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Chasing Whiskey

11:46 AM, Oct 18, 2011 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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My before-dinner drink almost inevitably is a martini or a whiskey on ice. Despite running an online booze review site for over a decade and tasting nearly every alcoholic beverage known to man (and liking many of them), I reflexively return to these stand-bys. 

Martini

Why? Well, habits are hard to break. And there is the matter of ease--I can whip these drinks up in a jiffy, which is important to a man who is perpetually exhausted. (I have two young children.)

However, I recently tried something entirely different--an Aviation cocktail, and boy am I happy I did.

The Aviation cocktail is a delicious mixture of Plymouth Gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, crème de violette, and lemon juice. Served chilled and neat in a martini glass it is a luminous sky-blue. (Hence the name.) Despite being highly alcoholic, the Aviation is ridiculously easy to quaff. After the first one, I felt both elated and placid. After the second Aviation, I was daydreaming about a European vacation; yet I retained sufficient reason to resist ordering a third round.

For this revelatory experience I am in debt to Jason Wilson. In his biweekly spirits column for the Washington Post and in Boozehound, Wilson relentlessly pushes readers to leave their comfort zones. Among his passions are obscure brandies (pisco, grappa), herbal spirits (aquavit), bitter liqueurs (Cynar artichoke liqueur), and crème di violette, the stuff that gives the Aviation cocktail its color and floral scent.

A provocateur, Wilson delights in clobbering American booze pieties. For instance:

Is there any cocktail that invites more bloviation than the Very Dry Martini? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how you take your martini, gramps: no vermouth. I should just whisper the word vermouth while I mix it, right? I should simply wave a capped bottle of vermouth over the shaker? Never heard that one before! You’d rather just drink this tumbler of gin and bow in the direction of France? Yes, sir! You are correct, sir! Ugh. The joke’s on you, because you’re not really drinking a martini anyway. You’re just drinking a cold glass of gin.

That is pretty harsh, but the man is correct.  The martini was originally a much different drink.  It was heavy on vermouth, stirred, and served in dainty four-and-one-half-ounce glasses. (Keep that in mind the next time you see a James Bond or some other sophisticate holding a giant glass with a half-pint of icy, watery vodka and a lemon peel.)

Boozehound’s nine entertaining essays take the reader to disparate locales--Jersey suburbs (where Wilson was reared), France, Haiti, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, and Sweden. As a seasoned travel writer, Wilson knows how to paint a picture and stoke wanderlust. Each chapter also has an “a round of drinks” section detailing how to whip Wilson’s favorite liquors into rarely made (or rarely made well) cocktails.

Next up for me? A jaunt to France to sample artisanal Armagnac is probably out of the question. (Two young children, remember?) Instead, I will have to make do with trying another new cocktail. Perhaps a Bianco Manhattan, which combines elements of my two stand-by-drinks--bourbon and dry vermouth.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History (Reaktion).