If you regard straight spirit sipper superior to a finely crafted cocktail, you’re hardly alone. But consider this: Even the precise palates of the world’s great master distillers are open to a few modifiers every now and then. In fact, many of them proudly label themselves cocktail enthusiasts.
And why shouldn’t they? Proper mixology is about enhancing rather than diminishing the essence of any base spirit. In other words, the more you appreciate a liquor, the more you should appreciate a well-engineered drink built around it. Supporting evidence comes in the form of testimony from the following liquor makers, as they reveal their favorite ways to mix things up.
Quite predictably, spirit-forward cocktail combinations tend to resonate with many a distiller. Paul Hletko, the owner and master distiller at FEW Spirits, is particularly fond of a classic example, involving equal parts American whiskey , Campari and vermouth. “Aside from the flippant ‘my favorite cocktail is the one in front of me,’ I am partial to the joys of a Boulevardier,” he says. “It works before dinner and after dinner. It’s simple, too, so you can make it at home, or any bar ought to be able to make a good one. I’ll give a shout to my local, though: Ward Eight in Evanston, Ill.”
Ivan Saldana of Montelobos mezcal prefers to substitute his own spirit in place of whiskey in his Oaxaca Old Fashioned. “I find this does not lose the complexity of the mezcal,” he says of the variation, “but compliments and brightens it up in a nice, flavorful cocktail.” Helping the lifting here is a brown sugar cube, along with both Angostura and chocolate bitters.
Across the bay from San Francisco in Alameda, Calif., Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, maintains a wide range of options. “I typically go one of two ways,” he says. “Spirit-forward cocktails, like Manhattans or Martinis, that allow the base spirit to shine through with minimal adulteration or else: bitter lower-proof cocktails that are sessionable.”
“Whiskey Smash,” says David Souza, without hesitation. His Corbin Cash distillery produces sweet-potato spirits on a family farm in central California. The gentle characteristics of his unique distillates informs a desire for a softer sipping experience.
“Typically when I’m drinking a cocktail, I’m looking for something refreshing rather than bold,” he says. “The acidity of the lemon juice mixed with the refreshment of mint and rye whiskey satisfies my palate quite nicely.”
Seventh-generation Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe turns to a similar selection, though his go-to is purely a matter of nostalgia. “My favorite cocktail is a Whiskey Sour if it’s made with fresh ingredients and egg whites,” he says. “That drink always reminds me of my mother since she really enjoyed them.”
Elsewhere in Kentucky, Denny Potter, formerly of Cruzan rum, carried some of his Caribbean sensibilities with him to his new gig at Heaven Hill distillery. “You can take the distiller out of U.S. Virgin Islands, but you can’t take the Virgin Islands out of his taste buds,” he says. “A Painkiller pitcher is my go-to on vacations, mixing rum, pineapple juice, orange juice and coconut cream for the whole crowd.”
A craft cocktail renaissance in Mexico has birthed some of the world’s most inspired bartenders over the past decade. Enrique de Colsa, the master distiller of Tequila Don Julio, is fixing to become a disciple.
“I’ve learned a lot from all of the bartenders that I’ve become friends with, and I now really enjoy experimenting with cocktails on the weekends with my sons at home,” he says. Yet for all of his elaborate experimentation, his reliable standard is something quite basic. “I also really love to play golf, and when I get out on the course, I like to have a cold tequila and tonic,” he says.
Temperature also plays a crucial part in Allen Katz’s cocktail du jour. “The malty quality of a good genever makes for an easy refresher in a standard sour,” says the co-founder of New York Distilling Company. “But a real find is one where the fruit quality of juniper also shines through with delightful sipping quality over one or two ice cubes.”
The next time you belly up to the bar, meditate on all those beautiful bottles staring you right in the face. People tirelessly toiled to craft the liquid that fills each and every one of them. They’ve taken you this far. Trust them to lead you further into the mix.