Whiskey is winter’s drink. Of course, when it comes to the six base spirits (rum, tequila, vodka, gin, brandy and whiskey) there really aren’t any seasonal rules to follow. But if there were, they might look something like this: light spirits like vodka or tequila, which are best mixed with fresh fruit and juices and served ice-cold, were made for the summertime. They’re easy and free, flitting along with the cocktail trends that change year after year. Similarly, the spicy sweetness of rum seems most appropriate when autumn arrives. It’s rich and versatile and I use it just as frequently in my cakes and cookies as I do in cocktails. However, whisky is different and that’s what makes it “winter’s drink.” It is a timeless rule-breaker in an arrogant and cavalier sort of way. It neither flirts with trends nor lends itself well to baking. In other words, whisky doesn’t give a shit. He’s the bold player in the world of drinks who can stand up to whatever winter throws at him, whether alone or mixed in a cocktail. And that, in itself, (and likely much to his chagrin) makes him “trendy.” Like a Rolls Royce or an Hermès scarf, whiskey is a piece from a by-gone era that never goes out of fashion… yet one might wonder if it has ever really been in style in the first place. There’s a reason why George Bernard Shaw called whiskey “liquid sunshine.” When the sun sets too early and a cold draft seeps underneath the door, I seek out the heat and sunshine that lives in a sip of whisky. Give me a glass of whiskey on a cold, snowy night, with a roaring fire on the hearth and a woolen blanket around my shoulders, and I’m set until next spring. I think many would agree that despite (or because of) whiskey’s arrogant charm, he is the most comforting of spirits.
I grew up, the child of an author. And like Shaw, Faulkner or Twain, my father could often be found in the library after dinner with his pipe, a dram of Glenlivet and Debussy on the turntable. I remember evenings when my brother and I would run into the library, dressed in our pajamas, to kiss him goodnight and he would secretly let us have a tiny taste of his Scotch. It was a very small sip, mind you, but it left a huge impression. Even so, I still feel like very much of a novice when it comes to whiskey. I’ve tasted dozens over the years: some that I absolutely love, and some that are just mediocre, some that are great for mixing but too sweet to drink on their own and others that I prefer to drink with just a splash of water to open up the flavors. But the number of whiskeys I have tried are vastly outnumbered by the ones I haven’t – and that’s what I love about this spirit: there are as many different varieties, from just as many different parts of the word, as there are snowflakes in the sky. To try them all would take a lifetime. And that would, indeed, be a lifetime well-lived. Personally, I prefer to drink whiskey on the rocks, with just one ice cube, as the ice opens up the flavour of the whiskey as it melts. I remove the cube when the whiskey is chilled and open to my liking. But I do love a whiskey cocktail now and then, too, and for this I like to use a high quality bourbon, as it’s sweeter than Irish whiskey or Scotch.
An aside: Our house is always decorated with bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables and things foraged from the garden. Not only are they beautiful in their simplicity, but they’re always changing, always fresh, depending on the season, the day of the week and what I happen to find in the market. I call it our evolving kitchen table still life. This past Friday’s cocktail was inspired by that still life. An antique crystal bowl was overflowing with clementines and behind it was a small vase containing a few sprigs of herbs leftover from Thanksgiving – sage and thyme from my garden and rosemary which my mother brought from hers. The kids love to have clementines in the winter and they’ll eat several in one sitting so I buy loads of them by the crate whenever I can find them. I think they are so beautiful, warm and sunny in a big bowl on the table. Kind of like whiskey, and of course, they make a good Whiskey Sour, too.
To make the cocktail, first make a rosemary simple syrup with brown sugar. It can be made in a large batch on the stove, or if you need only enough for one cocktail, you can do what I do and make a very small amount in the microwave. Simply mix 1.5 tablespoons of brown sugar with 2 tablespoons of water and a small sprig of rosemary in a microwave safe bowl and cook on high until the mixture begins to boil. In my microwave this is 30 – 40 seconds. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and then allow to cool to room temperature before using.
Clementine Bourbon Sour
makes 1 drink
1 oz. fresh squeezed clementine juice (about 2 clementines)
1/2 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz. rosemary-brown sugar syrup (see recipe below)
2 oz. Maker’s Mark bourbon
rosemary sprig (garnish)
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice add the juices, syrup and bourbon. Shake until very cold. Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.
Rosemary-Brown Sugar Simple Syrup
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup water
1 sprig of rosemary
Heat the sugar, rosemary and water together in a small sauce pan until they begin to boil. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to steep until cooled to room temperature. Remove the rosemary and any leaves that may have come off in the syrup. Pour the syrup into a glass bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.