Recommendations by Susan Reigler from the article “Winter Warmers” from the February-March 2022 issue.
Readers each tend to have a favorite place and way to read. Some enjoy curling up in bed with a book. Others live for the “beach books” they can devour in the proximity of sand, sun, and surf. Now is the perfect time of the year for those who like to sit in their favorite armchair by a crackling wood fire and become immersed in an atmospheric mystery novel, perhaps one in which streets are lit by gaslight.
Naturally, this is also the perfect setting in which to enjoy a high-proof, complex whiskey, one from which an occasional sip can be taken every chapter or two. The ideal whiskey will change in the glass over time, revealing different layers of flavor so that only a couple of fingers will make a very satisfying accompaniment for most of the evening.
Here are some suggestions for some whiskeys that make for enjoyable “winter warmers.” They will bring a combination of both delighting the palate and soothing the senses, even if that book happens to be a page turner about a serial killer who stalks victims relaxing by their fireplace with a good book and a warming whiskey.
Note that high-proof whiskeys will be improved by the addition of a little water or a small ice cube, since water acts as a solvent to free flavors concentrated in higher alcohol content.
Old Grand-Dad 114 (114 proof)
Truly a bargain among the high-proof bourbons with intensity of orange peel, dark cherries, dates, crème caramel, and plenty of cinnamon and cloves. If there was ever a bourbon to pair with a rich chocolate dessert, this is the one. Its mash bill is high in rye (though Beam won’t give the exact percentage).
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (113.12 proof)
This is everything its fans love about Maker’s—the caramel, the apples, the pecans, and the sweet oak, but on steroids. Add to that a savory smokiness, and this may turn into your preferred by-the-fire sip. The famous mash bill replaces rye as a flavoring grain with red winter wheat and contributes some vanilla to the flavor profile, too.
Wild Turkey 101 (101 proof)
This is the classic Kentucky bourbon that was the introduction to whiskey of three-digit proof for many bourbon drinkers. Even at 101 proof, it is notably smooth on the palate, with a strong vanilla base and contrasting flavors of sweet honey and herbal tobacco. As a nightcap, there are few better, because of both the price and the proof, to use in a hot toddy. You could also trade up to Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which clocks in at 116.8 proof.
Baker’s (107 proof)
Baker’s is perhaps the most overlooked of the Small Batch Collection from Beam, which also features Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, and Booker’s. Chocolate-coated caramel notes are asserted in both the nose and on the palate, with some spiced apple adding to the dessert-like complexity. It is dangerously smooth for the proof. Add a drop of water to intensify the chocolate.
Four Roses Small Batch Select (104 proof)
The latest edition to the Four Roses portfolio uses six of the distillery’s 10 recipes—three containing the 60-percent corn, 35-precent rye mash bill and three with the 55-percent corn, 20-percent rye grains and yeast strains with delicate fruit, light spice, and herbal notes. The fruit toggles between apricot and berries sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.
Noah’s Mill (114.3 proof)
A basketful of orchard fruit is found in the heavy hitter from the small Willett Distillery. A little water brings out the rich layers of toffee and baking spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Honey plays around the edges of all the other flavors. It has limited nationwide distribution, but you can usually find it in Kentucky and surrounding states.
A Midwinter Night’s Dram (98.6 proof)
Lowest proof of all of these, but it’s probably the most complex. This blend of straight ryes (distilled in Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky) from High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, has a limited annual release. Find plums and prunes, red wine, a cabinet of baking spices, and rich caramel. It’s a Christmas pudding in a glass.
1792 Full Proof (125 proof)
From Barton 1792 in Bardstown—the year references Kentucky’s statehood—this is a caramel bomb laced with brown sugar, apples, pears, cinnamon, and cloves and is notable for a long, smooth finish. Batches tend to come out of the barrel between 132 and 142 proof and are adjusted to 125 before bottling.
Elijah Craig Barrel Strength (up to 130s in proof depending on the edition)
Heaven Hill releases the Barrel Strength Elijah Craig three times a year, and it is distributed nationally. The toffee and brown sugar base is liberally flavored with ripe peach, but various releases have added créam brûlee, apples, baking spices, and even a bit of cocoa to the profile—always worth seeking out.
Stagg, Jr. (134.4 proof)
The younger offspring of Buffalo Trace’s George T. Stagg is aged about 8 to 9 years and is marginally easier to find. The uncut, unfiltered bottling will still take some hunting, but it’s worth it for the dark cherry, apricot, cinnamon, vanilla, and honeycomb mix. Add a drop of water and all the flavors explode on the palate.