Matthew T. Magliocco, Vice President of Michter’s Distillery LLC, couldn’t have begun the description of the famous Micther’s American whiskies better than by making statement that forever debunks a preconceived notion about Bourbon: It’s an old man’s drink.
I’ve always thought, however, that it’s better to make sound judgments about stereotypes by arming oneself with adequate information, so here goes:
American whiskies are categorised, and the categories make it easy for us to understand the flavour profiles of each one.
In general, American whiskies (singular form being spelled whisKEY, as opposed to the Scottish whisKY) are classified as follows:
- Bourbon – If the word bourbon is on the label, it means that it was made anywhere in the USA. Majority of bourbon production, however, is in Kentucky. As a rule, bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, thus giving it a sweeter flavour profile as opposed to most whiskies. Heavily charred American barrels are also used, adding notes of coconut, toffee, and spices in the whiskey. Another key difference of bourbon making is having sour mashing* as a key element in making flavour distinctions.
- Tennessee – Tennessee whiskey can only be made in Tennessee. There are other technical restrictions in making Tennessee whiskey that involves sugar maple charcoal filtration, but by and large, the major defining characteristic of Tennessee whiskey is geographical in nature.
Speaking from the WSET perspective, Rye is not a category large enough to make a bullet point in our textbooks, but seeing this on the label just means it’s made from at least 51% rye, and has distinctive notes of spice. It can also be made from anywhere in the USA.
Having decoded the (basic) American whiskey code, how did the stereotype of bourbon being an old man’s drink come about? Honestly, I tried to do research on this (I’ve always been about all forms of alcohol being gender neutral, so I’ve never even thought of this enough to look for literature on the matter) and found nothing substantial.
So, yes, there’s a stereotype, but if there’s any label that could dispel this, it’s Michter’s. The multi-awarded brand dates back to 1753 and is renowned for being uncompromising in its quality. A lot of the character is due to the quality of the barrels used in creating the whiskies (to give a technical insight, the barrels are made out of air-dried wood which is toasted before it’s charred… It’s a tedious process that takes 18-48 months), which are made to the exacting specifications of the label.
During the lunch with Magliocco, he featured a selection of whiskies that exemplify the result of their painstaking work:
- US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon – An excellent example of what a proper bourbon is all about, its signature “sweetness” is punctuated by caramel, smoke, and vanilla… I’d recommend this as a holiday treat (the characteristics remind me of Christmas rolls and even holiday ham), or even as a mixer for a classic whiskey sour.
- US*1 Kentucky Straight Rye – Rye is known for being “America’s oldest whiskey variety”, and has signature peppery notes. Mixologists have been on the fence as to their preference between using rye or bourbon for their cocktails, but there’s a consensus is that rye based cocktails are always characterful.
- US*1 Sour Mash – The tasting notes say that it “presents warm burnt sugar notes with spice, sweet, smoky fruit, candied cherries, and honeyed vanilla… Starts out like a bourbon, finishes like a rye.” Personally, I don’t think I’d ever be able to guess this in a blind tasting, in that it seems like the love child of a bourbon and a rye. It’s also pretty cool to note that there’s a lot of emphasis on the use of sour mashing to create this uniquely elegant whiskey. It’s something I’d definitely have on my shelf, because its complexity is great for conversation.
- 10 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon – If I were to describe this, it’s like the incredibly restrained version of its younger, unaged brother because of its refinement. The punchy, fruit forward notes present in the unaged version gave way to a restrained, toffee filled, elegant undertones after the ageing process.
- 10 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye – Similarly, this is the more elegant version of the unaged Rye, and exhibits gorgeous notes of orange citrus and crushed pepper.
So, Going back to dispelling the old man’s drink stereotype, let’s look at my checklist:
- Man – With Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann on the helm? Please.
- Old – Having the dynamic crew of Asia’s number one bar, Manhattan Bar in Regent Hotel Singapore on board (including the proudly pinoy duo of Gabriel Carlos, Manhattan Assistant Manager; and Cedric Mendoza, Manhattan’s Head Bartender; as well as “honorary pinoy” Philip Bischoff, Bar Manager) representing the Michter’s brand for their Manila tour, I really don’t think so.
Let me end this with a video of the team behind Manhattan Bar making delicious cocktails with the Michter’s line. My personal favourites include the Manhattan (Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Rye, Mancino Vermouth Rosso, House Cherry Liqueur, and Angostura), and New York Sour (Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Ruby Port, Fresh Lemon Juice, Lavender Maple Syrup, Plum Bitters, and Egg White).
*Sour Mashing – Using the wort (a sweet sugar solution from malt, a key element in making whiskies, otherwise known as “distiller’s beer”… It’s also used to actually make beer) and mixing it with the backset (acidic residue left in the beer still) from a previous distillation. This eliminates bacteria and ensures consistency. Phew!
Very, very special thanks to Niguel Arevalo of Wine Warehouse/Apotheke