When you take a shot of whiskey, you take a shot of America.
You could say this is an exaggeration, but read about the Whiskey Rebellion in your history textbook or consider how bourbon whiskey originated in Kentucky. “Whisky,” as they spelled it in the Old World, may have come from the Scotch-Irish immigrants, but American whiskey has become much more varied and a part of our history.
We’ll stick to the some of the more well known and historical types such as bourbon, Tennessee, rye, Canadian and blended whiskey.
These all come with their own nuanced legal definitions that dictate the main ingredient.
According to title seven, part five of federal regulations, American whiskies such as bourbon, rye and wheat cannot contain less than 51 percent of corn, rye and wheat grain respectively. The rest is up to the brand who will then ferment, distill and store it in an oak container for at least two years.
Generally people with discerning taste say that a rye whiskey has a spicier taste, while bourbon is sweeter. Jack Daniels is often thought of as bourbon, but technically is considered a Tennessee whiskey because it is filtered through charcoal right after distillation.
According to David Wondrich, cocktail historian and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, your whiskey of choice in the 19th century depended on whether you were a Yankee or a Southerner. In his book “Imbibe!” he notes that Yankees preferred rye and Southerners preferred bourbon because of their respective agriculture.
Prohibition changed all that. Suddenly Americans had to rely on imported Canadian blended whiskey. Canadian whiskey is more commonly called rye whiskey. Consequently, a generation of Americans wound up drinking Canadian whiskey long after prohibition ended in 1933.
Since then Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, writes in his book “The Essential Cocktail” that Americans are thoroughly enjoying liquor’s availability.
“We’re now in the age of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, and drinkers are moving in the direction of premium and super-premium spirits for everything,” writes DeGroff.
So whichever type of golden liquor you pick, here are two classic whiskey cocktails. There are limitless variations, but the following two recipes aim for the more accepted combinations.
Despite how that mad man Don Draper whips up this drink, it originally never contained orange. That’s just pure fluff.
“The Old-Fashioned was a drinker’s plea for a saner, quieter, slower life,” writes Wondrich. “One in which a gent could take a drink or two without fear that it would impair his ability to dodge a speeding streetcar or operate a rotary press.”
At the time, one would walk into a bar and ask for an old-fashioned whiskey, gin or brandy when they wanted to avoid all those candy-like concoctions. The first instance of the drink was just whiskey, ice and a bit of sugar.
DeGroff goes on to suggest that the lemon peel, especially when muddled, can slightly soften the drink without candying it, and has made the Old-Fashioned a classic Thanksgiving or Christmas cocktail.
Whatever you do though, don’t put seltzer water in it. That’s just insulting. It’s an old-fashioned whiskey, not some new-school whiskey soda.
2 oz. whiskey
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp water
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
A small piece of ice
• Muddle the sugar, water and lemon peel in a rocks glass
• Add whiskey, ice and bitters
Source: George J. Kappeler,
Modern AmerIcan Drinks (New York, 1895)
Another popular 1960s “Mad Men” special, the Manhattan goes back way before many of those characters were born.
It was originally claimed to be made in the old Manhattan Club in New York City, but Wondrich later discovered a gaping hole in the story. The legend goes that it was made for Winston Churchill’s mother who was throwing a party there for Samuel Tilden after he became governor of New York.
The only problem is that the night the party was held, she was giving birth to baby Winston.
While there are other records that do certify the Manhattan Club invented the classic cocktail (just not on the night in question), the more interesting part is the vermouth. Jerry “Professor” Thomas, considered to be the father of cocktails for his 1862 book “How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” reversed the whiskey and vermouth proportions for a much sweeter mix.
The choice is yours as the individual bon-vivant. You can use a drier vermouth for a drier Manhattan or vice versa for a sweeter swig.
2 oz of whiskey
1 oz of vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters
garnish with a maraschino cherry
• Stir with ice in a pint glass
• Strain and serve in a chilled cocktail glass, no ice
Source: Jerry “Professor” Thomas,
How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion (1862)