Good whiskey is simple – grains, an oak barrel, maybe a little peat thrown into the mix for some Scottish flair. The formula is largely unquestioned and distillers deviate from it at their own peril. And why would they? Whiskey has been sacrosanct for hundreds of years, filling the tumblers of commoners and kings alike. So with legions of whiskey fans stand ready to defend the purity of this delicious brown elixir, ever vigilant against adulteration and breaks from tradition, why are so many distillers adding flavors to whiskey now?
There are two answers. The more cynical, of course, is money. Whiskey can be an acquired taste, so adding additional flavors, especially sweeter notes like cherries or honey, can make it a bit easier for the uninitiated to develop a taste for it. Call it the gateway drug theory. The other answer is that distillers are a twisted group who aren't ever satisfied with the status quo and will always be tinkering to find tasty new twists on classics.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but whatever the reason, the last few years have seen flavored whiskies start hitting liquor store shelves in a big way. Granted, there's still not the insane variety that one sees in vodka, but since vodka has a relatively neutral flavor, nearly anything can be mixed into it. Try adding some bizarre combination of berries or tea to whiskey and it quickly becomes apparent that the distiller in question doesn't have the first clue what they're doing. Since adding anything to whiskey apart from a little water is blasphemy in many circles, these enterprising souls need to be incredibly careful and offer the respect the liquor deserves in order to escape the worst of the slings and arrows and emerge unscathed with a tasty bottle in hand.
With that in mind, below are a few bottles from distillers willing to brave the angry mobs and add a little extra flavor to their barrels. Try not to be too hard on them.
Red Stag by Jim Beam – If whiskey inspires devotion, bourbon inspires obsession. So for Jim Beam, the grandpappy of all things bourbon, to take perfectly good bourbon and infuse it with black cherry takes chutzpah. For that, we salute them, especially given the intense online arguments Red Stag inspired about whether it can even call itself bourbon. In the end, only one thing matters: How does it taste? Red Stag manages to maintain a solid lug of bourbon flavor, especially the characteristic caramel-coated warmth you get on the back of every swallow. However, where it loses out is when it's served straight up. While it has a nice complex black cherry flavor, sugary sweetness is front and center. On ice, the flavor is tamed and restrained making it a decent choice after dinner, but where it shines is as a mixer. With a little tweaking, most whiskey-based cocktails get a nice refresh with the addition of Red Stag. But most true sons of the South would rather move to New York City and spend summers in the Hamptons than admit this stuff has any potential.
Leopold Bros. Rocky Mountain Peach Whiskey – Leopold Bros. makes several flavored whiskies using small-batches of artisanal whiskey as the base. In this case the distiller adds real Rocky Mountain-grown peaches and seals it all inside used bourbon barrels to allow the fuit to oxidize and release its flavor into the liquid. The result is surprisingly complex, with an undercurrent of incredibly peachiness that pairs surprisingly well with the spice and warmth of the whiskey. It works impressively well to lighten the alcohol and make it more suited for summer. You probably won't sip it straight out on a patio on a hot summer day, but there are worse ways to spend a languid summer night than drinking it down in a whiskey smash or as a twist on a mint julep.
Bird Dog Blackberry Whiskey – A fairly new entry to the flavored whiskey hunt, Bird Dog actually won a Gold Medal at the 2010 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco. Bird Dog maintains a nice whiskey bite, with a heavy dose of black pepper on the finish, but smooths the whole thing out with tangy blackberries. The berry flavor is nicely understated and the bottle doesn't have the same syrupy feel that some infused whiskeys can exhibit. Tasty on ice, but as with the others it shines best when mixed into some traditional whiskey cocktails. It makes for an especially intriguing Manhattan, but whether it can beat the traditional rye in the mix is likely to be a matter of much debate and possibly duels with pistols at dawn.
Ole Smoky Distillery Apple Pie Moonshine – It's not technically whiskey yet, since there's no barrel aging going on, but given how popular white dog has become over the past year this one is sure to be controversial as well. Bottled in a mason jar, Ole Smoky is 80 percent corn, so it was well on its way to growing up to become bourbon when it was sideswiped by Johnny Appleseed. The result is bizarrely delicious. Sure it sounds like a train wreck and it's only 40 proof – blasphemy in the moonshine world – but it's like desert in a glass. All the flavors of a perfect apple pie are here and it goes down far too easily on ice. Combined with ginger ale, a tall glass and a hammock you have the makings of a perfect summer afternoon.
Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey Liqueur – Technically honey liqueur combined with whiskey, rather than whiskey with added flavors, Jack is one of the latest entries in what's becoming a crowded marketplace of honey & whiskey liqueurs. Luckily for the Jack Daniels pedigree, it's also top of the heap. Most of these bottles are cloying sugary messes with little whiskey character to balance them out. In this case, the venerable whiskey distiller went light on the honey, allowing the warmth, wood and herbal spice of the spirit to shine through. It's smooth and not at all syrupy, but still very obviously not meant to be sipped neat in a glass in front of a roaring fire. It belongs on ice or dropped into a cocktail or punch for something a little different than the norm. Hopefully the angry mobs marching on Lynchburg will take a moment to give it a shot before breaking out the pitchforks and torches.