Whiskey Class with Ryan Rouse

In college we knew this guy who was always trying and failing to organize a fundraiser around drinking.

He clearly never talked to Cathy Clark, who runs Live It Big, a charity dedicated to helping small nonprofits get off the ground. Many of Clark's "camps" educate attendees about spirits or beer, with the most recent focusing on whiskey.

Led by Ryan Rouse last Saturday at Branch Water Tavern, the event featured four cocktails, five whiskey samples and plenty of engaging information.

Though still recovering his voice from a jaunt to New Orleans, Rouse covered the basics of whiskey's history and production. It was all interesting stuff, but the accompanying packet he printed was 10 pages, single-spaced, so we won't rehash it all.

Most notable in our minds was that, arguably, the United States could be considered the birthplace of modern whiskey. Blasphemy? Well, the spirit was first aged in barrels while being shipped to the New World, and distillers believe the barrels make up 70 percent of a whiskey 's flavor. Sounds plausible.

Also, American charred oak barrels, after aging domestic whiskeys for four years, often are used to age rum and even some Scotch whiskeys, Rouse said.

But on to the tasting.

Rouse's advice was to use the first sip as a rinse for the mouth. With the second, hold the spirit on the middle of your tongue and let it spread. Search for flavors. Repeat.

First, the cocktails:

Whiskey Smash

1/2 lemon 3/4 ounces simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, dissolved) 2 ounces bourbon or rye 5 mint leaves

Muddle the lemon and simple syrup in a mixing glass, add the spirit and mint leaves, and fill the glass with ice. Shake it well and strain into a Collins glass filled with ice.

This one was light and refreshing, heavy on the citrus but with a fun finish thanks to the booze. Rouse advised using this formula for experimentation. Swap the mint for another herb. Swap the lemon for another citrus. Swap the rye whiskey for another spirit, and a new (and likely tasty) cocktail results.

Sazerac Cocktail

2 ounces rye or cognac ½ ounce or less simple syrup 4 to 5 dashes Peychaud's bitters

Rinse a cocktail glass with absinthe or herbsaint. In a separate mixing glass, combine the spirit and syrup and stir to combine. Strain the mixture into the absinthe-rinsed glass, drop 4-5 dashes of Peychaud's on top and garnish with a lemon peel.

The base spirit is important here because it has nowhere to hide, Rouse said. The drink, which struck us initially as medicinal (which it historically was), serves to soften the whiskey just enough to open up its more mellow flavors. We found some vanilla in there.


2 ounces rye whiskey 1 ounce sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica or Vya, Rouse suggests) 2-3 dashes bitters of your choice

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry or citrus peel.

We enjoyed this quite a bit. If the first drink was dominated by citrus and the second by sweetness, this one was the definition of balance. Fun to drink.

Old Fashioned

2 ounces rye whiskey 1/2 ounce simple syrup 2-3 dashes bitters (Rouse used Fee Brothers)

Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish with an orange peel.

We remember liking this one but our palate was exhausted by that point, so details are, um, fuzzy.

Rouse had arranged the following samples at each seat:

1. George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash: Hot, peppery, but also some vanilla. It was harsh, and harshness didn't reveal many new flavors for us as it faded. 2. Elmer T. Lee Bourbon: Mellow, balanced. It finished slowly, many flavors emerging as it did so, among them cinnamon. 3. Crown Royal Blended Canadian Whiskey: The most widely sold spirit in the country, Rouse said. In comparison to the others there's just nothing there. Uninteresting. 4. Sazerac Rye 6-year-old Straight Rye: Sweet at first; "floral," said one neighbor; cinnamon, peppermint; finishes long. 5. Rittenhouse Rye 100 Bonded: By this point our palate was shot, but it finished very warm; not hot, just warm.

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Mike Morris
Contact: Mike Morris