A man walks into a bar in Hockessin and says to the barkeep, “I’d like a Manhattan, straight up, please.”
The man behind the bar by the name of Jonathan Tilton looks the customer straight in the eye and asks, “Will that be pre-Prohibition style or post-Prohibition style?”
I blink and think for five or six seconds and reply, “Pre-Prohibition, of course.”
As Tilton reaches for the sweet vermouth, he explains that in the classic cocktail era—now very much in vogue among bartenders, mixologists and other spiritual advisers—the whiskey was most likely to be rye and not bourbon, and the bitters came from a thin strip of orange briefly flamed by a cigarette lighter. The Manhattan he sets in front of me is indeed crisper and drier than what I’m used to and, alas, there is no cherry floating face down in the bottom of the glass.
Tilton, who splits his bartending time between Hockessin’s House of William and Merry and Wilmington’s Columbus Inn, is locally recognized as an expert on whiskies and the drinks made with them. Which is fortunate as whiskies are very popular these days whether straight, on the rocks, or in cocktails.
Whiskies are distilled from various grains and usually get part of their flavor while aging in barrels. Beyond that, there are a variety of styles. Whisky spelled without an “e” is usually scotch, “the” whisky in most of the civilized world. Without going into the arcane world of distilling, scotch gets its smoky flavor from malted grain dried by distinctive peat smoke, and its mild sweetness comes from used barrels, chiefly ones that previously made bourbon and sherry. Blended scotch, such as Johnnie Walker, comes from many distilleries, while single malts come from one distillery, even one barrel.
Bourbon is America’s whiskey (with an “e”) and, along with other corn-based mashes, tends to be more complex but is also sweeter. Today, the rage is small-lot bourbons. Rye, made from that grain, used to be America’s whiskey and is having a strong comeback with the emergence of small, regional distilleries and the renewed interest in the old-fashioned cocktail.
Irish is less fruity than bourbon, but is still somewhat sweet on the finish. Canadian can be just about anything but is usually blended and thought of as the Merlot of whiskies.
So, man finishes his Manhattan, says goodbye to the barkeep and walks out of the bar in Hockessin—with a smile on his face.