The Complete Guide to Whiskey
Knock back our primer on this burgeoning spirit—and discover where to drink it—with help from East Bay bars, distillers, and restaurants.
Clear spirits have their place, but for our money, nothing beats whiskey. We’ve prepped this primer on everything you need to know about this of-the-moment spirit. Consider it your school on the brown stuff: You’ll learn from the experts, cover the classics, and still have plenty of room for fun outside the classroom.
Restaurants and bars are making it easier than ever to learn the ins and outs of the spirit.
Know your Whiskeys
To learn the difference between the bottles, let’s focus on the most common American whiskeys. Bourbons (Maker’s Mark, Blanton’s) can be produced anywhere in the United States, but most come from Kentucky. They must be made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.
Tennessee whiskeys (Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel) are bourbons made in—you guessed it—Tennessee and sent through a charcoal filtering process. And ryes (High West, Old Overholt) are made with at least 51 percent rye and are also aged in new charred oak. Ryes tend to be a little spicier, bourbons a little sweeter and smoother, and Tennessee whiskeys the sweetest.
Restaurants and bars are taking a page from the wine and craft beer scenes, and letting customers sample multiple tastes of hard spirits. Order a flight to compare whiskeys of different ages and types, or from different distilleries.
Try it here: District (Oakland), Eureka! (Berkeley and Concord), Hutch Bar and Kitchen (Oakland), Picán (Oakland), Sasa (Walnut Creek), Sauced BBQ and Spirits (Livermore).
Join the Club
—Join the tasting club at American Oak in Alameda for free. You can track your tastings of more than 200 whiskeys on an official sheet kept on file at the restaurant. As your tastings add up, you’ll have the opportunity to attend special tasting events with distillers and brand ambassadors, participate in a “bottle keep” service, and eventually, receive an engraved flask declaring you an official master of whiskey. americanoakalameda.com.
—While you’ll have to shell out $60–$75 to join the Royale Bourbon Society at Oakland’s Picán, the entry fee will score you advanced notice for rare bourbon releases, access to members-only events, and a discount on special tastings, dinners, and classes. picanrestaurant.com.
—Hutch Bar and Kitchen’s free-to-join Royal Order of Carousers and Scoundrels requires that you drink your way through six levels of whiskey to be inducted into the Oakland restaurant’s Fellowship of the King, with your name etched on a plaque hung at the restaurant. Each level consists of six whiskeys organized around a theme—ranging from moonshines to “the good stuff”—and you’ll be rewarded with free drinks from the levels when you complete them. hutchoakland.com.
These four watering holes earn top marks for their dedication to whiskey.
Number of whiskeys: 60+
Why it deserves an A+: The Oakland iteration of San Francisco’s well-known watering hole is even more impressive when it comes to whiskey, with a globe-spanning selection available in two sizes of pours, flights arranged by age and style, and cocktails both classic (Sazeracs) and innovative (the Bluegrass: blueberry- and rosemary-infused Four Roses Bourbon, maple syrup, and lemon). Don’t miss the $1 oyster happy hour available six days a week. districtoak.com.
Number of whiskeys: 30+
Why it deserves an A+: With a newly opened Concord location, Eureka! continues to bring hard-to-find craft spirits to the East Bay, with an all-American whiskey list and a cocktail menu that highlights the classics. In addition to the rare bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s, Eureka! offers discounted whiskey during its twice-daily happy hours, plus late-night (midnight or later) bites. eurekarestaurantgroup.com.
Number of whiskeys: 130+
Why it deserves an A+: On top of its Bourbon Society events (see page 62), Oakland’s Picán keeps the whiskey party going year-round, with national bourbon heritage month festivities every September, WhiskeyFest celebrations at the end of October, a killer Kentucky Derby party in May, and a steadily growing spirits list that includes more than 100 bourbons. Projects in the works include cocktails made with smoked ice and bourbon infusions such as grilled lemon and bacon. picanrestaurant.com.
SAUCED BBQ AND SPIRITS
Number of whiskeys: 250+
Why it deserves an A+: There’s always room for a party at Livermore’s Sauced BBQ and Spirits, whether your idea of a good time is shot and beer specials, or sipping hard-to-find bourbons. Try a playful take on bottle service—16-ounce bottles of barrel-aged classic whiskey cocktails served with glassware and garnishes—or Sauced’s own Hawg Wash Bourbon Whiskey infused with bacon for a tweak on the old-fashioned. saucedbbqandspirits.com.
Like a good book, these cocktails are complex, nuanced, and easy to enjoy over and over again.
Moresi’s Chophouse: Old-Fashioned
Even though versions with muddled fruit and other add-ins (maple syrup, bacon infusions) abound, a traditional old-fashioned should consist of whiskey, bitters, and sugar (cube or simple syrup). Moresi’s adds a bourbon-soaked cherry garnish for an extra boozy kick. moresischophouse.com.
The Cooperage American Grille: Sazerac
This classic cocktail from New Orleans calls for Peychaud’s Bitters, which were invented in the Big Easy (and can be found at most well-stocked liquor stores). A bourbon with a high rye content (such as the Tincup whiskey The Cooperage uses) stands up to the hint of anise from the absinthe rinse. thecooperagelafayette.com.
Prima Ristorante: Manhattan
Bartenders will argue over whether the recipe calls for rye or bourbon, but the use of sweet vermouth is never up for debate. Try the Manhattan Antica from Prima, where whiskey barrel–aged bitters are subbed for the more traditional angostura. primawine.com.
Revel Kitchen and Bar: Brooklyn
Although the cocktail’s origins are murky, dry vermouth gets play in this classic with an East Coast moniker, which also includes rye and Maraschino liqueur. Revel uses Bigallet China-China Amer Liqueur, a French digestif, as a replacement for Amer Picon, which can be difficult to find in the States. revelkitchenandbar.com.
Picán: Mint Julep
More respected than the mojito and the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, this easy sipper requires a good, strong bourbon to stand up to dilution from the crushed ice. Picán uses whiskey made specifically for the restaurant by Woodford Reserve, and doubles down on the mint with both the fresh herb and Fee Brothers Mint Bitters. picanrestaurant.com.
Look like you know your way around whiskey, with advice from Rick Dobbs, owner of Livermore’s The Last Word.
Stir it Up
“Start with a whiskey cocktail. Definitely try to do a stirred cocktail. Anybody can take a shot, but when you’re sipping it, that’s when you know you’re digging it.”
Turn to the Classics
“When I go to a new bar, I try to order off the cocktail menu first to see where they’re at. If it’s good, I’ll see how they do with a Sazerac [absinthe rinse, rye whiskey, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s Bitters]. It’s my litmus test for a bar. Because there are so few ingredients, it has to be done right.”
Find Your Comfy Space
“I don’t know how to not make you look like an idiot at a bar that wants to make you look like an idiot. And there are plenty of those. The biggest thing is to drink at the bar that’s right for you. Find your comfy space. Talk to the bartender for five minutes. If you’re open and honest, he or she’s going to be able to recommend a few things. Some of them may be things you don’t like, but don’t be afraid to say you don’t like it. Don’t keep choking it down. You’re not five. You don’t have to eat all of your vegetables.”
Match Your Mood
“I will have a whiskey neat, on the rocks, or with water. It’s dependent on what my mood is, and I don’t think anyone should be berated for that. The only cocktail you should be berated for is the lemon drop.”
Forget the Rules
“There are certain things that will make me wince, but if someone’s ordering something good and they want to mix it with soda, that’s fine with me. Sometimes when it’s going out, I’ll say ‘I’m sorry, alcohol.’ ” The Last Word, drinkeatgather.com.
Everything you need to mix, shake, pour, and sip, without stepping foot outside your front door.
For building cocktails.
For stirring drinks you want to cool down without overly diluting and for making sure all ingredients are mixed.
For measuring ingredients, which is key in spirits-driven cocktails such as the classics on page 65.
For keeping pesky ice cubes out of drinks served straight up.
Large ice spheres tray
For cubes that melt more slowly and dilute your drink less than typical ice.
Get the entire set (plus a bitters bottle) in the Bartender’s Toolkit, $133, from Oakland’s Umami Mart, where you can also find individual pieces, in store and online. umamimart.com.
Bender’s Whiskey Co.
Bender’s Rye Whiskey
• Treasure Island
Tasting notes: High rye content, with hints of vanilla and spicy cinnamon; try on ice to mellow. bendersrye.com.
Espresso Barrel Aged American Whiskey
Tasting notes: Chocolate, roasted nuts, and coffee; versatile and great in an old-fashioned. drinkmosswood.com.
St. George Spirits
St. George Single Malt Whiskey
Tasting notes: Cocoa and roasted nuts on the nose; best enjoyed neat. stgeorgespirits.com.
Two East Bay distilleries spill on how they make quality hooch.
St. George Spirits
The mad scientists at Alameda’s pioneering distillery continue to cook up cult-status whiskeys.
Their Breaking and Entering bourbon is no longer available. Their single malt whiskey is coveted by spirits geeks. But St. George Spirits’ master distiller, Lance Winters, and head distiller and blender, Dave Smith, don’t care about any of that. They just want to make damn good whiskey—and they aren’t afraid to give it to you straight. Tours and tastings available, reservations recommended, stgeorgespirits.com.
Winters: “The one thing that I think makes the best whiskey is somebody who gives a crap about what they do. You have to approach it not as a commodity but a statement piece, an art form. Making something smooth is easy. Making something with lots of character? That’s what’s really vital to whiskey.“
Smith: “If the best thing we can do is turn out something that’s identical over and over again, we might as well go work for McDonald’s.”
Smith: “We’re investing a great deal of resources into barrels that won’t make a return for a few years down the road. But from an authenticity standpoint, we are who we are, and that bottle is unique to us.”
Winters: “I’d argue that there’s no one out there who doesn’t like whiskey. They might say it, but they just haven’t met the right whiskey yet.“
Smith: “We have another release of the single malt coming out at the end of October. I wish we had more to put out there, but it’s small quantities that hit market because even though we’ve increased production, we only have so many barrels we can lay down. What used to take 10–14 months to sell now takes a month.”
Winters: “The reason we do what we do is we want to share stuff with people. So we’re always worried we’re not making enough, but we’re never so worried we’re willing to compromise the quality of the product that goes out.”
Sutherland Distilling Company
A behind-the-scenes look at the Livermore distillery’s newest venture: whiskey.
Sutherland Distilling Company has built its reputation on vodka and rum, but ask founders Eric Larimer, Barry Sutherland, and Ryan Sutherland what they’re most passionate about, and they’ll tell you it’s something they haven’t even released yet—their whiskey.
The trio founded the company in 2013 so they could make the ryes and bourbons currently sleeping in barrels at their distillery, and their patience is finally paying off: Sutherland’s first whiskey, a 100 percent rye, is slated to hit shelves in early 2016, with the bourbon scheduled for release in the summer. Tastings by appointment, sutherlanddistilling.com.
Q: Why did you decide to make a whiskey?
Ryan: We love whiskey. The whole reason we started was to make this stuff. Granted, everything else we make is really good. But people have said our vodka kind of tastes like corn whiskey.
Q: What sets Sutherland apart from other whiskey distilleries?
Barry: We do things from scratch. We take grain in, and a bottle goes out. So many distillers buy alcohol and then they restill it, and they call it theirs. As long as there’s full transparency, that’s fine, but that’s not the way we do it.
And we’re fully self-funded. We were going to get a big loan and do a big distillery, and then we realized we wouldn’t be able to do this the way we wanted to and focus on quality. It’s going to be a while before we make a return on it, but at least we’re happy with what we’re doing.
Q: How do you introduce people who are familiar with your Diablo’s Shadow Vodka to your whiskey?
Barry: I would like them to try it on its own so they really know what the product tastes like, but if they want a Manhattan, that’s fine. As long as they’re enjoying it.
Q: What’s next?
Larimer: We’re building out our tasting room and looking for its opening to coincide with the release of our rye. In 2016, we expect to be open weekly, with regular hours for drop-ins—no appointments necessary.
Barry: We also really want to work something in with Livermore. Get a used barrel from, say, Wente [Vineyards], get Altamont [Beer Works] to make us some beer, and then distill that beer and age it. Have a brewery, winery, and distillery making one product that’s got everyone’s name on it.
Q: Any trends you’ve seen in whiskey?
Ryan: The consumer wants to know where it’s made and how it’s made. We call it soil to spirit. People are becoming more and more educated about their drinking. And that’s perfect for us because that’s what we’re about.
Old Fashioned Old Fashion from Moresi's Chophouse
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
2 ounces Bulleit bourbon
Bourbon-infused cherry (see recipe below)
Lay a cocktail napkin over a rocks glass. Place a sugar cube atop the napkin and douse the sugar cube with two dashes Angostura bitters and two dashes Regan's orange bitters. Then, plunk the fully saturated sugar cube into the rocks glass. Add a healthy swath of orange zest, a small dash of water, and then muddle. Add two ounces of Bulleit bourbon, ice, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add one of our house-made bourbon-infused cherries, and serve.
½ c water
½ c granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon (pith removed)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 pinch nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup bourbon whiskey
1 pound dark, sweet cherries (pitted)
In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, lemon zest, and cinnamon sticks. Bring to a boil.
Once at a rolling boil, reduce heat. Add bourbon and cherries. Bring back to a boil. Once at a rolling boil, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Then, cover and let infuse overnight. Strain out the lemon zest and cinnamon sticks. Can the cherries in the remaining syrup, and refrigerate.
NOTE: If cherries are out of season, frozen cherries are fine. They retain their body better than canned which tend to get flimsy at boil.
Velvet Jacket (made with St. George Spirits’ Single Malt Whiskey)
From Ryan Murff, Café Rouge
2 ¼ oz St. George Single Malt Whiskey
½ oz Creole Shrubb
½ oz Velvet Falernum
heavy dash Angostura bitters
spray Talisker 10 year
Stir first four ingredients with ice, then strain into a martini glass. Spray surface of cocktail with a mist of Talisker. Flame an orange peel to coat surface of the cocktail, garnish with peel.
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