How did they get the spice in my whiskey?

Photo courtesy of tienvijftien on Flickr

First, it was spiced schnapps, and then spiced rum. Now, I’m seeing a handful of spiced whiskeys trickling on to the market. I blogged about one of them, Fireball Whiskey, a few weeks back…and it’s turned out to be one of the most popular search terms on this site recently. (who knew?) And lately, I’ve been hearing rumblings about Revelstoke spiced whiskey, though I’ve not yet sampled it.

But guess what? Not every spirit needs to rely on artificial flavorings for spice. Recently, I attended an event hosted by Compass Box, a brand noted for its blended Scotches and stylish packaging. Although the party was to celebrate the rollout of the smoky/sweet Flaming Heart product, the newest addition to the family, it was the other brothers & sisters that captured my attention. The Spice Tree, as the name suggests, has bold cardamom, ginger and vanilla notes, while the rich Hedonism whiskey won me over with its lingering cinnamon and toffee finish.

(I think I shocked the U.S. Brand Ambassador, the charmingly named Robin Robinson, when I was able to accurately pick out the exact spices for each bottling. “Good palate,” he said approvingly.  He didn’t know that I have bags of spices in my desk drawer.)

So if nothing is added to the Scotch, how do they get the spices in there?  Robinson says it’s all about choosing barrels with the right wood (the Spice Tree blend is first aged in American oak, followed by a rest in heavy-toasted new French oak barrels), and aging it for the right period of time (for Spice Tree, that’s somewhere betwen 10 and 12 years). 

I don’t consider myself a whiskey expert, although I’m learning fast. And one of the things I’ve learned is I prefer delicate and spicy whiskies to smoky/”peaty” versions. But I seem to be in the minority:  smoky Scotches in particular seem to be all the rage now. I asked John Glaser, the Compass Box whiskymake, why people love the smoky stuff.

“It hits you over the head with flavor,” he explained. “But it’s an acquired taste. I use the analogy of hot sauce — once you get used to it, everything else will be boring forever more. Once you get there you don’t go back.”

Spicy Spirits: Fireball Whiskey

I’m psyched to see more cinnamon-flavored spirits coming out in the market.

I was a fan of De Kuyper’s “Hot Damn!” cinnamon schnapps, which was on the market/ then off the market /and now back in 80 and 100 proof format. The version I tried (before the relaunch) reminded me of those tiny red-hot candies — very sweet, but lots of sizzle. 

In addition, Hiram Walker is launching “Original Cinn,” also a cinnamon schnapps, clocking in at 90 proof. I’ve not yet tried the product, but their marketing boilerplate promises an “aroma like fresh-baked cinnamon rolls with notes of vanilla and a warm, spicy finish on the palate.” 

And last week, at Tales of the Cocktail, I tried Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, and frankly I was ready to pocket the bottle and bring it home. It’s made with Canadian whiskey, and has the usual caramel/vanilla notes and amber hue found in the spirit. But the taste, heat level, and finish truly reminded me of those round red fireball candies — in other words, hot stuff!  Unlike liqueurs, it wasn’t overly sweet, either. I’m dreaming of mixing it with fall apple cider.

However, I’m not so much a fan of the tagline printed on the back:  “tastes like heaven, burns like hell.”  The heat was more of a gentle glow than a Tabasco-like fiery furnace. I suspect that “burns like hell” will scare off less adventurous imbibers.