Whiskey isn’t just the water of life

A civilized drink
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 6, 2013

SIP THE BULLEIT The trendiest whiskey of the moment is an assertive one with many layers of flavor.

Vodka is supposed to taste like nothing and gin is supposed to taste like something (juniper). But whiskey can taste like anything — that is the source of its appeal. Whiskey's endless combinations of sweet and heat, smoke and spice, grain and earth, and its shades of brown and tan, lend themselves to the sort of connoisseurial alcohol dependency more often associated with wine drinkers. The only thing the countless varieties of whiskey have in common is the use of some malted barley or rye (and even that rule gets bent). Barley and rye are grains so appealing, so nutritious, so hearty, so easily grown and stored, that anthropologists suggest they were responsible for the Eurasian transition from hunter-gather societies to settled cultivation. Whiskey, in other words, is the liquor of civilization.

But our grasp on civilized adulthood is always tenuous, and the unconquered strong emotions underneath are both frightening and tempting. Whether you are seeking a mellow pastime or are working your way up to some uncivilized behavior, start by trying out a new whiskey, straight.

You could do far worse than bellying up to the bar at Bull Feeney's, which takes particular pride (devoted or obsessive? you decide) in the size of its selection, especially single-malts — ask for Jeff or Andy. There are limits, though: Every Maine bar is stuck with the state-approved list offered by the monopolistic Maine Beverage Company. So while new smoky American single malts are winning international competitions, you won't find them here yet.

What you will find is several bourbons from Bulleit, which bartenders tell me have the most cachet right now. It helps that the flat bottle is so handsome. Bulleit uses a good bit of rye even in its straight bourbon. It's assertive, with a bite of heat and spice from the rye, plenty of sweetness, and a hint of smoke.

Perhaps because its assertiveness stands up to mixing, Bulleit bourbon and rye whiskey show up in many Portland bars' specialty drinks. In the Wally Hardbanger at Sonny's, its spice shines through the anise of Galliano and the sour of lemon. In a hot toddy at Figa (now hosting special events like last weekend's art bar), the Bulleit mellowed as it blended with honey and the expert mix of clove and cinnamon created by Figa's neighbor, Home Grown Tea. It's a great winter drink.

Four Roses bourbon makes for smoother sipping. The alcohol burn is less aggressive, and you can taste vanilla along with some grass and grain. Buffalo Trace is somewhere in the middle between the smooth Four Roses and aggressive Bulleit — with more flavors of fruit and more notes of sour.

A few distilleries here in Maine are working on their own whiskey right now. I visited Portland's New England Distillers to sample theirs, still aging away in oak barrels. It's a great-looking operation, with an elegant copper still and several copper thumpers. Ned Wight, the distiller, seemed very civilized as he explained the nuances of rye whiskey, especially the expert sniffing that allows him to separate the desirable "heart" of the liquor from the unwanted "head" and "tail" as it leaves the condenser. We sampled the young whisky and tasted promising notes of sweet and spice.

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