Meet the Distillers Who Changed the Narrative Around Flavored Whiskey
With their premium pineapple, chocolate and banana whiskeys, Colorado's Whiskeysmith is the latest outfit to embrace a growing category
Are we finally ready to accept flavored whiskies? We’re not talking about whiskies that spent time maturing in different casks. That’s obviously an accepted practice. And we’re not talking about Fireball or everyday honey whiskies. We mean infused whiskies that can stand on their own as a spirit or work as a base in a cocktail without tasting artificial or losing the, ahem, spirit of their spirit.
Whiskeysmith is a promising newcomer to the category. Falling under the umbrella of Colorado’s Old Elk Distillery — which itself has some bold ideas on wheated whiskies — the brand launched with three initial expressions last fall: chocolate, banana and pineapple.
Besides positioning itself as an premium entry in a category that lacks much of an upper echelon, Whiskeysmith also plays to the idea that you can drink its tipples on the rocks like a ready-made cocktail or use it in a mixed drink … replacing either your regular whiskey or even utilizing it for a new take on, say, a rum-based tiki drink. Or even just with tonic.
“The flavored whiskey category can be broken down into a few different avenues for consumption: a shot, a cocktail, over ice, neat or with an added garnish,” explains Whiskeysmith’s Beverage Director Melinda Maddox. “Flavored whiskeys have staying power in the U.S. market because of the shot occasion. We’re expanding this by shifting into the mixology space and educating consumers on what these flavored spirits can do in cocktails.”
Maddox doesn’t discount still using Whiskeysmith in a flavored shot, however. And she recognizes the uphill battle the brand faces. “There’s always been a stigma around flavored whiskeys in general,” she adds. “But over the last few years, we’ve noticed that there’s a shift in consumers’ palates. In addition to that shift, COVID-19 has pushed many people to learn how to create their favorite cocktails at home. [These] flavored whiskies can help bring mixology to their at-home bars.”
In particular, she suggests testing out the pineapple and banana expressions as substitutes for rum in classic tiki drinks, or using the chocolate expression to craft a chocolate negroni (“to bring out the bitter and sweet profiles”) or dessert-themed cocktail.
Some drinks experts see potential in flavored whiskey, even if it’s serving more as a gateway spirit. “Whiskey is already considered such a high-society spirit that when you add anything to it, it instantly loses its value and appeal in a lot of people’s mind,” admits Nate Gana, a longtime whiskey writer, San Francisco World Spirits Competition judge and popular Instagrammer (@singlemlatdaily). “But this category has only unlimited growth potential.”
He notes that Brown Sugar Bourbon — his preferred favorite flavored whiskey — was purchased a few years back by a group led by Mark Cuban and has been incorporated into sports arenas, where BSB bars “are attracting non-whiskey drinkers.” (And, literally as we were writing this piece, the brand has now been purchased by Jamie Foxx and will re-introduced to the market.)
So maybe we’re still not ready to place flavored whiskey in a premium space. But that’s ok — it’ll serve nicely as the center of my Cocoa Woah Old Fashioned.
Below, six flavored whiskies that might make you rethink the category (in a good way).
While a whiskey brand that readily admits to working with flavorists isn’t going to capture the minds of the spirits world elites, I believe the team at Whiskeysmith accomplished their goals. I tried all three bottles — they’re good on their own and they certainly don’t taste artificial. There’s a nice balance between “booze” and flavor here, though I would say they seem more ideal as part of a cocktail (at 30% ABV, they’re not going to overpower you, either). And somehow, pineapple whiskey works.
A much higher-proof variation of the aforementioned Brown Sugar Bourbon, this one cuts down on the sweetness and provides a strong base for your cocktails (along with hints of brown sugar and cinnamon).
The 2020 SFWSC winner for Best Flavored Whiskey tempers the spicy kick of rye (made with NY State grains) with raw wildflower honey from the Catskill Mountains.
A creative NY brewery brings their flavor wizardry to whiskey. It’s a fall release, but by then we will unironically embrace any hooch that features “rich aromas of pie spice, buttery cream, and pie crust” … plus, we will totally drink a Pumtini or Pumking Cream Shooter, awful names aside.
Several brands offer maple takes on their whiskey, but we’ll give the nod here to this 90-proof release, which offers smoked hickory and vanilla notes.
Almost all whisky on the nose, while the coffee elements only come into play as you sip. The smoothness of Irish whiskey works well with the rounded flavors of the roasted Arabica beans, and you’re left with a surprisingly dark chocolate note. Not robust but overall well balanced, and obviously great in an Irish Coffee (it also worked exceptionally well when our house tried it as a base for a homemade take on Bailey’s).
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