City Palate
City Palate - The Flavour of Calgary's Food Scene since 1993

The Harvest Issue - September October 2017

Brown Booze Cocktail Party

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.

WHISKY/WHISKEY

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.”

COGNAC

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.”

RUM 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.

BARREL-AGED GIN 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.