by Dan Clapson
It doesn’t matter how you swig it, you can’t walk into a restaurant or cocktail bar –
or, likely, even your own house – these days and not find a bottle of amber-coloured
alcohol ready to be shaken or stirred into a craft cocktail.
A few years ago, if a person talked about brown liquor cocktails, they would generally be referring to
a member of the whisky family. However, as Alberta’s cocktail and micro-distillery scene continues to
grow, people are playing around with plenty more than simply peaty or smoky spirits.
From small-batch dark rums to the often-overlooked cognac, here is a list of barrel-aged spirits and some
creative cocktail recipes to get you mixing like a pro at home.
This is a fairly complicated family of booze to explain,
so here’s the simplest breakdown possible.
SCOTCH is a type of whisky that is produced in Scotland
using primarily malted barley. It’s a spirit that can boast
intense smoky or leathery notes and is, arguably, the
least suitable for making a cocktail.
BOURBON is a kind of American whiskey that is
almost exclusively produced in Kentucky. It’s distilled
using at least 51% corn in its mash with a mix of
grains. It must be aged in charred oak barrels, but
unlike other types of whiskey, it doesn’t have a minimum
aging period, though most quality varieties are
aged for at least two years.
Sub Rosa’s Austin Purvis says: “I love working with
brown liquor because it packs such a serious punch.
Whisky, rye and bourbon all lend themselves really well
to classic cocktails as well as more forward-thinking
drinks. I enjoy experimenting with different flavour
combinations and developing my own unique takes on
everything from an Old Fashioned to a Manhattan.”
As its name implies, RYE WHISKEY is made using 51%
or more rye in the distilling process. Because it’s primarily
grain-based, this spirit is typically a lot spicier than its
Kentucky cousin. It’s aged for a minimum of two years.
To make things slightly more confusing, Canadian
rye whisky is usually produced using hardly any rye
and is more in line with American bourbon-distilling
standards. Alberta Premium is one notable exception,
which is produced with 100% rye.
“Personally, I love whisky cocktails because I think it’s
a great way for people to taste whisky without being
intimidated by its history of being a cowboy spirit,”
says Hayden Block owner, Ian Walsh. “The cocktails I
enjoy are made not trying to hide the whisky taste, but
to enhance or dress up the spirit.”
The concept of using cognac in a cocktail isn’t
necessarily new to barkeeps who know their
classics, but budding home bartenders will
still have a thing or two to learn about this
French grape-based spirit. After the grapes
are pressed and the juice fermented, the
liquid is distilled in copper stills and then must
be aged for two years before being sold.
“Cognac is one of the most underrated brown
spirits, since most people just associate it with
after-dinner drinking,” points out Model Milk’s
bar manager, Madeleine MacDonald. “Since
it’s made from grapes, it adds a rich, sweet
note that a whisky cannot. It’s diverse and
can be enjoyed in stirred drinks like a Corpse
Reviver ll or in shaken ones like a Sidecar.”
With a sugar base, rum – regardless of its colour
gradient – is a strong spirit produced with
the absence of grain. There are plenty of varieties
of this spirit that can be aged for any time
and infused with any number of spices like
cinnamon or allspice. A darker rum indicates
the use of molasses and/or longer barrel aging.
Though most famous for its distilling origins in
the Caribbean, rum is made in other places like
Mexico and even here in Canada at Ironworks
Distillery in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.
Tiki bars have had a notable resurgence in
North America in the past few years which has
helped rum step outside of its holiday eggnog
shackles, showing folks that it’s also a playful
spirit that easily mixes its way into bright, summery
drinks. Ricardo’s Hideaway will have you
diving into good rummy drinks and good food,
all on a Caribbean theme.
The latest trend in the distilling world is the technique
of aging gin. Different distilleries will start by producing
their gin using whatever their typical botanicals may be.
Then, instead of bottling, the liquor is transferred into
whisky barrels and aged. Banff’s Park Distillery, for example,
uses old Jack Daniels barrels to age its signature
gin for six months. The resulting spirit is unlike any of the
aforementioned, exuding myriad flavours associated with
gin and whisky – pine, caramel and cedar. This relatively
new type of spirit is best experimented with in simple
applications like gin and tonics or a straight-up martini.
TEQUILA AND MEZCAL
Even though both spirits are made from agave and all
tequila is technically a type of mezcal, all mezcal is not
tequila. So, why is that? Much like cognac can only be
called cognac when it’s produced in a particular region of
France, tequila is only made using the blue agave plant in
five small Mexican regions while mezcal is produced all
over the country.
Most of us are familiar with tequila, so let’s focus on
the lesser-known mezcal. This spirit boasts remarkable
smokey notes as the agave plants are cooked in pits
filled with charcoal, rocks and wood before being distilled
in clay pots. Three different levels of aging (0-2 months,
2-12 months and more than 1 year) can further add to
its intensity. Look for the name “añejo” for mezcals that
have been aged the longest.
“I enjoy the adaptability of mezcal and the places it can
be used in creating a smokey twist on a classic cocktail.
I also find it to be one of the most nuanced spirits on
the market,” says Dylan Macleod, bar manager at Native
Tongues Taqueria. “Even with two different producers,
everything comes out in the spirit. Terroir, water source,
human intervention… everything plays a hand.”
Read article in the digital issue of City Palate.