Friday, March 11, 2011

ingredient: WHISKEY

Blame it on the English. Those party poopers are responsible for almost ending whiskey production not once, not twice, but three times. The other close call came from America’s teetotalers, but let’s start at the beginning.

Whiskey is a liquor distilled from grain, most typically barley or rye, though wheat or corn can be used. This is the very reason that Scotland and Ireland became such hotbeds of whiskey production: the islands couldn’t grow grapes, so barley beer was made instead. And if you're a peasant who's busy worrying about hell and damnation and you forget to take your barley beer out of the barrel, you’ll start to find yourself with a batch of whiskey.

Like with most profitable enterprises of the Middle Ages, monks had a lockdown on whiskey production. So in 1536, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he dissolved the distilleries as well, endangering the production of spirits like whiskey. In my opinion, a poor choice for a fat man trying to get laid.

The second threat to whiskey came in 1707, when England officially annexed Scotland. Suddenly Scottish products were subject to English taxes, which made good Scottish whiskey a little too pricey for the average swiller. Yet this wasn’t as bad as what happened just 18 years later, when, in 1725, the English Malt Tax was passed. The Malt Tax was so high that it essentially drove all Scottish whiskey production underground.

Luckily, whiskey is a spirit with spirit and this liquor has survived multiple campaigns that would have ended its sometimes nefarious career. Scottish whiskey producers, like their American counterparts three hundred years later, simply started to brew their whiskey at night, under the Moonshine.

Though every distiller makes whiskey their own particular way, here are the basic steps to how whiskey is made: Malt, Mash, Ferment, Distill, Mature.

The first step in whiskey production is malting, where a grain (barley, rye, etc.) is soaked in water in order to start the process of germinating and producing sugars that can be converted to alcohol. At this point, some whiskeys are dried over peat fires or in ovens in order to impart a smoky flavor. Either way, the grains are then mashed with water to create a mixture known as wort. Yum.

Now the liquid wort is heated, or distilled. Many whiskeys get boiled multiple times (i.e. a double or triple distilled whiskey) because each round of distillation increases the purity, smoothness, and asking price of the whiskey. Finally the whiskey is matured in casks for at least three years, though the best whiskeys will have sat in the producer’s basement for eight years or more.

A Tale of Two Whiskeys


As far as spirits go, I used to prefer gin. But one too many G&Ts, one too many mornings smelling like an old British man, and I had to leave it behind. I didn’t expect to become a whiskey girl, but then I didn’t expect to move into a brownstone in Brooklyn with five of my male friends, either.

These guys take an interest in whiskey that goes far beyond Jim Beam. They know their single malts and their cask strengths and all about chill filtration. They could probably choose correctly between a bourbon, a rye, and a Scottish whiskey in a blind taste test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of them swirled their glass thoughtfully then said, “Bruichladdich, 18 year” as I held the covered bottle in awe.

When I moved to Brooklyn, we spent many hours sitting around the living room, shooting the old proverbial, while they all sipped on a nice, aged Scotch, likely a LaPhroig or a Lagavulen. Being gentlemen they’d always ask, “Like one?” And one day I said yes.

I was surprised. Whiskey is pretty damn good. I liked the smoky, peaty ones first, but moved on to appreciate anything with a nice, caramel background and notes of toasted barley. And thus it happened that many a night found me and A., sipping on whiskies, watching Mad Men, and discussing the merits of Don versus Sterling or wondering why Betty is such a bitch.

So this is a recipe for A. who loves whiskey and ice cream.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate-Whiskey Sauce

serves aprox 8 people
5 ounces good quality dark chocolate
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons whiskey
Vanilla ice cream


Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, whisk together milk and sugar. Bring milk to a steady simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Whisk in chocolate until smooth. Whisk in cream.

Let mixture come to room temperature, then mix in whiskey. Pour over vanilla ice cream


It’s a hot summer night in Brooklyn. The smell of basil and flours wafts up from the garden, making K’s patio feel like paradise. We’ve had many courses of delicious food. The loafs of crusty French baguettes, which were at first cut into proper slices, are now simply being passed around so hunks can be torn off and dipped in the olive oil and juices that have pooled in the plate that once held a line of caprese salad. We talk a little more to digest, and then it’s time for dessert. K. disappears into the kitchen, returning with bowls of vanilla ice cream drizzled with whiskey. Ok, drowned in whiskey. And no, I didn’t forget to say sauce. I was surprised, not in the least because K. was at the time a strong believer in the merits of a good tequila. Whiskey, I thought. Here you are again.

You see, the more that I paid attention, the more I realized just how many people were indulging in this classic spirit. Another friend, M., makes my whiskey drinking practices look like the stuff of pansies. She has been known to partake in Whiskey Slaps, a game that she claims, in all seriousness, is fun. It goes as such: Sit in a circle with your friends, or, it seems to me, secret nemeses. One person takes a sip of whiskey then slaps the person next to them. The bottle, and the slap, is passed. I would believe that there is a certain amusement to this game that I’ve never been brave enough to try, but I will also say that M. is the kind of gal I want by my side if the world ever devolves into something resembling the last scene of Gangs of New York.

Because they'll inevitably end up mentioned more than once in the course of my eating adventures, you should know that M., L. and K., are what I refer to as my three amazing friends “from home,” meaning I’ve grown up with them and would take a bullet to protect their lovely faces. While L. prefers herself a nice big glass of wine to a tumbler of whiskey, she’s been known to indulge in a nice piece of French toast. So this recipe is for my girls, who love whiskey and brunch.

French Toast With Whiskey Sauce

serves 4
For Sauce:

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup whiskey

For French Toast:

8 slices bread (preferably a little stale, and preferably challah. But as you’ll see, all I had on hand was sliced white bread. Oh the shame.)
4 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp butter
Powdered sugar

To make sauce:

In a medium saucepan, bring cream to a boil. In a small bowl, mix together the cornstarch and water, then add to the boiling cream, making sure to stir constantly. Reduce the heat to low, add the sugar and the whiskey and stir until sugar has dissolved. Take off heat and set aside.

To make toast:

In a medium, hopefully flatish bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, and milk.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Dip each slice of bread in egg mixture and shake off excess.

Put slices of bread in hot pan and cook until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per side (depending on thickness of bread).

Put 2 slices of toast on each plate, sprinkle with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and drizzle with whiskey sauce and maybe some maple syrup.

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