Whiskey is a hard drink. The burnt wood and grain flavors deepen your crow’s feet and punch your nose with the scent of every frontier saloon, juke joint and speakeasy from this young country’s mythology. Whiskey tastes like hardship.
Mix a couple of ounces of struggle with the right ingredients and it changes. It feels unexpectedly lighter. Energetic. Refreshing. Whiskey is always full of surprises.
Last summer, I met a friend at one of those fancy cocktail bars in New York. You know the type: Leather-bound menus, fancy couches and yes, they have fancy ice. After years of X-tini bars and vodka bullshit, I wasn’t expecting that much but the Pegu Bar’s menu kept batting its eyes at me.
The first thing I noticed were the drinks themselves: A Sidecar, Gin-Gin Mule, French Pearl. Sophisticated drinks with simple descriptions and zero affectation. The second thing was that the lone whiskey cocktail wasn’t a julep or an Old Fashioned.
"This is whiskey?" I repeated what I’m sure the Pegu staff has heard too many times. The bright yellow color of the drink will catch you off guard. It’s at once minty and sour and, I don’t know, thirst quenching. It certainly doesn’t contain any of whiskey’s violence.
Jerry Thomas1 created the Whiskey Smash in 1862. His original recipe was basically a lazy Mint Julep:
1 tsp. fine white sugar
2 tsp. water.
3 or 4 sprigs of young mint.
1 wine-glass [2oz.] of whiskey.
Put the mint in the glass, then the sugar and water. Mash the mint to extract the flavor, add the Whiskey, and fill up the glass with shaved ice. Stir up well, and ornament with two or three fresh sprigs of mint.
At some point in the last 150 years some pioneering bartender made a couple of modifications to Thomas’ drink to give us the modern Whiskey Smash:
2-4 lemon pieces (cut a lemon in half and then quarter one of the halves. Bam! pieces)
5-10 mint leaves
3 dashes bitters
1/4 to 3/4 oz. Simple syrup to taste
2-3 oz. Rye, bourbon or whiskey2
Muddle the lemon pieces, mint leaves, bitters and simple syrup in the bottom of a shaker glass. Add the bourbon and shake well with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lemon wedge.
The Pegu Club uses a brandied cherry for garnish and a huge fancy ice cube. Variations include adding a slice of fresh fruit like peaches or rhubarbs before muddling or topping with a splash of soda. Try flavored bitters. Experiment a bit.
The Whiskey Smash is a natural on a warm summer evening of socializing with friends. Almost too natural. In just under two hours my friend and I dusted off 10 of these fast girls and forgot all of our problems. And how to get home.
Thomas is known as the father of mixology. Check out Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to . ↩
Taster’s choice but I’m of the opinion that the best mixing whiskeys cost $10-$25 a bottle. ↩