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Living in a Spirited Age

A new era of barrel-aged whiskey and rum is emerging. Put these mellowed liquors on your palate and feel the flavor kick in.

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They're the colors of fall; honey, teak, amber, chestnut, caramel, ocher, bronze, praline, mahogany. They express the fall, too, warming you against sharp hints of winter, glowing inside with refracted fire, inducing the autumnal mood, mellow and meditative. They're whiskeys from Scotland and Ireland, bourbon from Kentucky and Tennessee, brandies of every hue: ethereal cognac, fiery marc, stately Calvados, and, last though far from least, that lowly but glorious liquor rum, mainstay of colonial America and of the buccaneers.

These are no downtown party animals. They're the most ancient and noble of drinks. Unless you have a total McPalate, you drink this stuff by and for itself, perhaps with a little ice or water, but nothing more. Yet for all the tradition and maturity they embody, a quiet revolution has been working its way through the spirits world; they're being upgraded and refined, aged and distilled with greater respect, returned to their original purity, their roots, their essential nature.

The wine-and-spirits trade used to call them "brown goods," a creepy designation that's probably a hangover from Prohibition. Before Prohibition, other than the milky stuff called moonshine, Americans drank little of the other category of spirits, known by the marginally more appetizing term "white goods" (gin, vodka, tequila, etc.). A hundred years ago, when people drank, they drank whiskey, brandy, rum, or that other brown stuff, beer.

These splendid brown fluids have always struck me as being more like gold, and I've often wondered if they would fare better were they known as "golden goods." Whatever: They've been steadily losing ground over the past half-century. Their robust, assertive characters don't mix easily in the fruit-and-vegetable world of cocktails, at least not the way their white brothers do; plus, they have a distinct air of the old-fashioned. There's an atavistic link between bourbon and cigarettes (unfiltered Luckies at that), which will remain unbroken as long as there are Bogart movies and jazz.

Yet it's now, in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when the chill rises up as the sun sinks over honey-colored trees, that your very soul aches for a deep, rich, heartwarming golden drink.

Alas, there's an excellent chance, unless you happen to be a muzzle-loader-toting Nassau County Republican, that your drinks tray holds nothing to satisfy the urge. So what's a discriminating fall lover with an aching soul to do?

One thing distinguishes golden goods from white, at least in their purer forms. They can be aged. And aged. Like the finest wines, especially those that have been fortified with spirits (port, Madeira, sherry), these are drinks that become richer and lusher, more honeyed and more lingering, the older they get. It's interesting, though, that while we often say so-and-so is like a fine old wine, we never say he or she is like a fine old scotch.

Perhaps we should start. The trend now is to emphasize this special attribute of the darker liquors. And the result is a slew of extraordinary new spirits that are arriving on the market just in time for the season when their charms are best appreciated.

The most surprising category is . . . rum.

Yea, verily, Demon Rum. Not the light stuff that gives summer drinks their lift, but dark, luscious, exotic, pot-still spirits, redolent of the scents and flavors of a tropical night. Nearly all rums come from the Caribbean, whether from its islands or the countries on its littoral. Distilled from molasses (i.e., sugar cane), dark rum is a wonderful cold-weather drink, warm, rich, and complex in flavor. It's the one truly American liquor.

Here are five rums in particular that are reemerging from the shadow of the single malts that inspired them, each very different in style:

Myers's Legend, from Jamaica. Officially an "old-style Navy rum" (not a description I find especially mouth-watering), this is one of the more amazing liquors I've come across in years. As dark red as blackstrap molasses, it's knee-deep in fruit and island spice, with an intriguing touch of funk in back, probably from ten years aging in oak ($40).

Gran Bláson, from Costa Rica. The most elegant, with an aromatic, caramelly nose and a subtlety on the palate like a smoother, fruitier Armagnac. Long, ethereal finish ($35).

Diplomático, from Venezuela, is more delicate, with a young cognaclike nose and a light creamy-vanilla character in the mouth ($30).

R.L. Seale's, from Barbados, is the subtlest, with hints of almonds and walnuts in the nose and the same creamy-vanilla taste in the mouth ($45).

Pyrat XO Reserve is from Anguilla. The most exotic of all, deep-amber Pyrat XO contains some 30-to-40-year-old rums and bursts with fruit and spice and mystery. A hint of Grand Marnier comes from who-knows-where, but it's sublime ($50).

Dark rums can be drunk straight, with ice or cool water (bottled, not tap, including ice). They're yummy as a toddy or hot and buttered and sinful over ice cream.

The one exception to the decline of poor old brown goods has been single-malt scotch whiskeys. (A single malt is a whiskey produced in a single distillery.) Single malts (which have always provided the flavor in blended scotch) began to turn to gold in the late eighties, when they emerged as drinks in their own right.

Until fairly recently, single malts (which are generally kept in barrels previously used for bourbon or sherry) were rarely aged beyond twelve years. The prevailing wisdom was that they became weird and woody after that. Then when it was discovered that the opposite was the case and that the stuff improved with further age, the age point was moved up to eighteen, with professionals insisting that no whiskey could survive longer. Even this is now out the window, as it's being discovered that, as with brandy, the older whiskey gets, the more extraordinary a liquor experience it becomes.

And, of course, more expensive. Some of the whiskeys on the market will make your wallet sweat. Here are five that are well worth the perspiration. Four are from the island of Islay (ay-lah) in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland, where peat is used in the malting process. That gives its whiskeys a smoky tinge; the sea air adds a tantalizing saltiness. Two of the best new departures are from a distillery called Bowmore. To my taste, Bowmore produces the most balanced of all the Scottish single malts, combining the smokiness of Islay with the honeyed creaminess of the mainland. (They make whiskeys of ages varying from 12 to 40 years, and their consistency is extraordinary.)

Bowmore Dusk (Bordeaux Wine Casked). This fourteen-year-old whiskey is finished in red Bordeaux casks, a combo that oughtn't work ("Mix not the grain and the grape, my son," my Irish pastor used to say). But it does. The red wine brings a new dimension to the fruitiness of Bowmore's usual full nose. The whiskey has a rose tint on top of the usual amber and a layer of cognac-like richness ($75). There is now also Bowmore Voyage, finished in port barrels, which is even richer and deeper and darker. An amazing quaff ($105).

Bowmore 1957 is the jewel in Bowmore's crown. The '57 exhibits awesome versions of the trademark Bowmore peat and honey in the nose and mouth, but its most startling quality is the length of its finish, which goes on and on, lazily lap-dissolving between vanilla cream and smoke and salt for literally minutes. (I actually timed it at three minutes fifteen seconds.) Pour it 30 minutes or so before sampling to let its flavors emerge. Keep the samples safe, though: This stuff runs about $2,300 a bottle.

Laphroaig 30 Year Old. Laphroaig is my other longtime Islay favorite. Its whiskeys are bolder and more Islay-ish than Bowmore's, eschewing the creamy charms of the mainland entirely and making no bones about that glorious salty, peaty smokiness. In this, its oldest whiskey, the Islay-ness has calmed down to become one element in an array of fruity, nutty flavors I can only call ancient, the kind of associations you get from very old sherry or Madeira: the corners of medieval churches, the smell of a hedge after rain. The quintessential autumnal drink; if you drink nothing else, toast the fall foliage with this beauty ($240).

Balvenie 25-Year-Old. Balvenie is a mainland distillery (near Dufftown) and one of its finest expressions: a flowery, elegant, creamy nose with hints of heather honey, a deep, rich mouth bursting with subtle fruits and nuts that triggers festive and nostalgic associations. Laphroaig feels like something I'd drink on a moor; Balvenie belongs in a candlelit room with a glowing, hardwood fire. Worth waiting for the arrival of its limited run later this fall ($200).Yea, verily, Demon Rum. Not the light stuff that gives summer drinks their lift but dark, luscious, exotic, pot-still spirits.


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