Warm weather often means turning to clear liquor to keep cool, but when you’re fired up to celebrate independence on July 4th, the best way to show your American spirit is with the nation’s two great contributions to mixology in one glass—the cocktail and homegrown whiskey.
Cocktails arrived on the drinking scene soon after the nation’s birth, when the term was defined in print as a drink “composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” American whiskey had already made a foothold in the New World’s colonial days, first as rye and then as Bourbon, an American creation. Both proved more than capable of playing the starring role in a long list of delicious cocktail recipes. As bartending became an art form, they supplied the perfect tools to expand on that broad canvas. America’s sturdy spirits—especially those designated straight for having been aged in new, charred barrels—proved they could stand up to any manner of mixer, liqueur, aperitif or shower of ice. What’s more, their complex flavors showed through and developed an alchemy unrivaled by the other liquors of the world.
Today, American whiskey cocktails have become staples in the world of imbibing, and they always seem to be more than a sum of their parts. Sweet, rich and complex Bourbon adds depth to a drink, completing a finessed marriage of lush caramel and toffee with toasty barrel notes. Its spicy cousin, rye, adds a certain zest to cocktails, providing a noticeable change when using it in place of Bourbon for just about any drink. Charcoal-filtered Tennessee Whiskey, Bourbon’s close cousin, adds mellowed notes of fruit and spice to cocktails. If Bourbon Manhattans are your typical drink, mix it up by substituting rye and you’ll be rewarded with a slightly drier, somewhat spicier concoction. Or, if straight rye whiskey is your go-to for a Highball, trying one with Bourbon will result in a sweeter note. (You might want to keep it quiet when using rye in a Mint Julep, as doing so is considered heresy in certain circles.)
Whether you’re already a believer in great American whiskey cocktails, or a newcomer just dipping your toe in these flavorful waters, here are four essential American whiskey drinks you need to master to complete your cocktail game.
The Manhattan Project
Not many drinks can lay claim to having spawned an entire class of cocktails, a concoction that spans not only a type of spirit, but one that started a school of mixology. That drink is the Manhattan. Before its creation in the 1880s, bittered and sweetened drams, such as the Old-Fashioned, offered straight liquor with a spark. But the Manhattan dared to add fortified wine to liquor to complement and magnify its charm. That simple discovery, made with rye, vermouth and bitters, inspired dozens more cocktails. Some have names of their own (Martini, Rob Roy, Brooklyn), others are ordered by whiskey preference (a Bourbon Manhattan). By any name it’s the prototype for the modern cocktail.
And despite being almost derailed by Prohibition and the popularity of the ever-so-dry Martini, the Manhattan remains the quintessential American drink. First of all, it’s made with homegrown whiskey. While rye was the original, today they’re more commonly made with Bourbon. Second, the Manhattan incorporates the energy of the nation: a kind of chin-out forthrightness coupled with the urbanity of the New York borough with which it shares its name. Part of its charm is its considerable adaptability. Shake it or stir it, use sweet or dry vermouth, experiment with different kinds of bitters, swap out or forget the garnish. What’s critical is finding your favorite proportion.
The drink was first mixed one-to-one, half sweet vermouth, half whiskey. Today, it’s stronger and more whiskey forward—two parts whiskey, one part vermouth. Feel free to crank that up based on your taste or the spirit that’s on hand. Heck, you don’t even need a mixing glass. Marilyn Monroe improvised with a hot-water bottle to make her Manhattan in the movie Some Like It Hot. She was hot, but the cocktail still got cold.
- 2 oz. straight rye or Bourbon
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura or orange
- Cherry or lemon twist garnish
Pour liquids over ice in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Stir well or shake vigorously (shaking promotes dilution, and changes the drink’s viscosity). Strain into a cocktail glass. Add garnish. Feel free to adjust proportions to suit your choice of whiskey. As a variation, try the Perfect Manhattan, made with 1⁄2 oz. sweet vermouth and 1⁄2 oz. dry vermouth.
The Soulful Sazerac
The Sazerac is a classic cocktail that’s taken its lumps over the years—and we don’t mean just the lumps of sugar. Fate forced it to change—twice—and recently, the drink has had to disavow its title as the original cocktail. But the Sazerac is a product of New Orleans, a town that truly knows its drinks, and it is nothing if not a survivor. Nonetheless, the present incarnation is something of an evolution.
The embryonic Sazerac was made sometime in the 1840s by the Cajun apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud. It was a concoction mixed of his namesake bitters, brandy and sugar. The claim that it was the first cocktail stems from Peychaud’s penchant for mixing it in an egg cup called a coquetier in French. The idea was that the term morphed into cocktail. However, we now know the word was in use in New York State a quarter century before Peychaud’s bitters.
Essentially, the first Sazerac was an Old Fashioned that substituted brandy for Bourbon, and took its name from the preferred brand, Sazerac & Fils Cognac. At some point (it’s not recorded because the recipe wasn’t published until 1908) someone coated the glass with another French spirit: absinthe, introducing that anise-flavored liquor to the mix. But Cognac and absinthe would become difficult finds. First, French vineyards fell victim to phylloxera, causing a Cognac shortage. Then absinthe was outlawed. Rye whiskey pinch-hit as the Sazerac spirits base. Absinthe was replaced in the recipe by Herbsaint, a locally made, anise-flavored pastis.
Today, not only is the Sazerac enjoying newfound popularity, but due to changes in laws and liquor supply, it can once again be enjoyed in any of its previous incarnations. Cognac is thriving again, the Sazerac brand has been reintroduced, rye whiskey is enjoying a resurgence and absinthe is legal once more. However you make this herbaceous, heady and evolving drink, be sure to stick with distinctive Peychaud’s bitters, the one unchanging ingredient in the mix.
- 1/2 tsp. absinthe or pastis
- 1 sugar cube
- 2 oz. straight rye whiskey
- 4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 lemon twist
Put absinthe or pastis in an Old-Fashioned glass and swirl to coat the inside. Place the glass in the freezer. Muddle the sugar cube with a little water in a mixing glass. Add ice cubes, rye whiskey and bitters to the mixing glass and stir. Strain the contents into the chilled Old-Fashioned glass. Twist the lemon over the glass and use for garnish.
The Southern Standard: The Mint Julep
Back in the day when politicians had to cozy up to the temperance movement, Teddy Roosevelt found himself impugned in print as a drunk. When he sued for libel, the former president claimed he was largely abstemious: the only drinks he took were the half dozen or so Mint Juleps he enjoyed each year during his term in office. Apparently, he couldn’t resist the bed of delightful mint growing near the presidential mansion. Although not yet the official quaff of the Kentucky Derby (that happened in 1938), the drink was associated with southern gentlemen. So the choice was likely meant to cast him as a drinking sophisticate, not one of those ruffians who guzzled Highballs.
But in retrospect, Roosevelt’s Julep recipe tars him as a heathen, for the man who said “speak softly and carry a big stick” made his Juleps with rye instead of Bourbon, and also included a most untraditional brandy floater. Southern Mint Julep purists were never kind to cocktail noncomformists. One likened the notion of making Juleps with rye to putting scorpions in a baby’s crib.
While the first Juleps may well have been created for medicinal purposes and could include all manner of spirits, they became the proprietary drink of the South. As such, it is almost universally considered a Bourbon drink. That corn-based whiskey makes the perfect bed for this layering of spry herbs, sweetness and bracing liquor, a drink that is exceptionally refreshing on a warm day and one that simply begs to be paired with a strong, bracing robusto. But remember that because it is perfumed with mint and laced with sugar, the Mint Julep is easy to throw back. And, until the ice melts, it’s almost pure alcohol. Remember that at your next Derby party, or you may forget how the affair ends.
- 1 dozen fresh mint leaves
- 1 tbsp. simple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 oz. Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey
Freeze metal Julep cups or short Highball glasses a half-hour ahead of time. Combine half the leaves with the syrup and bitters in a mixing glass. Gently muddle. Add the whiskey, and muddle some more. Fill the cold vessels with crushed ice and pour in whiskey mixture. Garnish the mouth of the glass with the remaining mint. Serve with short straws, to better enjoy the aroma of the herbs.
Boulevardier—The Flavor Riot You May Not Know
Because it came to life in Paris, rather than the United States, the Boulevardier may seem suspect as a patriotic American drink. But its creation sprung from a couple of American ex-pats living in France, and the only way this cocktail works is with its base of sweet and distinctive American whiskey.
Harry MacElhone, of Harry’s New York Bar, committed the formula to print, combining Bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth, in his renowned 1927 guide Barflies and Cocktails. But the saloon keeper credited it to Erskine Gwynne, himself another refuge from American Prohibition, who also published a short-lived Parisian magazine, The Boulevardier. The basic genetics come from the 19th-century Milano-Torino, an Italian concoction of Campari and vermouth. When American tourists ordered it with soda it became the Americano, which James Bond would pronounce the least offensive of the musical-comedy drinks.In 1919, Count Camillo Negroni changed the tune, adding a bass line by calling for an Americano with gin in place of seltzer. Shortly thereafter, Gwynne imagined even more gravitas, tossing out the juniper spirit in favor of Bourbon.
With whiskey in place of gin, the drink ceases to be a show tune and becomes a well-orchestrated symphony. If there’s a problem with this flavor riot, it’s that it’s not well recognized in bars, especially if you pronounce it correctly: booluh-var-deeyay. If you can’t get your lips around that, just order by its simple recipe. Or ask for the rye whiskey version, the Old Pal, which is what it may soon become.
- 1 oz. Bourbon (or straight rye whiskey)
- 1 oz. Campari
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth*
- Cherry or lemon twist garnish
*if using rye, use dry vermouth instead of sweet
Put all liquid ingredients in a mixing glass over ice. Stir well. Strain into a cocktail glass. Add garnish. For a variation, serve over ice in an Old-Fashioned glass.