Reading and reviewing Dave Broom’s latest book, Whisky: The Manual was a life-changing experience for me.
I am a drinker of single malt unmolested. But after I was “given permission” by Guru Broom to take my whisky in mixed drinks, I broadened my horizons and been made richer as a consequence.
I have enjoyed experimenting with the five main mixers that he sampled with the 202 whiskies mentioned in the book. And I tried each with a number of whiskies, including some that were not featured.
The blend Great King St., which is light, oaky and bourbony, tastes so much like a low-sugar American Cream Soda when mixed with club soda I could barely believe it. And when I looked it up in Broom’s book, he made the same comparison. Otherwise we sometimes differed in our preferences, even if we typically have similar tastes.
For instance, he scored Johnnie Walker Black Label with a high 5 for coconut water, but scored the Red Label as only a 2. I found that Red Label, when left to marry with the coconut water and melting ice, turns into a liquid form of a Brach’s caramel candy. And it might make them a lot of money if they bottled it as a liqueur along the lines of Bailey’s Irish Cream. But I also liked the Black Label in coconut water a great deal too.
Of the whiskies included in my tastings not sampled by Broom, the three most significant were Buchanan’s, Campbeltown Loch, and Bank Note, all of them blended scotch.
Buchanan’s is one of the old original scotch brands, just like Walker, Dewar’s, and Chivas. It is the most popular brand of whisky in Mexico, and it is finally making some headway the U.S. even if many parts of the country never see it. Generally speaking, it’s rather light and grainy, but the malt whisky contribution has a very nice balance of sherry, wood, spice, herbals, and notes of peat smoke, but by no means is it as outwardly smoky as White Horse or Teacher’s Highland Cream. Everything but the grain seems to be about hints and essence when it comes to flavoring. Still, I consider it a blend of quality and not the scotch flavored swill of some brands riding on an old name, but putting out corporate-excreted well scotch.
Just like on the rocks, the 12 year old expression was mildly pleasant in all of the mixers, with ginger ale and soda topping the list. But the richer 18 year old expression makes what may be my favorite ginger ale highball of any blended whisky. Using Broom’s scale I give it a 5*, but coconut water did not work very well at all. So in that case I would give it a 1 for Avoid.
Campeltown Loch was once only obtainable by visiting the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, where it is made and bottled. But now, it is available in the world marketplace. It is a young, snappy and impermanent blend with a gingery spiciness and a hot, peppery palate tamed a bit by some pear mead sweetness. It offers some essence of American bourbon from a refill cask, and the smoky earth and seaweed peat of its malt components, Springbank and Longrow. I found it very good in ginger ale, and it spices up soda water quite nicely as well. While I drink it in coconut water now and again, it is not on my short list for that mixer.
Bank Note, which will be formally reviewed at One Man’s Malt in the coming weeks, is a very affordable blend from an independent bottler of single malt, A.D. Rattray. It is not very well known, even among UK whisky aficionados, but it is terrific, especially for the price. It would qualify for the flavor camp B3 – Rich and Fruity, in Broom’s parlance. It is malty, with a good dose of sherry and orange peel and heads more toward a Black Label sort of profile, if not nearly as refined or as smoky.
It is 40% single malts with clearly good quality grain whisky for the remainder, and it is officially 5 years old, which is one reason they chose the name, Bank Note, with artwork similar to an old 5 Pound Note, just like the brand of whisky of that same name from 100 years ago. It has more character and meat on the bone than any blended scotch close to it in price, found in some shops for $20 per liter. Unfortunately, it is not found in many shops at all.
But when it comes to mixing, it absolutely excelled in every respect.
In three separate tastings hosted in New York City and Connecticut, almost everyone preferred Bank Note over other blends and single malts in every mixer. One woman preferred Teachers with ginger ale because of the smoke. One man hated everything that got near coconut water. But otherwise, Bank Note took the most top honors, in every tasting where it was present.
Bank Note was the only whisky that anyone actually liked with green tea. While I found some others interesting, Bank Note and green tea morphed into a drink truly different from either of its components. While I did not pick it as my first choice for ginger ale, soda, or coconut water, it rated very high for me in every instance. Similar to its green tea mix, a taster said Bank Note was the one whisky that did not seem like it was enveloped by the coconut water, or was doing the enveloping; they blended together and became well integrated (the other options that evening were Great King St. and Buchanan’s 12.) And it was the clear winner in cola, which really doesn’t do much for me as a mixer.
When it comes to my being a straight scotch sort of drinker who is learning to love the benefits of mixed drinks, here are my thoughts on the various mixers.
Since American club soda is made with bicarbonate of potassium, thanks to the modern obsession with all things sodium-free, it is a bit too bitter than classic soda water for many modern drinkers. Therefore, seltzer (carbonated purified water without the added minerals) was better received when making a whisky and soda. Besides, it is the bubbles that matter here, more than minerals or a lack thereof.
The bubbles act as a flavor delivery device, while also adding a wake up call to the tastes buds. And, according to Broom’s sources, the carbonic acid created by infusing water with carbonation invokes a mild toxic reaction on the tongue, which the brain counters by releasing endorphins. In other words, when we drink fizzy drinks we feel happy. And it follows that when we drink fizzy drinks with whisky in them we are happier still.
Since club soda and seltzer are sugar-free, it tends to work best with sweeter whiskies like Irish whisky, bourbon, and particularly scotch with a lot of bourbon cask influence, as well as smokier scotch for people who dislike drinks deemed overly sweet.
Ginger ale is a fizzy drink that adds sugary sweetness matched with some spicy snap. It has been used to mix with whisky since it was first invented in Northern Ireland in 1852, and the modern “dry” form was designed with whisky in mind and vice versa. So it is not surprising that many people take to the combination like ducks to water. And it excels with both spicy whiskies and smoky ones.
Jamaican style ginger ale and ginger beer is made up largely of lemon and or lime juice, so they have a very different affect when mixed, but some whiskies work well with them none the less, just as some highballs made with Canada Dry ginger ale take to a wedge of lime thrown in the mix.
I am not much of a cola drinker, but it does work well with some whiskies, particularly those that are themselves heavy and full bodied. Before you get out the torches and pitchforks at Dave Broom’s recommendation of 16 yo Lagavulin and Coke, give it a try. You may just be surprised.
I was surprised to find Jack and Coke ranking rather low, considering its popularity in the States. So if you like it, you may want to try Wild Turkey or Jim Beam White Label, both of which get a high 5 rating from Broom when mixed with cola. But for me ginger ale is the soda pop for spiking.
While not for everyone, the remaining options are not carbonated, and not something most westerners have ever considered for use as mixers, at least those of us in the northern hemisphere. But they are certainly interesting in terms of mouth feel, flavor, and how they affect the character of a whisky.
The green tea and whisky combo is unusual to say the least. It often tastes either like green tea with some booze in it, or booze with some tea in it. But when it works it can really work, and melds with the whisky to become a new and completely different drink (as per Bank Note,) and one that is very good when severed very cold on a very hot day.
It should be pointed out that the green tea used for whisky in the Far East is NOT the grassy green Japanese variety that is found throughout the U.S. Rather it is a cold Oolong that is mildly sweetened. So my tastings were done with either unsweetened Oolong sometimes adding sugar, or with the sweet Japanese varieties.
It is coconut water that proved most successful for me. How can millions of Brazilians be wrong, eh?
Where the others are best served chilled and on ice, coconut water absolutely requires it.
I have learned I do not care much at all for coconut water, when drunk on its own. But mixed 1 to 1 with whisky, or sometimes 2 to 1, it becomes a lovely, sweet beverage with a velvety creaminess that really needs to be experienced. It works particularly well with smoky whisky and spicy whisky, but rarely disappoints with lighter, oaky, or fruity whisky. And, as one taster put it, you can hydrate while dehydrating.
I have taken to using some traditional ethnic brands of coconut water like Goya or Jamaica, as they include some young coconut pulp, which adds a certain festive confetti appearance to the glass. But they are sweeter, with more added sugar than the hipster on a health kick brands like Vita Coco, even though most have at least some sugar included. Zico has less sugar, but I didn’t care for it as a mixer.
If more bars had coconut water on hand I would likely be drinking it with whisky when away from home as well as my new love, the highball.
I must recommend trying whisky and coconut water to everyone who is reading this article and finding it impossible to imagine the combination could possibly work. You are likely no less skeptical than I was, and may find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I and my several tasters have been.
Even if I continue my favorite pass time of sipping single malt neat from a Glencairn tasting glass, my summers will now and forever include coconut water and blended scotch on the rocks, along with classic highballs made from ginger ale or soda.
And that is one man’s word on…
Putting Dave Broom’s whisky mixers to the test