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IT’S SAFE TO say we’ve entered an era of peak whiskey. Brown liquor’s getting more love at the bar—and not just in the form of a burning shot after a bad breakup. For the finer bullet points of this sweet, barreled spirit, we checked in with six men who’ve made whiskey sips part of their payroll.

Age isn’t everything

“A lot of bar owners tell me about customers who come in and ask for the oldest whiskey on the bar. Just because a spirit might be very old doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be better than its younger counterpart. Some spirits actually lose their character if they are over aged, and they can tend to converge into all tasting like wood, whether they are whiskey, rum or tequila. Let your nose and taste buds guide you.”
“It also depends on when you are drinking your whiskey.  Before a meal, it’s good to have something lively whereas something soft and mellow is often more appealing after you have eaten.”

“It is often said that the best drink is the drink in your hand, but it also depends on the time of day and situation in which you are enjoying it.”

James France, founder of premium spirits importing and distribution company Vanguard Luxury Brands.

Price doesn’t always equal quality

“Whiskey doesn’t ‘show price’ the way some wines or foods do. A higher price tag does not always indicate a superior product, just as the cheap stuff isn’t necessarily swill. Bourbon, for example, has become big business; a booming industry with annual global sales numbers that flirt with the $10 billion mark. All this means to us whiskey drinkers is that we need to watch our backs. Do your homework. Know your distillers and the quality of the products they offer. And trust your palate, not your wallet. Nobody wants to be the guy having to pretend that a $65 shot tastes transcendent, while all his drinking buddies know it’s bunk.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland

Try it neat and breathe through your mouth

“If you’re tasting a whiskey for the first time, you have to approach it neat. (The moment you add water or ice the molecules break apart and the flavor changes.) Put the whiskey under your nose, but breathe through your mouth so you get a nice soft airflow. If you go in for a huge whiff you’re going to assault your palette and numb it, and the nuances of the flavor will be lost. When you take a sip, try to hold the liquid in your mouth for 20 to 30 seconds so you can taste the evolution of the spirit before swallowing.”

… But there’s no wrong way to drink it

“I’ve learned not to judge. Everyone likes different types of whiskey and drinks them differently. With water, ice, neat—there is no wrong way to drink a whiskey. I mean, it can be frustrating to talk to a customer for 10-15 minutes about a certain whisky and then they order it with cranberry juice, but hey, it’s their choice.”

Mixing isn’t rocket science

“There are four main types of whiskey to choose from when cocktailing. Bourbon whiskey (51% corn plus malted barley and wheat/rye), rye whiskey (51% rye grain), wheat whiskey (51% wheat grain) and corn whiskey (must contain at least 80% corn grain). When tasting the different types you need to look for the qualities of corn, wheat, barley and rye to distinguish one from the other. You’ll be able to pick up a range of flavors from spice, caramel, and the barrel itself.”

 Ask for a scoot

“Years ago, my dear friend and colleague Ansel Vickery (Free House, Portland) introduced me to the “scoot,” as he coined it, a simple half-pour of any spirit. Drinking this abbreviated version of a full shot made my drinking life better in more ways than I can list here. First off, I got less hammered. Maybe it’s my old age setting in, but I’m starting to think that most bars’ standard pour volumes are gradually increasing toward homicidal. Enjoying big flavor without committing to a big hangover is what I’m all about, and a half-shot keeps things civil. Secondly, sipping less whiskey per drink means I can try a few different bottles before I get pie-eyed. Just like comparing wine varietals or vintages side-by-side, tasting small amounts of whiskey helps in understanding the nuances and subtleties of one versus another. Not all bars will grant you this luxury, but any bartender worth his salt should be happy to sell you a measured scoot.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland

Don’t get stuck on one

“The more I work with whiskey, the more I learn to revel in its sheer variety. There are a few bottles that I return to again and again, but only a few. Mostly I enjoy drinking something interesting, deep, unique, sometimes even a little strange. I definitely don’t believe there’s such as thing as the best whiskey—the happy truth is that there are so many beautiful whiskies, and that they’re so different from one another.”

-Dan Smith, bartender, general manager at Queen Mary Tavern in Chicago

 Think beyond the Old Fashioned

“A well-made Old Fashioned or Manhattan works wonders to showcase whiskey’s elegant simplicity, but dig a little deeper and familiarize yourself with equally badass drinks like the Brooklyn, Lion’s Tail, Toronto, Brown Derby, American Trilogy, and Tipperary. Whiskey loves to open up and expose hidden complexities, and cocktails are an efficient means to that end.”

-Beau Burtnick, bar manager at SuperBite and Kask in Portland

Have you ever tried Michter’s?

US*1 Straight Rye

Renowned for rye – America’s oldest whiskey variety – since the earliest days of our history, they take the production of Michter’s US1 Rye extremely seriously. The Michter’s US1 Rye is made from select American rye grain that is sheared to maximize the extraction of flavour from the grain. Ideal neat or in cocktails, every bottle of Michter’s US1 Rye comes from a single barrel – a unique attribute reflecting our extraordinary commitment to offering rye whiskey of the absolute highest quality at every level of the Michter’s range. Available at Dan Murphy’s or online at www.nicks.com.au