CHICAGO — Whiskey is cool. Which is weird for a drink with something of a complex image. Maybe you think of it as your grandfather's drink, "a man's drink," something to be enjoyed with a cigar. Perhaps you consider it the impressive option — an order that declares you can handle your liquor and the bite it delivers.
Or maybe you're like me, and you remember it as the only thing available to choke down at a college party, a punishing spirit that made you try not to cough as the shot burned its way down your throat.
Whatever the association, it's impossible to deny that whiskey has that cool factor. Sales were up 8.1 percent in 2017. Bartenders call it a "bourbon boom." Chicago is a whiskey town, an effect of its working class roots. Even the Old-Fashioned got its name from a Chicago bartender in 1888.
People are nerds about whiskey the way they are about "Harry Potter," which made me feel left out of the club, even as the whiskey-lovers in my life assured me I could learn to love.
The experts are also on board. Clay Risen has written two books about whiskey (and whisky): "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit" and "Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland." He assured me that shots of whiskey are pretty much the worst way to get into the spirit, but a first impression that many people share. So it wasn't just me and my young, burning throat.
"With a decent bourbon or scotch, the last thing you'd want to do is a shot," Risen said. "If you do it as a shot, it actually can be unpleasant because all you get is that harshness. You're not sipping it to really get the flavor. You're hitting yourself in the face, rather than sort of massaging it, if that metaphor works."
To approach whiskey in a different way, Risen suggested finding an accessible entry point: a smooth-drinking whiskey like wheated bourbon (Maker's Mark) or Irish whiskey (Jameson), or a cocktail like an Old-Fashioned, which is less harsh on the palate but still lets you taste the whiskey.
But let's take a step back. Whiskey is complicated. There are different kinds, made with different grains, at different percentages and with different proofs. People use terms like "single-barrel" and "small-batch." Sometimes it has an e and sometimes it doesn't. It can feel a little overwhelming. But if the key to liking whiskey is an education in the spirit, it seemed important for me to have at least a tentative grasp.
The place to go for more background knowledge was Koval Distillery. When Robert and Sonat Birnecker founded Koval in 2008, it was the first distillery in Chicago since Prohibition. I met Robert Birnecker for a tour of their facility.
He walked me through the process, from milling grain to distilling to barreling to bottling, using plenty of words that sent my brain back to 11th-grade chemistry. A lot goes into whiskey production, and any tweak along the way can change the end result. White whiskey, for example, is barely aged, so it doesn't pick up the brown color or vanilla-and-caramel flavors from the barrel that are a big part of what makes whiskey what it is. Knowing all of this didn't magically make me like whiskey, but it did help me understand the differences between products and why I might eventually prefer one of them over another.
Armed with knowledge, it was time to taste. I ventured to Mordecai, a cocktail bar and restaurant in Wrigleyville, to seek the advice of people who are both whiskey experts and lovers: Mordecai's bar manager Tom Lisy and spirits archivist Kris Peterson, and sister bar Billy Sunday's general manager Stephanie Andrews and bartender Jeremy Barrett.
The group can be categorized as the previously mentioned "whiskey nerds." In November, the four traveled down to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to learn and push their palates. Eager to share everything they love about the spirit, they were not put off by my whiskey hesitation.
"I personally love when people are like, 'I am not a whiskey drinker!'" Barrett said, laughing. "I can make them a cocktail where whiskey is the base but I don't tell them and ask them what they think. And when they're like, 'Oh this is fantastic, what's in it?' I can say, 'I just made you a cocktail with whiskey in it. You don't NOT like whiskey, you just haven't had whiskey the right way.'"
Everyone asked me questions. What do I like? What do I not like? What have I been getting into lately, and what have I moved away from? What sort of experience do I seek when I drink? Andrews said it's important for bartenders to learn where drinkers are coming from so they can build bridges from what they already enjoy to new flavors.
"It's creating a little taste of comfortability and a little taste of exploration," she said.
Like Risen, the group suggested training my palate to enjoy whiskey by sipping cocktails, rather than going straight to neat pours. Lisy jumped behind the bar to make me an Old-Fashioned that I sipped gingerly, trying to remember the experience was meant to be restrained and enjoyable, rather than a means to a drunken end.
The cocktail certainly rounded off the rougher edges of the whiskey, but the harshness was still present and made it hard for me to imagine drinking an Old-Fashioned for fun. I asked the group what they like about whiskey, and each associated the liquor with stories and experiences.
"One thing that I like about whiskey, especially sipping it neat, is that I can take my time with it," Peterson said. "It's something I can really relax with, as opposed to having to worry about dilution in a cocktail or pound a beer before it gets cold. With a glass of whiskey, I can set it down and relax and it'll keep me company for a long time."
That was a nice image — completely foreign to me, but aspirational. In fact, the more the four talked about whiskey — their shared terms when smelling for notes, their inside jokes from the trip down to Kentucky, their memories associated with it — the happier I was to let the Old-Fashioned linger on my tongue, trying to pick up the elusive things they were talking about.
But that's apparently another key to whiskey exploration.
"A good access point is tasting with other people," Peterson said. "If it's a group of friends, all go out to the bar and order a bunch of different things and taste together, and starting to develop that common language is a really fun bonding experience." For a group experience unlike the college dorm shots of my youth, Andrews suggested asking a bartender to construct a flight of whiskeys to share.
It was time for me to take off the cocktail training wheels and do some actual tasting. The group lined up four different pours of Four Roses bourbon. First, I was instructed to sniff them side by side to see what notes I could pick up. Across the board: vanilla. Everyone laughed and told me to push a little further.
I tried again. On the third glass, I picked up a cough drop smell, and Peterson smiled at me.
"You are way better at this than you let on."
Even that little bit of encouragement felt like a thrill. Andrews explained it as another benefit of tasting as a group — if people pick up the same scents, it makes the experience more communal and fun.
"If you're still learning and acclimating your palate, if you're getting those notes, you're excited and want to move forward," Andrews added.
Many of the notes the group offered weren't food related: gunpowder, laundry detergent, tennis ball. Peterson said those are often the ones that invoke memories and transport drinkers. His girlfriend sometimes gets a whiff of cement and remembers roller-skating in her parents' basement as a kid.
As he said this, I was again sniffing the fourth pour. I couldn't nail the scent. It was very familiar, musky, sort of floral, I mused out loud. Someone suggested perfume. And then it clicked. I was smelling my great-grandmother's apartment — the tray of perfume bottles she had that I used to play with when I was a kid.
"This is my favorite moment of every tasting, when you can go somewhere and share a memory," Peterson said. "Now we're in really cool places and we get to know something about you that we would have never known had we not put these in front of you."
Inspired, I determined that liking whiskey was only a matter of persistence. I took everyone's collective advice and invited my brother to try whiskey cocktails with me, which would let me continue to ease in and do so in a social way.
We met at Big Star and ordered five cocktails: Blueberry & Bourbon Collins, Bakersfield Mule, Grievous Angel Sour, House Old-Fashioned and Rip Van Winkle Old-Fashioned. Because Andrews had made me an incredible whiskey sour that I loved at Mordecai, I assumed the more complex cocktails would be more to my taste than the Old-Fashioned.
But then a funny thing happened: I found myself seeking the taste of whiskey. The other cocktails proved too sweet, too masking of the spirit I was there to explore. Though we had expected my brother to monopolize the Old-Fashioneds, I returned to them over and over, preferring the taste.
"So I guess you just like whiskey now," he said, possibly disappointed that he had to share.
I guess so.