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Cameron Carnes

What Makes American Whiskey Unique?

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Cameron Carnes

Whiskey lovers tend to be particularly territorial about their spirit of choice. Here in America, these allegiances are especially present in whiskey culture.

All the different types of whiskey made in America have their unique pulls. Rye whiskey junkies will croon about its spiciness and burn, while bourbon aficionados will pore over the drink's smoothness and its vanilla and caramel notes.

Popular Science

Despite whiskey’s popularity, few studies have examined what exactly differentiates these spirits. A new report in the journal Food Chemistry focuses on the nonvolatile compounds that differentiate bourbon, rye, Tennessee whiskey, and American blended whiskey.

Authored by University of California, Davis chemist Thomas Collins, this study used samples of 63 different whiskeys to establish what exactly separates one type from another.

Whiskey Business

Within the U.S. and abroad, whiskey is a hot commodity. As a result, it’s inspired many counterfeits and imitations. One of the focuses of Collins’ study was to find markers for each type of whiskey that could potentially be used for authentication down the line.

During the course of this research, Collins and his team found almost 4,000 distinct compounds. For a complex spirit made from grains that are roasted, fermented, distilled, then aged, the number of compounds isn’t very surprising.

In the study, the team was able to narrow the field down to around 40 that were critical to the differences in taste among the spirits. “They weren’t necessarily the most important compounds, but they were important in differentiating the types of whiskey,” says Collins. “To really understand their impact requires some sensory input and then correlating the panelists’ findings with the chemical components.”

In-Grain-ed Differences

Out of the four, the American whiskey was easiest to separate. Since it’s usually aged for shorter periods of time, it’s not surprising that this type had few wood-related compounds. Tennessee whiskey, on the other hand, was somewhat separable from bourbons and ryes, but not by as much. It’s possible that this difference stems from the charcoal filtration process that most Tennessee whiskeys undergo after aging.

The differentiation between bourbon and rye is a bit harder. Though ryes from rye-focused distilleries were somewhat more distinct, “the ryes from major bourbon distillers tended to be more similar to the bourbons they produced,” says Collins.

Much of the similarity among these whiskeys may be due to the similarities of their mash bills (the makeup of grains used to make whiskey). By law, the mash bill of both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey must be at least 51% corn. Though rye’s must be 51% rye, the other 49% is often filled out with corn, making it very similar to the others.

Proof in the barrel

If the starting materials aren’t the cause of the differences in taste, what is? Chances are, it’s the whiskey’s time in the barrel. Therefore, it’s not surprising that ryes and bourbons from the same producer tend to be similar – the distillery is probably using the same types of barrels for the different types of whiskeys. According to Collins, scientists can compare whiskey that’s just been distilled with its aged components to figure out these differences.

Hit the Lab

To truly experience whiskey, it’s best to sip it neat or with one cube. However, a lot of classic and modern whiskey-forward cocktails can showcase the spirit without overwhelming it. One such cocktail is the Old Fashioned.

Though the gorgeously fruity concoctions showcased on Mad Men have re-popularized this drink, the Old Fashioned originally evolved out of the 19th century’s Whiskey Cocktail. At first, this drink (also called the Old-Fashioned, Old-Fashion or Old Fashion) was a simple tipple made up of sugar, bitters, and whiskey poured to the customer’s taste over one large ice cube. 

Over time, this libation morphed into a class of cocktail rather than being a drink with a prescribed set of ingredients. An entire (and beautiful) book has even been written about this drink. Making your Old Fashioned to your own taste is more important than following an historical standard. Play around with whiskeys, sugars, bitters and garnishes, and once you formulate the perfect one for your tastes, you’ve got your own house Old Fashioned!

Cameron Carnes

Old Fashioned

1 dash orange bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 tsp (or to taste) brown sugar syrup
2 oz bourbon

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass and garnish with an orange peel.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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