Hidden upstairs, rather ironically in the Gin Den of Mr Fogg’s Tavern, we were about to discover a very American cocktail masterclass courtesy of ambassador Tom Vernon. We were surrounded by quirky trinkets and glass-fronted cabinets containing all kinds of liquors and potions, making it the perfect spot to discover prohibition and beyond’s finest cocktails.
First up we had a crash course in education about the nature and versatility of American Whiskey. With quite a few different distillation methods used, it means that there is scope for more than your average amount of flavour profiles to be present. A quick rundown of the top few are –
Rye Whiskey – A little bit spicier, and best used in a Manhattan, for example.
Bourbon – The sweetest of the whiskeys, this is most commonly used in an Old Fashioned.
Tennessee Whiskey – Being charcoal mellowed (also known as the Lincoln Country Process) this gives the whiskey a lighter, nuttier taste and is often used in a Bourbon Sour.
Most, if not all, of the classic American cocktails adhere to the classic 4, 3, 2, 1, ratio to create the perfect balance – not too sweet, not too sour. Goldilocks would be delighted. This balance is achieved with something Strong at 4, this is usually your spirit of course. Next at the 3 ratio you have sweet, which can be your simple sugar or another sweeter spirit (like Sweet Vermouth), next you have Sour at 2, so your Angostura Bitters or lime juice for example, and finally Weak at 1, top up of soda anyone? So that’s your ratio, follow it and you’re unlikely to make a bad cocktail ever again…
Age before beauty, we began with a Mint Julep. Derived from the Arabic word for Rosewater, Julab, this is one of the oldest recorded cocktails with the first mention way back in 1096. Now an annual festival in Virginia, it’s estimated that over 500,000 Mint Juleps are served every year there. Another fun fact? This was often the field worker’s refresher of choice, and they used to use the rye grass their animals had been stomping about in as a straw.. Fortunately ours were much more beautiful – and hygienic to boot.
Next up we had the Whiskey Smash, a prohibition favourite. You would find this drink served in establishments hidden away with names like ‘The Blind Tiger’ and ‘The Blind Pig’, with a little sign outside to give it away. A very simple cocktail with only three ingredients and loads of ice, it was pretty hard-hitting, especially as most of the whiskey was home-made, and rather foul. In fact, the only whiskey to continue being legally made during those years was Old Forester – and that was mostly for ‘medicinal purposes’. Needless to say, prescriptions went up like crazy.
Interestingly the Prohibition also gave us the phrase ‘The Real McCoy’ – McCoy was a smuggler that used to bring Canadian whiskey into the country, and if you had his stamp on your barrels you were assured of the real thing. Pride among bartenders was common, and creating a drink based on their stomping ground was a real coup. The Manhattan is one of those – of the drinks named after each of the boroughs, this is the most enduring favourite and with good reason. There are three ways to serve it, Sweet, using sweet Vermouth, Dry, using dry Vermouth, or perfect, which is a 50/50 split.
Incidentally, perhaps swerve a ‘Brooklyn’.
With the amount of bartenders out of work in the US, they made their way to Europe and established themselves in some of the most elegant and notorious bars in the cities, bringing American flair and expertise with them. Pop into The American Bar at the Savoy for a taste.
An enduring favourite here at DC, the Old Fashioned is most likely a creation of The Pendance Club, with it’s first mention by Colonel James E. Pepper way back in 1806. Now a benchmark of bartending skill, try one either at Nightjar or at The American Bar mentioned above – or else follow the online recipe at American Whiskey’s website posted at the end of the article.
Finally we had a taste of the Bourbon Sour, a departure from the rest with a more exotic addition of egg white for body, this was nonetheless worth the effort and a delicious note to finish on.
Well, what did we learn? That there’s a little something for everyone in the world of American Whiskey, wether you like them hard n’ heavy hitting or smooth and silky there’s a cocktail to suit you. For all the recipes of the drinks mentioned pop along to American-Whiskey.com. And discover all these and more.
There’s sure to be something to tickle your fancy.