Talk, tipple, and take notes with whiskey master Kathryn Aagesen.
Enjoying fine whiskey is easier and more popular than ever. Elucidating its scope and complexities with real authority, hard-won erudition, passion, and even grace is still Pappy Van Winkle rare. The good news: With some doing, we can all get closer to that enlightened place — or just enjoy the ride trying.
“There are several distilleries that offer whiskey workshops and certifications that are open to virtually anyone,” says seasoned whiskey expert Kathryn Aagesen, whose extensive work in the field includes Single Malt Specialist and Scotch Master for Glenlivet and Aberlour, distribution retail manager for Balcones Distilling, and currently sales and marketing manager for Oxnard, California-based Sespe Creek Distillery. “I spent a week at Springbank [Scotch distillery] in Campbeltown, Scotland,” she adds, “and it was the richest, happiest, most life-affirming week I've ever had.”
A regular contributor to The Whiskey Wash and host of the weekly whiskey-review podcast The Baddies, Aagesen is a Certified Scotch Professional with the Council of Whiskey Masters and can be followed on Instagram @whiskysommette for her spirited daily takes on the subject. A recent entry on Twitter (@katfoodbreath): “The number of whiskies it takes for me to tell a disinterested stranger that I want one of my cat’s claws cast in gold when he dies so I can wear it as a necklace is zero.”
Duly noted. Now, back to the bar.
How will she be pouring her next bourbon (and which one)? What single malt cocktail is she still thirsting to try? And where can one get away with gargling rye for 10 minutes without people staring? We’re so glad you asked.
Cowboys & Indians: If there was ever a traditional “whiskey drinker” type, those days are gone. What’s behind whiskey’s increasing popularity and ever-broadening appeal these days — aside from a lot of good whiskey?
Kathryn Aagesen: I think we can thank millennials (like myself) for the latest whiskey boom. As a generation, we’re super-educated, criminally underpaid, and swamped with debt. We aren’t buying homes or boats because we can’t. But we are eating and drinking luxuriously. And as far as that latter category goes, whiskey is by far the most attractive and sophisticated spirit. More casual than wine. More rugged than beer. Whiskey is a history lesson in a bottle. It’s intellectually stimulating. Its complex categories intrigue us — enough for a 50-year-old Macallan to pull off an iconic cameo in James Bond’s Skyfall. People love that scene.
Every few months some whiskey is being auctioned off for a record-breaking price that always turns heads. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal list whiskey as the smartest investment you can make. I never thought I’d see giant, glamorous Glenlivet ads in Times Square, but here we are.
C&I: Are there any outdated myths or presumptions about whiskey we need to finally dispel?
Aagesen: “Older is better.” No it’s not. It’s just rarer and therefore more expensive. Don’t get me wrong, I geek out over old Scotch, which has nothing to do with the quality or taste. Drinking a relic is fun, but by no means will the actual liquid be my favorite.
Also, bourbon can be from anywhere in the U.S. Of course the Bourbon Trail is sacred, and I love the regional pride my friends from Kentucky and Tennessee hold onto. But Congress stated in 1964 that bourbon is a national product, so it can officially be from anywhere — and some righteous bourbons are being made in every state.
Finally, good news: You can still drink whiskey with a gluten allergy. It comes from a grain, but the gluten is completely sloughed off in the distillation process. Perfectly safe.
C&I: Back to geography. Any thoughts on what’s fueling the rise of whiskey making out West beyond those classic epicenters back East? Is there a new level of innovation and creativity in whiskey production here?
Aagesen: Given how whiskey sales have been steadily growing for years, I think it was a safe bet that every state would start producing it — even Alaska and Hawaii. Dreamers see other craft distilleries popping up and think, If they can do it, so can I! There are so many success stories out here of distillers with no background or previous experience, but they were adventurous big kids following their passions. Plus everyone loves the underdog, and to me craft means just that. Smaller, more special, and not as well-known.
As far as innovation, people really are getting wild. There are exponential ways to make your signature whiskey special. Different grains, stills, fermentation, maturing, finishing in so many kinds of casks, and stave experimentation to infinity. Lost Spirits in Los Angeles, for example, is like whiskey sci-fi. They have a sense of theater with their product that I respect hard. Sespe Creek Distillery in Oxnard [Southern California] where I work is a very cool story too. Our one distiller is a former chemistry professor. We’re tiny, local, highly awarded, with zero waste. We make a mean spicy chipotle vodka, but it’s the 75 percent corn and 25 percent malted rye hand-smoked Warbringer Bourbon and its cask-strength older brother, Warmaster, that make my work here a dream job.
C&I: Any other favorite underappreciated must-tries for whiskey fans who want to branch out from Maker’s Mark?
Aagesen: Connemara peated Irish whiskey. W.L. Weller CYPB Kentucky Straight. Suntory Toki. Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve. These are some worldly recommendations not much more expensive than your familiar pals like Jim Beam and Maker’s. Oh, and did I mention my favorite California bourbon — again? Warbringer. [www.warbringerbourbon.com]
C&I: What are your favorite qualities in a great whiskey? What are the things a whiskey master is looking for?
Aagesen: What I look for is smoke. The end. I’m a smoke fiend. It never gets old. It reveals so much over time. It makes any cocktail interesting. What a master distiller looks for in whiskey is variety.
C&I: Greatest whiskey cocktail?
Aagesen: I will always prefer whiskey neat. But if I’m in the mood, there are so many impressive whiskey cocktails out there. You want to create a balance of the five primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami. Personally, I like spicy and savory concoctions. With a smoky whiskey, I like a citrus and anise combo.
One of my most memorable whiskey cocktails was at the Flatiron Room in New York, where they brought it out in a wine glass filled with smoke and covered by a thin plank of wood. I’m also dying to try the Staycation [recipe below], created by Katie Renshaw for Paul John Indian Single Malt Whisky.
C&I: Any favorite whiskey reads to get up to speed?
Aagesen: Whiskey bloggers and Instagrammers put their heart into their work, so check them out. Among dozens of sensational books about whiskey, my copies of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey by Fionnán O’Connor and Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey by Fred Minnick are my dog-eared nightstand staples.
C&I: Speaking of Whiskey Women, is there a persisting gender gap or “boys club” aura in the whiskey world?
Aagesen: At this point, women are not glaringly outnumbered professionally. So many magazines, festivals, podcasts are frequently spotlighting women in the industry. I have a long list of whiskey women in many different roles that I look up to — distillers, blenders, brand ambassadors, writers, and general badasses.
That said, mansplaining can still come with the territory. I was recently on a plane and when the guy seated beside me found out I worked in the whiskey industry he started selling me on this “great new whiskey from Nevada” called “Park West.” What he meant was High West from Park City, Utah. “They have a great Scotch there called Campfire,” he added. “You should try it.” I have tried it, and it’s not a Scotch. But I just nodded and smiled — because Campfire is really good.
C&I: What’s the best way to enjoy a special whiskey, connoisseur style?
Aagesen: Drink from a glencairn, or any glass that has a bulbous body and tapering lip. Look at the liquid, determine the color, use your Crayola 100 set vocabulary: marigold, amber, mahogany. Swirl and observe the legs. Shake up the bottle and observe the bubble dissipation. Nose the spirit; describe what you smell. Taste the spirit; describe what you taste. Observe the sensations and lingering flavors and scents of the spirit’s journey down your tongue, sides of cheeks, esophagus, chest. Add a small amount of distilled water; nose again. Taste again. Don’t be afraid to get aggressive.
Aagesen: In the right company, meaning alone, sure. I have enjoyably held spirit in my mouth for probably 10 minutes — at home before an evening out.
C&I: Any final dos or don’ts from a whiskey master?
Aagesen: Well, people in the industry love to say enjoy your whiskey “any way you want” because that’s the friendly, welcoming answer. I staunchly maintain that you have to taste it neat first — ideally on an empty stomach. Then play with it a bit and add water to open it up.
Only then, if you decide you prefer it with ice, Diet Coke, milk, whatever, will you have my blessing to go to town. No judgments. As long as you get to know it naked first.
Katie Renshaw, who was named the United States Bartenders’ Guild 2019 U.S. Bartender of the Year, developed this whiskey cocktail for the Toast to the Service Industry Program recipe contest and advanced to the competition’s final four.
1½ ounces Paul John Edited Whisky
½ ounce coconut syrup (recipe below)*
½ ounce lemon juice
90 grams diced mango (around ½ cup diced mango if you don’t have a scale)
25 grams Greek yogurt (around 1 tablespoon if you don’t have a scale)
Add all ingredients, plus a ½ ounce of water and 5 – 6 refrigerator ice cubes to a blender. Blend on high until texture is smooth. Pour into a small rocks glass. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg, sliced mango, and a mint sprig spritzed with Paul John Bold Whisky.
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut/coconut flakes
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a pot on the stove. Bring to a simmer, stir, and simmer for 5 minutes. Let cool, then fine strain to remove coconut flakes.
For more whiskey, check out our October 2020 Spirits of the West feature.