Taste: Spirits: The Whiskey Rebellion

A classic spirit attracts the Vodka Generation

Like tastes in music and fashion, preferences in beverages change as we grow older. Conventional wisdom says sweetness and “freshness” are paramount for novices; a liking for aged spirits is acquired over time. Aging in oak mellows raw young spirits, adding a toasty layer of caramelized nuts and brown baking spices, and a complexity that develops only through years of maturation in the cask — a maturity that is being appreciated by an increasingly younger audience looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous ’tini.

The first step into the world of whiskey is often through classic cocktails. Lively young crowds at Manayunk’s Bourbon Blue favor the upscale Jim Beam Black for their manhattans. But the heightened flavor of popular luxury brands encourages drinkers to wean themselves off mixers. At hopping nightspot Loie Brasserie, off Rittenhouse Square, college coeds call for Maker’s Mark simply over ice. New brands, like Bulleit Bourbon, have stormed the Northern Liberties scene, where Generations X and Y have learned to sip it straight, just like the blues musicians playing at Warmdaddy’s on Columbus Boulevard, who prefer overproofs, like high-alcohol Old Grand-Dad 100.

Kentucky’s bucolic Bourbon County is the heart of American whiskey country. Here, quality-minded distillers are crafting profound world-class spirits, whose bang for the buck compares favorably with collectible single-malt scotches and cognacs. Aiming to get in on this high-stakes game, the Americans are upping the ante with “small batch” or even “single barrel” bottlings that amply demonstrate the rewards of a distiller’s patience.

Discriminating palates could always be found indulging in world-class whiskeys at Center City’s power-broker bars: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve at the Palm, Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed at the Swann Lounge at Four Seasons, Woodford Reserve at Twenty21. But for anyone doubting that the taste for rare whiskey is reaching a younger clientele, one visit to Southwark in Queen Village will make the case. In this relaxed neighborhood bar, a 30-something crowd turns out nightly to sample exclusive bottlings from rare distillers like Michter’s and Elijah Craig.

Marnie Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.