Mad Men’s Don Draper drinks whiskey, and so should you. From Scotch to bourbon to rye, few spirits receive such near-universal idolization these days as intensely as these brown beauties. While some of this success comes down to good, old-fashioned cultural cachet, another part of it is the staggering range of high-quality bottlings popping up all over the place. The problem is that deciphering the subtleties among them can be a daunting proposition if you’re unfamiliar with them. To clarify things and help you place your order with the discriminating eye of an aficionado, we’ve compiled this primer on the Big Three.
Oak-aged and barley-based, Scotch is often cited as the world’s benchmark whiskey. Single malts are the top of the line; Highland whiskies like The Balvenie tend to be the most honeyed, whereas Islay bottlings like Laphroaig boast smoky, charcoal-like notes. Drink with a drop of water, and never on the rocks (ice reduces the aroma and thus dulls the taste).
Sweeter and more vanilla-rich than its Scottish cousin, bourbon is made from a minimum of 51 percent corn and aged in new charred-oak barrels. Bourbon opens up beautifully with an ice cube or two, but it’s equally delicious on its own. One of the best to try: Johnny Drum “Private Stock,” at Village Whiskey (118 S. 20th St.).
For a long time, American rye (the Canadians also make an excellent one) was the outcast of our national whiskey culture. Lately, however, there’s been a renewed interest in the spirit, and there are a number of spectacular, spicy ryes finding their way onto bars all over town. R2L (50 S. 16th St., 37th Fl.) serves Black Maple Hill, for example, and it’s a stunner.