Tell me what you drink and I’ll tell you what you are — or at least what you think you are, to rip off the sentiments of Brilliant Savarin. And though we may drink for the very purpose of forgetting, at least for a few hours what we are, our spirits of choice are like a loudspeaker to the soul.
Take whiskey, if you dare. At its core, this ancient mash is little more than distilled beer. The very essence of humble grains, whiskey (or Bourbon or Scotch as it’s also known), is the beverage of fathers, uncles and tweedy English professors. Not the Junior League.
Which may be exactly why it holds such a fascination. Anything but the sweet and syrupy-sippers so easily tippled from a martini glass, whiskies are is contemplative beverages that require a bit of reflection to enjoy properly. Properly. Guzzling it backstage is an entirely different beast.
Serious whiskey drinkers appreciate their beverage on the rocks (with ice) or with a slight dillution of water to release their aroma and, well, not leave you choking on the fumes. With proofs ranging from 80 to 110 (and more), it’s a prudent way to enjoy.
But aside from Jack and Cokes, most of us aren’t real clear on exactly what we’re drinking.
So, a little background. Whiskey has a number of branches in its family tree. At the core is a distilled spirit usually made from fermented barley and stored in oak barrels for several years. Scotland’s earthy, peat-smoked malted Scotches are aged for between three and 30 years and among the most coveted of whiskeys. Irish Whiskeys are typically lighter, having been distilled at least three times before bottling. Other countries that produce distinct nationalistic whiskeys include Canada, Wales and, oddly enough, Japan.
Now things get complicated: Bourbon. All Bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are Bourbon. To put it simply, Bourbon is a type of American whiskey. Made with at least 51% corn and aged in charred, new oak barrels (giving it a distinct flavor profile), all but a few Bourbons come from Kentucky. Kentucky=Bourbon.
Rye, like the bread, is made with exactly that — rye grains. It’s a more intense, funky cousin that’s oft-overlooked but a key ingredient to one of the oldest and best cocktails known to man, The Sazerac (see recipe below), as well as the Manhattan.
And then there’s Tennessee whiskey. Otherwise known as your old pal Jack Daniels — as American as Harley Davidson and hot dogs and Coca Cola (all of which it goes well with). Jack is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal, giving it a sweet, caramel quality.
A couple other things to know. Though it can be painstaking to make, whiskey still doesn’t have the cache of other spirits and therefore the pricetag. A serious bottle typically won’t cost you more than $35-$50 though some rare aged blends can run into the stratosphere ($400 to $38,000).
Thirsty yet? Jack & Tony’s Whiskey Bar (115 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.526.4347) offers an extensive selection of rare (and not so rare) whiskeys from around the world and blends a mean Sazerac. Have Jack bend your ear about how he wrangled one of only 11 cases of Knappogue Castle Irish Whiskey in the US.
This is considered the first American cocktail, created in pre-Civil War New Orleans.
1 1/2 oz. Rye Whiskey
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
A splash of simple syrup
1/4 oz. Absinthe
In a shaker with ice, mix syrup, bitters, rye and Absinthe. Gently swirl, rather than shaking mixture. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass rimmed with lemon.
Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding Souffle with Whiskey Sauce
3/4 cups Sugar
1 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
Pinch of Nutmeg
3 Medium Eggs
1 cup Heavy Cream
1 tsp. Vanilla
5 cups New Orleans French Bread, 1″ cubed (see note)
1/3 cup Raisins
1 cup Heavy Cream
1/2 Tbsp. Corn Starch
1 Tbsp. Water
3 Tbsp. Sugar
1/4 cup Bourbon
9 Medium Egg Whites
3/4 cups Sugar
1/4 tsp. Cream of Tartar
To make the bread pudding, first preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8″ square baking pan. Combine sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Beat in the eggs until smooth, then work in the heavy cream. Add the vanilla, then the bread cubes. Allow bread to soak up custard.
Place the raisins in a greased pan. Top with the egg mixture, which prevents the raisins from burning. Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes or until the pudding has a golden brown color and is firm to the touch. If a toothpick inserted in the pudding comes out clean, it is done. The mixture of pudding should be nice and moist, not runny or dry. Cool to room temperature.
To make the whiskey sauce, place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Whisk corn starch and water together, and add to cream while whisking. Bring to a boil. Whisk and let simmer for a few seconds, taking care not to burn the mixture on the bottom. Remove from heat.
Stir in the sugar and the bourbon. Taste to make sure the sauce has a thick consistency, a sufficiently sweet taste, and a good bourbon flavor. Cool to room temperature.
To make the meringue, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter six 6 ounce ramekins. First, be certain that the bowl and whisk are clean. The egg whites should be completely free of yolk, and they will whip better if the chill is off them. This dish needs a good, stiff meringue. In a large bowl or mixer, whip egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar gradually, and continue whipping until shiny and thick. Test with a clean spoon. If the whites stand up stiff, like shaving cream, when you pull out the spoon, the meringue is ready. Do not overwhip, or the whites will break down and the soufflé will not work.
In a large bowl, break half the bread pudding into pieces using your hands or a spoon. Gently fold in one-quarter of the meringue, being careful not to lose the air in the whites. Add a portion of this base to each of the ramekins.
Place the remaining bread pudding in the bowl, break into pieces, and carefully fold in the rest of the meringue. Top off the soufflés with this lighter mixture, to about 1 1/2 inches. Smooth and shape tops with spoon into a dome over the ramekin rim. Bake immediately for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately. Using a spoon, poke a hole in the top of each soufflé, at the table, and pour the room temperature whiskey sauce inside the soufflé.
Note: New Orleans French bread is very light and tender. If substitute bread is used that is too dense, it will soak up all the custard and the recipe will not work.