The Kentucky Derby is Saturday, May 2! And what better way to celebrate than with Kentucky bourbon!
Whiskey expert and Kentucky native Garry Embry of Greenpoint's The Moonlight Mile teaches us about learning to love whiskey, finding the best bottle for your tastes and drinking bourbon like a pro.
With a bar stocked with over 200 types of whiskey -- this bartender knows what you should be drinking!
What is whiskey?
Whiskey is a spirit made from grain -- usually from wheat, rye, corn or barley. Whiskey is usually barrel aged, but not always, meaning that there are a spectrum of brown whiskeys as well as clear whiskeys.
The mash, or the recipe used to make whiskey, determines what it is called. Whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn is called Bourbon but whiskey made from over 80% corn is called corn whiskey. Rye is at least 51% rye and Scotch refers to whiskey distilled in Scotland.
What's the best way to drink whiskey?
As a shot, in a cocktail, straight up or on the rocks. How you like your whiskey is up to you!
At Moonlight Mile, Garry always serves rocks on the side -- "you can always add ice but never take it out," he says.
What's a good gateway whiskey for non-whiskey afficionados?
If you're not a whiskey drinker, Garry recommends starting with a lighter or lower proof whiskey. It's easier to drink because it's sweeter had has less of a punch. Of course, a cocktail is usually the best "gateway" to start trying whiskey.
To help customers find a whiskey they'll like, Garry asks if they prefer sweet or spicy tastes, mellow or strong and can figure out based on other food and drink preferences what whiskey may be best.
"I'll ask them for adjectives of what they like whether they're brand new whiskey drinkers or connoisseurs," he said of encouraging bar guests to try new whiskeys.
One whiskey he finds to be a crowd-pleaser is Catskill Provisions' New York Honey Whiskey, which is made from a blend of barley and rye and mixes well with the local honey infused in each batch. It's sweet enough for whiskey beginners but has more flavor depth to appeal to more seasoned whiskey drinkers as well.
What's the big deal with Bourbon, anyway?
Just like people have their favorite wine region, beer type or even New York City bagel, there are plenty of loyal Bourbon and Kentucky Bourbon drinkers out there. "It's very taste driven," says Garry.
To be considered a Kentucky Bourbon, the whiskey must be made in Kentucky, of course, and be at least 51% corn, aged in an oak barrel for 2-3 years and not exceed 80 proof. For this reason, some Bourbons made in Kentucky aren't even considered Kentucky Bourbons!
Some of Garry's favorite Kentucky whiskeys (at the moment he notes that he's "dating" 30-40 different bottles) include: W.L. Weller Special Reserve, Willet Rye Whiskey and Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch.
What's the best kind of whiskey?
While The Moonlight Mile sells whiskeys that are $4/shot and $45/shot, neither is necessarily better than the other. People have all types of different preferences when it comes to whiskey -- some may always stick to flavored whiskeys like Jack Daniel's Tennessee Fire while others want the strong stuff.
"I didn't want to run a stuck-up whiskey spot," says Garry of his bar. He serves all price points and styles of whiskey with the same enthusiasm and love of the spirit. "We're not whiskey snobs here!"
Are there locally made whiskeys?
New York City and the entire state are full of great whiskeys! "I really dig New York based whiskey," says Garry.
At The Moonlight Mile, Garry stocks whiskeys from almost every state, so transplants such as himself (or this writer) can find a bottle from their home state and enjoy a sip of home in a laid back Brooklyn environment.
As for New York whiskeys, Garry recommends trying Hudson Valley-base Black Dirt Bourbon which is earthy and almost peppery, Finger Lakes Distilling's McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey which is more mellow and easy to drink, as well as Breuckelen Distilling's 77 Whiskey.