City Palate
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The Entertaining Issue - November December 2017

One Ingredient: COOKING WITH BROWN LIQUOR

by Julie Van Rosendaal

Brown liquor has become a trend in recent years in restaurants and speakeasy-style bars. Canadian and American whisky/ey, bourbon, rye and scotch are collectively referred to as “brown liquor,” due to their similarities, lack of easy distinction between them, and colour. What truly distinguishes them from one another? Mostly grains and geography.

Brown liquor is brown because it has spent time in wood barrels, but generally speaking, it’s all whisky/ey. To clarify the spelling, it has an “e” before the “y” in the United States and Ireland – countries that have an “e” in their names – and none in Scotland or Canada, countries that have no “e” in their names.

In order to call itself bourbon, whiskey’s mash – the grain from which it’s distilled – must contain at least 51 percent corn. Scotch is differentiated geographically – it’s whisky that’s made in Scotland, mostly from malted barley. Rye is arguably the most abrasive of the bunch, more often topped with Coke than sipped on the rocks. In the U.S., American rye whiskey must be distilled from at least 51 percent rye, whereas Canadian whiskies are made with multiple grains and may or may not contain any rye. (The grains used in the mash are generally declared on the label.)

By law, liquor must spend a minimum of three years in a barrel before it can be called whisky/ey of any kind – it’s the distillation and barreling that give each batch a unique character. Most are blended from more than one barrel, unless the liquor is labelled single-barrel; a single malt is made using malted barley and comes from one distillery (but still a blend of barrels). Irish whiskey is also made with barley, but because not all of it is malted, it has a lighter flavour.

Clear as whisky?

While some love the sweet intensity of all of the above brown liquors, others can’t take their bracing burn. If you don’t like to sip whiskies, you may like to use butter, sugar, beans or slow-roasted ribs as a whisky delivery service. Their malty sweetness and aroma of wood smoke and peat add a new dimension to cakes (brush them with liquor, once baked, fruitcake-style), barbecue sauces and other sticky meat glazes, gravies, marmalade, apple pie, fruit cobblers and crisps, chocolate and caramel. A little goes a long way, so you can even add a capful to flavour cream before whipping it to dollop over desserts.

When choosing brown liquor to put in your food rather than serve with it, malt whiskies can be more intense in flavour than grain whiskies. I tend to go for bourbon in baking because of its smoothness (compared to rye), and affordability (compared to scotch), and because “bourbon brownies” sounds better than “rye brownies,” but generally you can use whatever bottle is in the cupboard.

Cooking with Brown Liquor recipes

Read One Ingredient in the digital issue of City Palate.