Mixology has gone far beyond the simple spirit ’n’ soda or gin ’n’ juice. Drinks with liquors, liqueurs, bitters, essences, infusions, jellies, sugars, powders, foams … all of these things are well and good and often delightful, but sometimes all we want is a bottle poured into a glass. Not to down, but to savor. At its best, a good whiskey can have all of the layers and blends of flavors found in a complicated cocktail.
What’s the difference between whiskey and whisky? Uh … spelling. And a little geography. The Americans and the Irish call it “whiskey,” while the Canadians, Scots and Japanese drop the e. But it’s essentially the same process. From there, it’s on to the wonderful world of bourbon, rye, scotch. …
Social at the Palms (4321 W. Flamingo Road, 942-7777) is your basic casino bar, raised above a ring of poker tables, surrounded by banquettes, topped with sports-blaring flatscreens. But there’s also a well-curated selection of brown liquor and an apparent mission to turn the swillers of Bud Light into the sippers of Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon. To facilitate the transition, Social has a brochure describing many of its 40-plus whiskies and offer half-glass “tastings,” so that you can sample several in a sort of build-your-own-flight concept.
Among the many options are the Cyrus Noble, a small-batch bourbon from San Francisco (it was a gold miner’s favorite back in the day) with a caramelly color and flavor and a closing warmth that lingers on your tongue. The Buffalo Trace is another Kentucky product — slightly lighter, with a bit of vanilla taste and a hint of wood/spice. The most unusual is the Corsair Triple Smoke, which has an almost Scotch-like peatiness, but with a slightly sweet bourbon-ish note, as well — it’s an unexpected blend that might be off-putting at first sip but, like a Russian novel or Game of Thrones marathon, it lures you back in to appreciate the complexities you missed the first time. Still feel adrift in a sea of 80-proof? John, the on-site whiskey expert, can steer you toward something that will charm rather than confuse your palate.
At Bar + Bistro (107 E. Charleston Blvd., 202-6060) the liquor is as lovingly displayed as the art. The room has several cabinets proudly displaying bottles of all kinds, with the whiskeys lined up on glass shelves under a front-and-center spotlight. Squat, curvy bottles of Hudson Baby Bourbon and the cowboy-labeled and horseshoe-embossed High West; Maker’s Mark, with its square bottle and red wax seal; Ridegmont Reserve’s oval decanter and burlap-banded neck. Wes, the proprietor, is a longtime whiskey lover, willing to scour the state for rarities — like a distillery in Europe floods, and he manages to track down a case of deluge whisky, one bottle at a time.
But the bottles aren’t just for collecting or admiring: There’s plenty behind the bar, ready to be imbibed. Bulleit bourbon makes a fantastic Manhattan, but is also excellent straight-up — it’s got a full, rich taste with a hint of fruit and spice. E.H. Taylor is another high-end bourbon, this one a bit lighter, with a corn (almost popcorn) flavor and a hint of cinnamon.
It comes as no surprise that McMullan’s Irish Pub (4650 W. Tropicana Ave., 247-7000) has a formidable selection of whiskey. Lined up on shelves behind the old-fashioned oak bar, there’s Tyrconnell, Laphroaig, Knappogue Castle and other names evocative of rolling green hills, in golden tints from straw to tea to amber to toffee. The most fun to order is probably Feckin Irish Whiskey — gimme a Feckin whiskey! — and it’s pleasant to drink as well, with the heather and moss flavors you expect, but with a bit of a nutty undertone. Tullamore Dew can be a bit of an acquired taste, with charcoal and malt at the front, but it’s another that grows on you. There are even delightfully designed coasters for your “Brew and a Dew,” designed to hold a pint and a shot glass like a motorcycle and its sidecar.
Of course, you need not go anywhere fancy for a good pour of brown liquor. Any bar will have Bushmills or Glenfiddich — or, of course, Jameson’s. The Huntridge Tavern (1116 E. Charleston Blvd., 384-7377) pours plenty of Jamie, enough to fill two Century Club boards; drink a hundred shots of Jameson’s and your name is engraved on a little brass plaque honoring your (liver’s and wallet’s) mighty achievement.
Yeah, there’s always gonna be kids buzzing for the bottle of grape Smirnoff or the Captain Morgan’s premixed Long Island Iced Tea. But we adults will take our comfortable seat at the bar and enjoy the simple yet sophisticated pleasure that is a glass of whiskey.