If you grew up exploring your parent's liquor cabinet in high school or were a broke college student experimenting with the effects of caffeine and cheap liquor during finals, you're probably familiar with that most American of dive bar classics, Jack and Coke. One part Jack Daniels in a glass filled to the brim with ice, one part Coca-Cola to cover the taste of the spirit — a syrupy sweet mixture that was, for most of us, our bastardized introduction to whiskey and bourbon. It's a shame, really: This cocktail (if one can call it that) is how many are lost to the loveliness of brown liquor. American whiskey and bourbon pack a tremendous punch to those unfamiliar with what high proof liquor can do to the body — not to mention your head the next morning if you're not careful. That right there is enough to turn anyone off learning to drink whiskey. Did I mention Jack and Coke is super sweet, and while the natural sugars of whiskey pair well with Coke, this "cocktail" is not that delicious to sip? Would it make a difference if you mixed this drink with a top-shelfer like George T. Stagg Straight and housemade cola? Perhaps. But then this would be an entirely different cocktail.
A high-quality whiskey is meant to be sipped and savored, unsullied by sugars (other than its own) or mixed with foreign additives. The diversity in flavor profiles, aging process, and finishing means no two whiskies are alike. If you're drinking your brown spirits neat, you're in it for the subtle nuances. But as I sat on my porch this past weekend savoring a pour of "The Colonel" (E.H.Taylor Single Barrel, $60-$70) I began to question the "purist" theory. Is it totally insane to make the booze-forward vieux carre using Sazerac Straight Rye 18 year, a bottle which can cost a couple of Benjamins depending on the vintage? And for the price, would you want to? Some of my favorite cocktails include a classically built old fashioned using a mid-shelfer like Blanton's or a fabulously concocted manhattan with the reliable Rittenhouse. Both bottles run between $25-$35. Both are generally accepted as great cocktail whiskies.
So, why aren't professional drink slingers mixing Pappy 23 into an old fashioned or stirring Black Hill Maple 23 into the boozy boulevardier?
Ian Cox, USBG Atlanta president/in-house mixologist for National Distributing Company
"It's not that you are necessarily wrong in using a top-end, $100 bottle of something in your cocktail. I've had a sazerac made with Sazerac 18 year. However, those spirits are designed to be enjoyed straight — to be sipped and appreciated. On the flip side, there are a number of $15-$20 bottles that I enjoy a neat pour of, as well. In the end, look at it from a cost perspective. Is that $85 bottle of whiskey going to make a killer manhattan? Absolutely! But that $20 bottle, if made correctly, is still going to make — maybe not as great — a really good manhattan. As long as your bartender is making the cocktail properly, there just isn't a need for a higher-end spirit ... unless you just want it, like my sazerac."
Jerry Slater, owner/veteran mix master at H. Harper Station
"I don't know if I am the best supporting opinion against using 'top shelf' in cocktails, as I am a repeat offender of using high-end whiskey in cocktails. I guess it is a matter of defining your top shelf; the low end at my bar is Old Forester, but I consider it a really good whiskey; albeit inexpensive. It is my house old fashioned whiskey.
"When it comes to making cocktails, rather than thinking about it as high-end versus low-end, think about it as appropriate or inappropriate. I just think of each whiskey as a different flavor profile, and which serves my purpose best. For example, I have a popular cocktail on the list at H. Harper Station that uses Booker's Bourbon, which retails for over $50 a bottle; but its high proof and intensity is necessary to balance that particular cocktail."
Miles Macquarrie, partner/chief barkeep at Kimball House
"So I must confess, I like expensive whiskey in cocktails. I don't think it's necessary most of the time, but you can't polish a turd. The nicer the ingredient in the drink, the better the drink will be. My favorite rye for cocktails at the moment is Russell's Reserve 6 year. This is very good on its own and it's great in drinks. Would I make cocktails with Elijah Craig 18 year? Probably not. However, I would, and certainly do make drinks with Elijah Craig 12 year — now called small batch, as they are probably blending younger whiskey in.
"I'm not trying to be brand specific here, and we do not list brands on the cocktail menu at Kimball House, but consumers should realize their drink was made with a spirit that is best for the drink they ordered, not because it is the cheapest. In my opinion, some of the inexpensive whiskies that sit at 80 proof, such as Old Overholt, just do not work in cocktails. Cheap whiskies are fine for shooting, if you are just trying to get drunk for as little money as possible — but if that's what you're looking for, why are you drinking craft cocktails?"
Julian Goglia, partner/beverage director at The Pinewood Tippling Room; partner at Proof Syrup
"Often times the difference between a $30 and $150 bottle of whiskey boils down to very subtle nuances, the hard costs, and time of aging. Adding strong modifiers to expensive bottling isn't the end of the world, but it usually doesn't make a ton of sense. Most people would be surprised to know that Old Weller comes off the same stills as the ever so popular Pappy Van Winkle line. The bottom-shelf hero Old Charter is a younger version of the extremely hard to find Stagg whiskies. If you love a certain rare or allocated bourbon or rye, look up its younger brother — Google 'bourbon family tree' — and try picking up a bottle to mix with."
What have we learned here? Price, personal taste, and appropriateness with other ingredients are what stand between the top shelf and a cocktail. In other words, nothing is stopping you from ordering a whiskey-forward manhattan with that crazy expensive rye way up yonder. Let's just hope your bartender understands that particular whiskey's flavor profile and how it interacts with the secondary ingredients used in the cocktail, or you may end up with a $20 glass of really expensive craft swill.
I'll leave you with these wise words to ponder from The Pinewood's Julian Goglia: "At the end of the day, if drinking any whiskey any particular way makes you happy, then you're doing it right."
And that, my friends, is really all that matters.
— Eater Atlanta contributor Beth McKibben