“Never taken a shortcut before?” – Shaun of the Dead
For years, whiskey producers have banged their heads against all manner of walls in their attempts to create more flavor in less time than traditional maturation. O.Z. Tyler (now Green River) had their TerrePURE process, which was reviled for producing whiskey more notable for its emetic properties. Toasted barrels have been in vogue for some time, while Michter’s claims that heat-cycling in their rickhouses adds the equivalent of six months for every year of aging.
For those of us that don’t own a distillery (I presume that’s most of the folks reading this), there’s the temptation to improve meh whiskey by methods of our own design. Matt tried leaving his bottle in a hot garage; the results didn’t argue strongly in favor of that approach. What about infusion, the process of adding extra ingredients to whiskey for some period of time in order to impart some of their flavors to the base whiskey?
Back in the early days of the mixology boom, I used to fool around with a bacon-infused bourbon. I’d drain off the bacon fat from the pan and into a baking dish full of bourbon, and I’d let them mingle in the freezer for a week. The fat would solidify for skimming off the top, and I’d run the rest through a mesh sieve. The result was a bourbon that had some of the meaty and savory notes from the bacon, that played well against sweeter elements in cocktails.
I was reminded of these experiments by a Christmas present thoughtfully bestowed on my by my mother in law (thanks, Rita). Though she broke Matt Kusek’s cardinal rule (“Never buy whiskey presents for a whiskey lover”), I am very glad she did. Let me now tell you about the “Do Your Whisky” kit, followed by a review of two of my concoctions employing their various ingredients.
The kit consists of a box including six glass tubes of wood chips (two tubes of each of three varieties: Vanilla Dream, Dark Chocolate, and American Sweetheart) as well as six tubes containing other botanicals (bird’s eye chili, chai mix, coffee beans, cocoa beans, orange peel, and cinnamon). I posted the ingredients to Twitter and solicited suggestions for potential combinations, eventually choosing two recipes that sounded the most appealing.
While the instruction card in the kit suggests using un-aged grain alcohol (e.g. new make or vodka), I decided to start out with an already mature bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch. I’m not foolish enough to believe that a few spoonfulls of wood chips can turn white dog into something that would pass as properly mature bourbon; rather, I’m hoping to amp up what is otherwise a normal daily bourbon from a reputable distillery.
As for scoring, particularly the price-sensitive aspects of our scoring bands: A 750 ml bottle of Elijah Craig currently sells for $30 at my local. This type of kit runs about $65 from Craftly; they sell similar types of kits for gin, tequila, and vodka. The kit contains enough for 10-12 350 ml bottles, so I’m going to pretend like I added roughly $12 to the cost of the bottle, for a net outlay of $42 (750 ml equivalent). Let’s see if the extra expense is justified?
For a baseline, I set aside a sample of unadulterated Elijah Craig bourbon with which I can calibrate my palate. I’ll try that one first, and then compare it with the two recipes I created.
Elijah Craig Small Batch – Review
Color: Medium orange.
On the nose: A charming light and sweet note of cherry ice cream immediately jumps out of the glass. One layer down from this is a richer sweetness of vanilla buttercream, with yet another step down the register showing black pepper, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and eucalyptus. Mostly, though, this presents rich and fruity sweetness in the middle of the range.
In the mouth: Starts with a wispy kiss of sweet, oaky vanilla. This turns slightly sour as the bourbon moves toward the middle of the mouth, though that quickly resolves itself into a drying stoniness that carries the whiskey into the finish. There’s a momentary note of caramel before this fades into a residual chalky sweetness. Long after the flavors go mute there is a residual heat that tingles the lips, feeling much more potent than 94 proof.
Tastes like bourbon. Seriously, though, I’m glad I picked this as a base on which to build. It’s so mainstream, lacking much in the way of forceful personality (bar that cherry ice cream note on the nose, which is – for me – the highlight), but also not bad or off or flawed in any way that would detract from the additional flavors I’m hoping to add. This is bang in the middle of the range in terms of quality for price, and will be scored accordingly.
For my first experiment, I let the Dark Chocolate wood chips sit in one of two 350 ml bottles (included in the kit) for three weeks, the midpoint of the suggest two-to-four week range from the instruction card. I then used the bird’s eye chili botanicals for another 24 hours of infusion (per their suggestion). Here’s the result:
Do Your Whisky Recipe #1 – Review
Color: A darker and browner orange than the unadulterated whiskey.
On the nose: That cherry note has transformed into a chocolate-covered cherry, in a way that is very inviting. There’s also a hint of spiciness from the chili here. The combination of the two has me thinking of Mexican chili chocolate, or perhaps a very spicy mole negro sauce. I’m excited to try this.
In the mouth: Whoah, this has a kick on it like a mule! Those chilis fully dominate the Dark Chocolate wood chips, and indeed the whisky. A burning sensation coats the mouth and doesn’t let go; this feels like eating an unrelentingly hot pepper, or perhaps a very authentic Thai or Indian dish. If I really concentrate, I can pick out some of the dark chocolate as an aftertaste, but otherwise this is full-bore heat and not much else.
Based on the nose, I am liking the combination of these elements, but the chili really needs to be dialed down several notches. If I were to attempt this experiment again, I think I would cut the quantity of chili infusion used by half or more. As it is, this is a little oppressive. Maybe I can salvage the rest of the 350 ml bottle by using it as part of a cocktail that requires an offset to a sweeter mixer? Regardless, I’m going to penalize myself two points for having botched this one.
For the second bottle, I first used the Vanilla Dream chips, followed by orange peel and cinnamon, for the same amounts of time as specified prior.
Do Your Whisky Recipe #2 – Review
Color: Also darker than the control sample, but with a much more reddish hue.
On the nose: This smells like a very potent hot toddy. That orange is on full display, with the cinnamon providing a salutary accent. The vanilla notes are also amped up, I presume from the wood chips. The combination of the orange and the vanilla is somewhat reminiscent of a creamsicle. As before, I’m intrigued and very much looking forward to tasting it.
In the mouth: Altogether more palatable, this starts out with the slightly bitter flavor of orange peel, though this is well-balanced by some of those vanilla notes. This meshes together best in the middle of the mouth, where the elements are all there in roughly equivalent proportions. The cinnamon makes a surprise comeback at the very end, when it resurges with a burst of flavor just as this nears the finish. There’s a lingering flavor that becomes slightly bitter as the whiskey finishes, but that’s really the only off note here.
Much more successful than the prior experiment, this has created a whiskey that is pleasant to drink, though it does lean hard into the selected flavors. Less might once again be more in terms of the flavor infusion; I’d probably cut the quantities back by half here as well. I can envisage a number of cocktails that would benefit from using this as the base. In total, I’m scoring this above the middle of the range to indicate my satisfaction with the results.
Would I recommend this kit, or something similar, to whiskey lovers? Yes, with the caveat that it’s probably unlikely to turn white dog into anything besides flavored white dog. However, if you start (as I did) with a base of mature whiskey, there’s enough material here (even used sparingly, which is what I thought I was doing) to meaningfully change the aromatic and flavor profile. Would-be mixologists, especially, will enjoy the creative possibilities from the combination of these elements, along with whatever else ends up in the cocktail shaker. In total, you can color me pleasantly surprised at how much fun I had with this… and, if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, please stop by for a very spicy beverage!