, however, is being driven by younger drinkers, and by smaller distillers who have found ways -- sometimes for creativity’s sake, sometimes out of necessity -- to break with tradition without breaking tradition. If we stick with music, think of the current state of whiskey as Elvis’ ‘68 Comeback Special. It’s still Elvis, but there’s something different. Odd Bedfellows, an event organized by New York’s Whiskey Roundtable, was a celebration of some of the distillers, blenders, and importers that have turned the spirits world upside down and make whiskey that challenges -- or openly defies -- expectations.
The event was held at Tooker Alley, Prospect Heights’ newest cocktail bar and the brain child of Del Pedro, formerly of Manhattan’s Pegu Club. Focusing on three of the major aspects that go into tweaking a whiskey’s flavor -- wood, grain, and finish -- drams were provided by Compass Box, Corsair, and Brenne, with Tooker Alley serving up custom cocktails for each of the whiskies.
Compass Box was at the forefront of this new whiskey rebellion when their Spice Tree dared to add French Oak staves to an ex-bourbon barrel, drawing the ire of the Scotch Whisky Association and a polite cease-and-desist letter. Compass Box founder and master blender John Glaser had to improvise on his improvisation, resulting in Oak Cross, one of the core products in the line and a blended malt whisky that adds complexity and spice. Brand Ambassador Robin Robinson spoke in great detail about the hurdles of trying to innovate within a very innovation-averse industry, and how a new generation of Scottish distillers are pushing the industry forward.
For distiller Darek Bell and Corsair, innovation comes in the more liberal rules about what can be used to make American whiskey. A former home brewer, Bell wanted to experiment with the grain. Their newest spirit, and the one poured at the event, is made with quinoa. Quinoa lends the whiskey a truly unique, nutty, earthy flavor with lots of spice and pepper, and even apples and cinnamon. Corsair also experiments with making whiskey from finished beer rather than the lower grade distiller’s beer normally used, and with distilling whiskey made with hops. Situated in the shadow of giants like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, Corsair’s aim isn’t to battle the behemoths; it’s to do something different, to fulfill the interest in variety that has been inspired the American craft distilling movement.
The third whiskey was the most dramatically different of all. Allison Patel is a one-woman force of nature who decided to leave the world of professional ballet and fashion, stumbled across a Cognac distiller in France who happened to be making whisky on the side for his own consumption, and decided then and there to work up a contract, figure out the details on the run, and bottle and import what became Brenne into the United States. Made in a lambic still and finished in Cognac barrels, Brenne is a striking whisky that tastes of coconut, palm oil, apple cobbler, and vanilla. Allison’s story was one of a passion to make Brenne work, and to bring to the market something that proves just how unpredictable ol’ predictable whiskey can be.
The three speakers worked well together, each with good humor, insight, and incredible first-hand experience with making whiskey do things no one thought whiskey could do. The open Q&A covered how innovation among craft distillers has pushed the major distillers to respond with innovations of their own, how a tiny company competes for market space with a beverage giant, and what a little honesty can get you as a company. With food provided by Tooker Alley and a custom-made Brenne pudding from the East Village's Puddin’ By Clio, the entire event reflected the offbeat subject matter. Whiskey tastings, like whiskey itself, can sometimes be a bit rote, but this one shook things up -- which is the point for Ellie Tam and The Whiskey Roundtable, which seeks to put together quarterly events about unique whiskey topics at a price even a hobo can swing.
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