Once upon a time, the word ‘cocktail’ referred to the occasion more than the drink and was, often as not, attached to the word ‘party.’ In those days, it wasn’t irregular to desire a cocktail and then order or pour a whiskey, neat or on-the-rocks. Most people had no trouble calling an unadorned glass of whiskey a cocktail. Nobody tried to talk you into having ‘a real cocktail’ instead.
The modern meaning of ‘cocktail’ is an assembled-to-order, single serving combination of two or more ingredients, what used to be called a ‘mixed drink.’
Assuming we can hold two different ideas in our heads at the same time, let’s take both meanings and ask ourselves, what is the role of whiskey in cocktails?
First, let’s embrace the idea of whiskey as a cocktail. A first class whiskey is itself a combination of ingredients—grains, yeast, water, wood, heat, time, peat, sherry—and when those elements are fully realized and ideally balanced, whiskey is a perfectly satisfying drink all by itself. In short, a cocktail.
Whiskey’s other role is as an ingredient, but this can be bifurcated too. For the classic whiskey cocktails it doesn’t matter what type of whiskey you use; bourbon, rye, scotch, Canadian, Irish, etc. They all taste different, but they also all work. That’s because classic whiskey cocktails, simply made in the traditional way, feature the whiskey, augmented only slightly by the other ingredient or ingredients.
Elmer T. Lee, the legendary master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace Distillery, likes a highball that is one part Buffalo Trace Bourbon to about three parts Sprite, on ice.
The third way is using whiskey with modern creative cocktails. There it is an ingredient, not the ingredient, and the goal is not so much to taste the whiskey unobstructed as it is to taste it as one part of a unique whole. To be successful, a creative cocktail must be greater than the sum of its parts. For such productions, the call for each ingredient, including the whiskey, has to be specific, not just as to type (scotch, bourbon), but usually as to brand and expression.
So whiskey has three roles: (1) whiskey as cocktail, (2) whiskey as featured ingredient, (3) whiskey as non-featured ingredient.
Which begs the question, what whiskeys to use?
Some other spirits types are unambiguous on this question. Read a little bit about cognac, rum, or tequila and you will quickly learn that VS cognac, and white tequila and rum, are for mixing. Higher grades of cognac, and aged tequilas and rums, are recommended for sipping. It’s easy to draw the parallel to whiskey, blends and young whiskeys are for mixing, balanced and fully aged whiskeys are for straight sipping.
But haven’t we been told, by cooks as well as mixologists, that you always get the best results by using the best ingredients? Okay, but maybe we need a ‘within reason’ qualification, supported by a ‘best and highest use’ paradigm.
Pappy Van Winkle used to say that if you must drink your whiskey with water, pour the water into the glass first. That way, you’ll be making a poor thing better, rather than a good thing worse.
So, for the first two types, you want a fine whiskey with excellent balance. That’s obvious for straight sipping. With classic cocktails, you may want to adjust the other ingredients to the whiskey, and tone them down when a better whiskey is used. For creative cocktails, it’s not so much about the best whiskey as it is about the right whiskey.
This is where white whiskeys and young whiskeys can shine. In that third role, you usually want something with a very clear and assertive character.
Are some whiskeys more versatile than others? A good traditional straight rye, like Rittenhouse BIB, Wild Turkey Rye, or Knob Creek Rye, is good straight or in a traditional whiskey cocktail, but can get lost in an elaborate concoction. In that case, a 95% rye like Bulleit, or a very young rye like McKenzie, might work better. Even there, the Bulleit because it has some age on it can be good on its own, while the McKenzie is probably best in a cocktail.
It’s the same with bourbons. Knob Creek, Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and Old Forester are all good choices as both straight sippers and in classic cocktails. Most micro-distillery bourbons are best in creative cocktails.
With scotch, very peaty single malts can work straight and in creative cocktails, but tend to overpower the simpler classic cocktails.
Marketers need to understand how their products show best and market accordingly. It has become knee jerk in spirits marketing to always provide cocktail recipes. But if your product is a fine, fully aged, well balanced whiskey, just perfect by itself, you may do it a disservice by pushing cocktails of any kind. Instead, be more creative about telling consumers how to enjoy your product.