Bring Out the Flavor, Reduce the Burn
By Chuck Sudo in Food on Apr 16, 2007 4:24PM
Tom T. Hall, in his classic song "I Like Beer," sang that one of the reasons he likes it is that "whiskey's too rough" and "vodka puts (his) mouth in gear." We completely grok the argument. One of the most common complaints among drinkers who can't or won't drink hard liquor straight is that it tastes like burning. But you don't need to scorch your vocal cords and wind up sounding like Jack Klugman to prove that you can hang with other spirits.
It isn't a sin to add something to "cut", or dilute, the alcohol content. There's a reason mixed cocktails like vodka cranberry, gin and tonic, and whiskey and coke are popular, and it isn't solely because people find them tasty. In addition to diluting the alcohol content, cutting a spirit brings out the flavors that the alcohol burn hides. You'd be amazed at how a splash of still water brings out the flavor of a high octane bourbon like Booker's (127 proof), a fiery rye like Anchor Distilling's Old Potrero 18th Century-Style Straight Rye (125.1 proof), or serious single malt like Jeff Topping's Wild Scotsman line or John MacDougall's 15-year-old single-cask single malt (111.6 proof), a selection that numbed our gums when we sampled it straight at WhiskyFest last week. Cutting gives you a better idea of the flavors lurking beneath a whiskey's alcohol content. Some distilleries have their own recommendations, like adding a cube of ice and letting it slowly melt into the spirit, but the effect is the same. Higher proof whiskies particularly handle ice well.
For clear spirits like vodka and especially gin, it's best to use mineral water for cutting. Mineral water brings out the flavor of the botanicals in gins (especially those citrus-based additives) and, in flavored vodkas, works as a barometer for determining the type of flavor added. If the flavor mutes dramatically, chances are that your flavored vodka of choice is using artificial flavoring. The only flavored vodkas we've seen hold up to mineral water or seltzer cuts are the Hangar One flavors, which we've written about previously. Mineral water will also brighten the grapes used in distilling Ciroc vodka or the slight malty flavor of Canadian winter wheat used in Pearl Vodka.
For flavored cuts, we recommend ginger ale for whiskies. The sharp, bright spice of ginger complements the dark sugars and fruit flavors whiskies acquire from their casks during aging. Tonic and gin are two great tastes that go great together, but we like our gin and tonics served short. Just a splash of tonic is all you really need to enhance the stringent botanical elements used in distilling, like caraway, cardamom, licorice, and the ever-present juniper berry.