Check your pop culture references and you’ll find it: from “Mad Men”’s Don Draper, to Alec Baldwin’s inimitable Jack Donaghy, all the way back through any of John Wayne’s more memorable characters.
The brown liquor provides something that vodka simply does not: character. There is the subtle, smoky, oaken flavor. There is the invitation to sip, to savor, not to imbibe like a newly minted, 21-year-old Abercrombie boy.
And there is history. The history of whiskey is part of what inspired Kevin Sine, co-owner of the 51st Street Speakeasy, 1114 N.W. 51st, to stock his recently opened upstairs Bar 4 with 38 varieties of scotch, a dozen varieties of bourbon and seven Irish whiskeys, turning it into a must-visit destination for anyone who enjoys the brown stuff.
“I love that the history of whiskey goes back so far, to at least the late 1700s,” Sine said. “I love that aspect of it.”
And there is the flavor, which can be all about picking out subtleties. “I love the taste, especially the deep oaks,” Sine said. “I think a lot of the bourbons from Kentucky have a raw, undefined taste. They’re not aged as long as some of the scotches are, which gives them a raw, undefined flavor.”
Kyle Fleischfresser, bar manager at Ludivine, 805 N. Hudson, can also tell the difference between the two. “Bourbon is generally sweeter because it’s corn; whereas rye is a little more spicy and has a more citrus note. It’s a drier grain,” he said.
Aside from geography (scotch is from Scotland; Irish whiskey is from — wait for it — Ireland; bourbon is uniquely American), production methods have a great deal to do with the difference in flavors across the whiskey family.
“Anything can be called bourbon if it’s 51 percent corn-based, aged in charred, new American oak barrels,” said Jason Ewald, beverage director for A Good Egg Dining Group.
“Bourbon barrels can only be used once by law,” he added.
“I think you get a great combination of both kinds of flavors coming out of the charred oak,” Sine agreed.
“Normally,” Fleischfresser said, “scotch is considered the be-all, end-all of whiskey, the ultimate whiskey. It’s more refined, and it takes a long time to make a good scotch.”
Sine admits that drinking whiskey — especially in a bar dedicated specifically to it — can be intimidating, often because patrons aren’t sure how to order: neat, on the rocks or with water?
“Most of your 12-year-old scotches are something you can throw on the rocks,” he said, “but when you get in the 15- to 18-year-olds, it should be neat with a splash of cold water.”
For whiskey beginners, Sine recommends starting simple, and said not to be afraid to talk it out with your bartender. “Start in the well,” he said. “Have a glass of the Famous Grouse, which is a blend of Highland Park and Macallen. Drink it on the rocks with a little splash of water. If you like those flavors, we can explore from there to really figure out what type of scotch suits you the best.”
For those already experienced in the art of the brown liquor, Sine recommends Pappy Van Winkles, a single-barrel bourbon from Frankfort, Ky.; the 23-year-old is a particular favorite. He’s certain the introduction of whiskey expertise into The Speakeasy’s wheelhouse will prove popular with customers.
“We sell a lot more liquor through the winter, and that trend has continued through the spring,” he said. “We’re selling a lot more liquor than beer right now.”