Whiskey, a tipple once considered an old man’s spirit, has seen a massive boom in popularity over the last 10 years. Now it’s the drink of choice for the cool kids, thanks in part to hit shows like Mad Men, with Don Draper and that ubiquitous glass of brown liquid in his hand. Even ladies who once would have balked at ordering an old-fashioned boldly ask for the classic cocktail, feeling like badass renegades in their choice. Popularity is surging so much so that it has become difficult to buy premium brands of American whiskey such as bourbons and ryes for on-premise establishments such as bars and restaurants. These spirits are being snapped up by the crateload by superstores that want to cater to the massive demand they see surging. These once readily available spirits have waiting and allocation lists that back in the oughts would have been unthinkable. Some bar owners now seek out these sought-after bottlings at auctions and online, building enviable collections, while others resort to engaging family and friends in the practice of smuggling bottles they might find on overseas trips — in particular, Japanese whiskys that are available by limited release in certain parts of the world but not in the USA.
For novice drinkers who are interested in trying out different types of whiskey, here’s a simple guide: Bourbon, the “sweetest ” of the whiskeys, is best for beginners who want to dip their toes in the pool of brown goodness. Rye whiskey is a little drier, with more spice and woodiness on the finish, and therefore is recommended when someone is looking for something with more backbone. Scotch takes a bit more bravery to tackle; each whisky region in Scotland produces a range of expressions that vary in flavor from soft caramel to hairy, stinky and bracing.
And to answer that burning question: It’s whiskey in the United States and Ireland and whisky in Japan, Scotland and Canada.
Bourbon and rye are both type of American whiskey. Settlers from Scotland and Ireland brought their recipes with them but, rather than using malted barley used in the production of Scotch whisky, these immigrant distillers used more widely available American grains. While both bourbon and rye can be made anywhere in the world, trade agreements require that the name bourbon be reserved for product made in the United States. Most often bourbon is associated with the American South, particularly Kentucky. Bourbon made for the American market by law must be made primarily from corn; the grain mixture that makes up the mash bill must be at least 51 percent corn (the remainer is wheat or rye and malted barley). It also must be aged in new charred oak barrels and distilled to no more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It then is diluted before being bottled for consumption but must be a minimum of 40 percent ABV.
American rye whiskey is made from at least 51 percent rye, with corn and malted barley making up the rest of the mash bill. Rye was historically made in the Northeastern United States, such as Pennsylvania and Maryland, and similar to bourbon must be aged in charred new oak barrels at the same levels of alcohol by volume. Rye whiskey almost disappeared after Prohibition but it has recently seen a revival of production in states such as New York, where it is called “Empire rye” for the Empire state.
Scotch whisky, spelled without the additional “e,” is a malted or grain whisky made in Scotland. The five main regions for whisky distillation in Scotland are the Highlands, the Lowlands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay.
The Highlands is by far the largest and most prolific producer of whisky, which characteristically is an elegant sipper with notes of heather, fruitcake and subtle smoke. Flavors are gleaned from the moors that dominate the landscape. Single malt brands to look for include Dalmore, Oban, Glenmorangie and Glen Garioch ( pronounced “glengeery”).
The Lowlands, perched just above England, produce feminine, gentle and smooth drams with notes of honeysuckle, ginger, toast and cinnamon. Single malts to look for are Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie.
Speyside is known to produce whisky full of nutty and fruity flavors with hints of vanilla and spice. Distilleries in this region also use sherry casks in the aging process, which lends richness and sweet aromatics to the variety. Single malts to look for include Balvenie, Macallan, Glenfarclas and Glenlivet.
Campbeltown is the smallest of the regions, with only three distilleries left in the unspoiled coastal Kintyre peninsula. The malts produced here are distinctive and reflective of the surrounding terrain, ranging from salt and smoke to rich fruit and toffee. Single malts to look for, Springbank.
Islay is the home of the hairiest whisky beasts. Whisky produced here is made using smoked barley that has been dried over peat fires, which is where the grain picks up its distinguishing and dominant flavor. Islay malts are pungent with this peat smoke and have multiple layers of complexity, a dram not for the faint of heart. Single malts to look for include Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavullin and Laphroaig.
Irish and Canadian whiskey also should be included in this roundup, though in my humble opinion there are few distillers that produce a whiskey that stands out in this rather crowded landscape of bottles. Redbreast 12- or 15-year would be your best bets on any list.
And then there’s Japanese whisky, by far my favorite and most coveted darling. The two most popular producers of whisky in Japan are Suntory and Nikka; both produce single malts as well as blended whisky that are most often compared to Scottish whisky in style as well as flavor profile. Dave Broom wrote in his book The Way of Whisky, “Japanese whiskies can differentiate themselves from other styles by a number of methods, clear wort, distillation techniques, the influence of climate.” It is these factors that allow whisky produced here to have such a wide variety of expressions, similar to those produced in Scotland.
Commercial whisky production began in Japan in 1924 with the opening of the first distillery, the now iconic Yamazaki. As recently as 10 years ago, Yamazaki produced affordable whisky that could be had for around $30 a bottle. But that changed in 2015 when Yamazaki was awarded best single-malt whisky in the world by expert Jim Murray of Whiskey Bible fame, beating out all Scottish single malts with a 97.5 rating. From that point on, Yamazaki whisky has been as difficult to find as unicorn poop — with a heftier price tag.
Japan’s second-largest distiller is Nikka, founded by Suntory’s first master distiller; it produces an impressive range of blended whiskies as well as highly regarded single malts. Nikka whiskies were launched at a time when the demand for Yamazaki was depleting availability on many markets. With its broader range of expressions Nikka managed to grab a good chunk of business in both the United States and Europe.
Limited-release bottlings from both Yamazaki and Nikka have become greatly coveted in the United States. There are stories of travelers headed to Japan being urged to defy customs and smuggle back bottles in their luggage. Those bottles then become teasers, showed off to discerning friends and kept under lock and key.
Luckily, in Los Angeles we have a troupe of bar and restaurant owners who will go all out to find these fine whiskies and rare bottlings, which may come at a hefty price for us mere mortals. But you can guarantee one sip of this longed-for water of life will make you forget the pain of forking over your hard-earned cash.
While stocks last, here are our picks for the bars with the best whiskey selections in this City of Angels.
Nestled in the back room of downtown L.A.’s Seven Grand, this diminutive watering hole fashioned after Japanese whisky bars is one of the many ventures from the 213 Hospitality Group that also features American whiskey as well as Scotch. This converted room has its own entrance with instructions by the light switch in both English and Japanese on how to gain entrance. The menu includes more than than 120 types of whiskey/whisky served in both tasting and sipping portions for those who want to try a variety of flights or prefer a longer-lasting relationship with your cut crystal glass. The bar also features lockers where guests can purchase a whole bottle and revisit it like a favorite mistress. For $250 you can drink your own liquor from a bar cart complete with ice, glassware and mixers; this price tag also includes priority reservations in this 18-seat establishment.
Among American whiskey found here are rare releases from the Van Winkle line and Four Roses limited releases. In the mood for a cocktail? Bar Jackalope has three offerings: an old-fashioned, Manhattan or the Japanese staple, a whisky highball.
Bar Jackalope, 515 W. Seventh St., downtown; (213) 614-0736, 213hospitality.com/project/barjackalope.
Occupying a former residential building on Chateau Marmont’s compound, Chateau Hanare is the brainchild of New York luminary Reika Alexander. The restaurant offers both kaiseki and à la carte menus with some exemplary small plates, such as the delicately flavored white asparagus or the house-made tofu. The restaurant also has a cozy bar that offers a large selection of Japanese whisky, some at incredibly reasonable prices; it’s probably one of the few places you can still find a shot of Yamazaki 12-year for less than $30 for a 2-ounce pour. This fine whisky also finds its way into a luscious ice cream that accompanies the chocolate tart, a pairing made for each other. If your budget stretches that far or you’re high-rolling, go all out and splurge on the Komagatake 30-year single malt or the Yamazaki 18-year Mizunara.
“The nice thing about Japanese whisky is when they brought their own Scottish malts back to Japan, they wanted to make it a little smoother and geared more toward the Japanese palate,” Chateau Hanare bar manager Casey Chippoletti tells L.A. Weekly. “They added more fruits and local ingredients, which results in a subtler taste than a Scotch or bourbon. You’ll find honey, plum, butterscotch and lychee undertones.”
Chateau Hanare, 8097 Selma Ave., Hollywood; (323) 963-5269, hanarela.com.
Double Barrel Room
Located in Beverly Hills, the Double Barrel Room is a whiskey bar that offers a curated whiskey experience by sommelier Sam Green (yes, there are 83 certified whisky somms in the world), guiding guests through a selection of hundreds of hand-picked new, rare and vintage bottlings. Green raves about offerings such as Glenfiddich Fire and Cane, Talisker Storm from the Isle of Skye and Glen Scotia double cask. Guests can become a member of the Double Barrel Room by purchasing a bottle and leaving it in a designated locker to enjoy anytime they visit. Walk-ins are welcome but only members are allowed reservations and access to the member lounge.
Double Barrel Room, 8689 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 657-5040, doublebarrelbh.com.
Stationed in the bowels of the building that houses Perch and adjacent to historic Pershing Square, this reinvented club offers a refined dining experience with a focus on cocktails and Japanese victuals, plus a massive array of Japanese whisky. Here you truly can go down the rabbit hole of whisky exploration with everything from inexpensive rice-based distillates from Kikori to rare finds from Suntory. Expect to see Stateside rarities including Yamazaki 18-year Mizunara cask and Hibiki 21-year as well as a $500-a-shot Komagatake 30-year single malt.
Director of operations Alex Reznik has been a whiskey connoisseur for years, traveling the country to Tennessee and back sampling everything the United States had to offer. He fell under the spell of Japanese whisky while researching the curation of Mrs. Fish’s bar, which he says has the best whisky collection on the West Coast.
“The passion of the Japanese whisky distilleries put into it, the attention to detail, is an artistry, ” Reznik tells L.A. Weekly, who also says that L.A. can be credited with starting the Japanese trend.
“We’ve been doing it hundreds and hundreds of years; the tradition is ingrained in our culture. Japanese whisky is relatively new. Every year the master distiller changes it up. They don’t have as many restrictions. In the U.S., our whiskeys are bourbon. We use brand-new American oak every year. In Japan they’re not restricted by the same kind of methodology because of the heritage. They use all different kinds of barrels — sherry casks, old Scottish, port or cabernet casks — to get the specific balance they are looking for. Every year it’s completely different. They’re not mass-produced, so every year it’s a different batch, and that’s what makes them so rare.”
Mrs. Fish, 448 S. Hill St., downtown; (213) 873-4444, mrsfish.com.
Old Lightning Bar
Impresarios Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni were the creative minds behind some of the most popular bars in the city: Harvard and Stone, Pour Vous and La Descarga. Then came their own highly acclaimed projects, Black Market, Scopa and the Chestnut Club. For Old Lightning Bar, their ambitious Venice Beach project, they curated a cache of dead-stock whiskies that bring pilgrims from all over the West Coast and beyond through their doors. Their collection of bottles began, as it does for many a bartender, as personal collections from anywhere from defunct gin distilleries to 25-year aged scotches. Whiskies that they had once bought at a mere fraction of the current cost started to be impossible to find on the open market, so they began to stockpile for the future, buying every available case they could find of brands they predicted would soon vanish. Their forward thinking paid off, as Old Lightning is one of the hardest reservations to score. Its back-bar selections rotate every three months, allowing for a deep dive into one particular expression. Their next frontier is working on exclusive custom-blended bottlings with American whisky distillers as well as producers of Armagnac and Calvados in France, ensuring the excitement surrounding brown spirits lives on for years to come.
Old Lightning Bar, 2905 Washington Blvd., Venice; oldlightning.com.
Old Man Bar
Nestled in the back of Culver City’s Hatchet Hall, Old Man Bar is the ultimate late-night boite, decorated with dark wood, stuffed animal heads and Paw Paw’s family heirlooms. The emphasis here is on American whiskey to match the Southern food stylings of Hatchet Hall chef Brian Dunsmoor. The talented bar crew spin vinyl to match the old-school lodge vibe while whipping up the perfect Manhattan, old-fashioned or Sazerac. Look forward to sipping on sought-after bottlings of E.H. Taylor bonded rye as well as an exclusive barrel program.
Old Man Bar, 12517 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 391-4222, hatchethallla.com/old-man-bar/.
The Daily Pint
If a game of pool with your wee dram of whisky is more your style, then the Daily Pint has you covered. This nondescript collegiate bar in Santa Monica is the last place you would expect to find such a large-scale selection of brown spirits, which has taken 25 years to collect. American and Scottish whiskies takie up the majority of shelf space. Boasting the largest and rarest selection of single malts west of the Mississippi, the Daily Pint offers a single-malt club that includes access to monthly whiskey tastings and informative classes, new arrivals and various other whiskey events.
The Daily Pint, 2310 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 450-7631, thedailypint.net.
The Thirsty Crow
The spirits selection here is anything but basic at the Thirsty Crow, which bills itself as a neighborhood watering hole. With over 100 bottles lining the back bar, the Crow features over 60 small-batch bourbons. The bar team prides itself on using sustainable and seasonal practices, utilizing techniques and recipes of bar masters of old. Whiskies range from wheated bourbons from the Van Winkle family to straight ryes and single-malt scotches, all at a reasonable price. Japanese, Irish and Tennessee whiskey round out this extensive selection.
Thirsty Crow, 2939 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 661-6007, thirstycrowbar.com.
One of the latest additions to the buzzing West Third Street dining and drinking scene is the western outpost of Inko Nito, Rainer Becker’s Japanese-inspired concept marked by high-energy yet laid-back vibes. An industrial space with exposed beams, wooden accents and focal robata grill, its eclectic selection of Japanese whisky has been carefully curated by Nathan Merriman. There are eight in the Suntory range (including a 25-year Yamasaki) and six in the Nikka range (including a 21-year Taketsuru). Pop in for one of the best happy hours on the Westside and be sure to order the shishito peppers with lemon and furikake.
Inko Nito, 8338 W. Third St., Beverly Grove; (310) 439-3076, inkonitorestaurant.com/menu/?m-loc=la-west-third-street.
The Whiskey Lounge
The hidden whiskey room located downstairs from Miro Restaurant is a convenient stop if you’re on foot and want to grab a quick cocktail or after-dinner drink before hopping on the Metro at the Seventh Street hub. The elegant, wood-paneled old-school bar has one of L.A.’s largest selections of whiskey from around the world. You can choose from Asian, American, Scottish and Irish flights as well as traditional cocktails.
The Whiskey Lounge, 888 Wilshire Blvd., downtown; (213) 988-8880, mirorestaurant.com.
Armed with all this knowledge, you may want to check out and discover the world of whiskey at the Whisky X, taking place at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica on Friday, Jan. 25. There will be 60 whiskeys to taste as well as music and food trucks. Participating whiskies include Bulleit, Bushmills, Glen Moray, Loch Lomond, Calumet, the Irishman, the Sexton, Wild Turkey, Tin Cup and Westland.