Branching Out From WhiskeyBy Jake Emen
If you’ve been limiting yourself to whiskey, then you’ve been quite literally missing out on a world of wonderful spirits. Cognac from France; pisco from Peru; rum from the Caribbean, Central America and elsewhere across the globe; tequila and mezcal from Mexico; grappa from Italy; the full range of liquors being produced by American distillers; and the list goes on.
I get it—grain is good. Malt, corn, rye, wheat and everything else; it all works wonderful magic to produce a dram of your favorite whiskey. Like you, I too began as a devotee purely to the water of life. Yet, while whiskey remains at the top of my personal spirits hierarchy, I’ve branched out into others. Everything has a time and a place.
Of course, as a whiskey drinker, you’ve probably branched out already, so give yourself some credit for being open-minded. Perhaps you began with bourbon, before dabbling with scotch. Then maybe you found a home with sherried scotch, before going big with peat. Then you came back for the spice of American rye, before soothing out your palate with something Irish. See?
In this case, you’ve been experimenting with the full breadth and diversity that a single spirit has to offer. As you develop your palate for a new spirit, you’ll discover that, for example, all cognac isn’t the same, either. Its six different regions—the limitless scope of possibilities which result from blending, and the particulars of production—each impart their own characteristics, with each brand offering something distinctive and notable. It’s all worth exploring.
How to Grow Beyond Whiskey
Hopefully your curiosity has been piqued and you’re interested in expanding your tastes to different spirits. So how do you get started?
One smart approach is to look for something in the new spirit that you’re familiar with, and that you already enjoy. For example, if you like a scotch with a heavy sherry profile and you’re interested in exploring Cognac, consider exploring the Martell range, which offers similar flavors of raisins, nuttiness and dark red fruits. Those comforting notes will ease your transition into a new category and provide you with a stable base from which you can do more exploring.
If you’re still seeking out that sherry in the realm of rum, consider the Brugal line. Brugal is now owned by the Edrington Group, which also owns—among other brands—The Macallan. Their Brugal 1888 expression is actually aged in the same sherry casks that the Macallan uses for its scotch. Meanwhile, the Brugal XV is aged in mix of PX sherry casks, and the more traditional bourbon casks used with rum.
Getting in to Tequila
The same rule applies for finding a new go-to tequila—or a spirit of any kind. Simply pick a flavor profile or quality that you like, then look for a product in the new category which has it.
In some cases, you can even find an entire category that offers it. For instance, if you love bold, smoky scotch, skip the tequila and dive head-first into mezcal, where smoke is almost always the name of the game. The bulk of mezcal is made by cooking the hearts of the agave plant in underground stone pits, fueled with wood, which imparts the category’s signature smokiness.
Another approach to exploring new spirits is to take your favorite whiskey cocktail, and to make it with a new spirit instead. For instance, dark, well-aged rums make great stand-ins for whiskey in a range of cocktails, as can cognac.
If you want to experiment with mezcal but you’re a bit weary at first, try a mezcal Old Fashioned, which adds the smoky punch of the spirit to the classic whiskey staple. Or go further south from Mexico to Peru, and try a pisco Manhattan, known as an El Capitan, which offers a wonderful introduction to the clear Peruvian brandy.
Learning about Pisco
Pisco can be made with eight different grapes, and like wine varietals, each imparts its own characteristics; so try them all and see which fits best. The sturdy quebranta grape may be ideal to hold up to that El Capitan—the bulk of pisco is made from quebranta. Yet, the floral notes of a torontel or italia can work wonders elsewhere.
As you begin to explore a range of different spirits, you can then begin to refine what you’re really looking for. Do you prefer molasses-based rums—of which the majority are—or the agricole-style cane juice rums? Do you want your rum to be roasty and robust, or a bit funky, with that elusive hogo funk? It’ll be the latter if you’re ever in quest of scotch showcasing a distinctive rancio side.
As with any of life’s finer pursuits, practice makes perfect. Go to tastings, or seek out bars specializing in the spirit you’re looking to explore and chat up a bartender, try a cocktail or sample a flight. Explore new things, and above all else, read reviews and recommendations.
Ready to take the plunge?