After falling out of favor, bourbon, rye and other browns are back in vogue.
"Whiskey for them as like it, and for them as don't--whiskey," ordered Alec Guinness, playing an officer of a Scottish regiment in the 1960 English movie Tunes of Glory. Anyone issuing a similar mandate a decade or so ago would have been faced with some decidedly disgruntled drinkers. Today, however, the command is likely to receive a unanimous cheer. Whiskey is back.
Most Americans lost their taste for full-flavored spirits during Prohibition; in those days it was far easier to procure homemade gin or white rum from the Caribbean than it was to get a bottle of aged bourbon or scotch. Then came World War II, with a dearth of good, aged whiskeys, and after that the Fifties, when martinis were anything but teeny and sales of "browns" (scotch, bourbon and rye) plummeted. But now, thanks to the single-malt scotch craze that erupted in the Eighties and the infatuation of baby boomers and Generation Xers with anything and everything stylish and sophisticated--which whiskey most assuredly is--brown is beautiful once again. Here we offer our take on some of the best news in brown. (Note that whiskey can be spelled two ways.While most American and Irish producers prefer whiskey, Scottish and Canadian makers drop the e. We have followed suit.)
Single-malt whiskies--pure unadulterated spirits made the old-fashioned way--represent the very finest from Scotland. Produced from a mash containing only malted barley, single malts run the gamut of flavors. Some are sweet, soft and honeyed; others are tough and hearty, redolent of the peaty, briny land in which they are made and aged.
One of our favorite new single malts is the wildly expensive 40-year-old Bowmore ($7,000 a bottle!); another is the (comparatively cheap) Balvenie Vintage Cask 1966 ($350). Both of these sterling single malts have been aged far longer than the usual 10 to 20 years, and as a result they offer a totally different and far more complex taste. (They also may be hard to find, as are some of the whiskeys that follow.) Three more bottlings of note are the 12-year-old Glenmorangie, which now comes aged in sherry, port or Madeira casks ($45); the 21-year-old Balvenie Portwood ($60), which hit the market late last year; and the recently available 15-year-old version of the eastern Highlands malt Glendronach ($43), which is matured in sherry butts and is by far the best whisky produced by Glendronach.
It's a mistake to think, as many people do, that single malts are the only scotches worth drinking. Blends, which are made by marrying aged single malts to aged grain-neutral spirits, can be incredibly good whiskies. In fact, some high-end blends are as worthy of savoring neat as any single malt.
The latest bottling of blended scotch that we've enjoyed sipping is the 18-year-old Chivas Regal ($70), a world-class whisky by any standard. The 18-year-old Johnnie Walker Gold Label ($60), which contains more than a few drops of Clynelish single malt, one of our all-time favorite malts, is in the same league. We also recommend two 12-year-old bottlings: the White Horse ($25), which is made from Lagavulin, a highly peated single malt, and the Famous Grouse Gold Reserve ($23), a wonderfully balanced but slightly softer dram that's ideal for serving neat.
Though bourbon, a whiskey made primarily from corn, had its origins in America's backwoods, today it's more likely to be found at cigar bars and steak houses. And the bourbons served in those swank settings are correspondingly more sophisticated than the simple sour mashes of the old days. (Sour mash refers to the practice of using a portion of previously fermented grain in the distillation process.) Two new-style bourbons we're particularly impressed with are the 13-year-old Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve ($34), one of the world's most complex whiskeys, and Jim Beam Black ($13), a seven-year-old that's similarly complex but far more affordable.
Straight rye whiskey, which must contain at least 51 percent rye grain, is actually fairly difficult to find. In fact, what many people call rye is often Canadian whisky. The confusion probably developed in the early post-Prohibition years, when Canadian whisky makers were flooding the American market with their spirits, which were then made with a large percentage of rye. (Today Canadian whisky is more frequently distilled from corn than from rye.) Wild Turkey Straight Rye ($17) is undoubtedly the best-known rye, but we find two new bottlings equally engaging: the 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Straight Rye ($25) and the 12-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye ($20).
The primary difference between Irish whiskey and its Celtic cousin, scotch, is that the Scots introduce peat into their spirits, making for smokier drams than the more honeyed whiskeys of Ireland. Also, while scotch is almost always distilled twice, Irish whiskey is traditionally distilled three times, giving it a somewhat cleaner taste.
The distillery that seems most committed to bringing Irish whiskey into the 21st century is Bushmills: witness its new 16-year-old Three Wood Single Irish Malt ($55). Aged in used bourbon, sherry and port casks, this is an extremely complex dram suitable for armchair sipping. Other Irish whiskeys of note include the Midleton Very Rare 1974 ($120), an exceedingly smooth if somewhat expensive bottling, and the 12-year-old Jameson's 1780 ($28), whose considerable character warrants lengthy contemplation.
The Canadians have been a little slow off the mark with new bottlings, and although we know that some top-notch ones will become available next year, the distillers are keeping very quiet about what will actually hit the shelves. One offering that we were able to sample comes from Seagram, whose VO label has long been considered the classic Canadian whisky. Its new eight-year-old bottling, VO Gold ($15), has a honeyed nose and a nice if simple balance of grainy sweetness and delicate spice on the palate.
GARY REGAN and MARDEE HAIDIN REGAN's latest book, The Bourbon Companion, will be published later this year.