Bitters, citrus, and spices? Been there, done that. Today more bartenders are experimenting with whisky cocktails that incorporate out-of-the-ordinary ingredients. Whether it’s trendy coconut water, fresh bell pepper, or creamy yogurt, adventurous drinkers are discovering that it’s delicious to think outside the shaker.
“Whisky is a great base with amazing undertones from spicy to sweet to hot to refreshing,” explains Stephen Thomas, head bartender at New York City’s aRoqa, advising drinkers to pick a desired undertone, and then build from there. “It’s all about balance. When I find a whisky to be spicy, I like to add a bit of sweetness. It works much like a sweet Riesling when you are eating a spicy curry. When a whisky is refreshing, then I like to add some acidity with some really nice floral notes.”
Other bartenders say they think of whisky as an ingredient itself. “We have more and more choice of spirits and liquors, and we are beginning to see whisky more as an ingredient than a base of the drink, which gives bartenders a wilder mind to explore and mix it into cocktails,” says mixologist Gn Chan. “I like to create a story or concept first, then try to play around with it,” he says of his approach to creating a new drink.
Of course, when using esoteric ingredients, not every experiment succeeds. “I had a drink with star fruit and jalapeño on a menu once. I made it the first time, then said we have to reprint the menus,” Thomas says.
But it can be fun—and exciting—to explore new flavors, like those in the cocktails below. “Life is short. Be open-minded no matter which side of the bar you are on,” Chan says.
Try These Whisky Cocktails Made With Unusual Ingredients
Carrot: Mix with white whiskey and herbs
“The earthy sweetness of the carrot juice plays beautifully with Wicked White Whiskey, which has an almost sweet, more complex nose than others that I had been experimenting with,” says Ali Koppel, resort mixologist at Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, New Jersey. “I found it very fun to mix with, here adding the pickled flavor of a dill syrup I created.”
Lavender: Elevate a traditional Old Fashioned
“When I pair lavender with whiskey, I find that the scent of the herb sweetens the bitterness of the traditional cocktail,” says Ruben Hernandez, head bartender at Miss Ada in Brooklyn, New York, where staff often incorporate herbs grown in the restaurant’s backyard into their food and drinks. The Lavender Old Fashioned is boozy yet refreshing and perfect for summer.
Yogurt: Pair with bourbon and fruit
“The sweeter vanilla notes of bourbon interact with yogurt to create a nice balance of warmth and tanginess,” says Dan Lynch, bartender at Cultivar in Boston. Using strawberries and lemon, as in his Strawberry Bourbon Lassi, helps lighten the richer textures of both the whiskey and yogurt. “This drink is really quite refreshing despite having some richness and creaminess in texture. It’s the type of drink I’d enjoy with a nice patio brunch on a warm day,” Lynch says.
Matcha: Add creaminess to rye whiskey
“Matcha has such a unique profile, almost a zesty or nutty quality,” says Dee Ann Quinones, who runs the bar program at Commerson in Los Angeles. “I chose Rittenhouse for this cocktail, which I created at Westbound, because it has a strong and spicy backbone. Adding Montenegro helped to round it out.” The matcha flavor comes from ice cream (Häagen-Dazs and other brands sell it by the pint). The final result is a sweet and spicy drink with a flavor that closely resembles cream soda.
Coconut Water: Energize a blended scotch drink
“Coconut water has a natural earthy tone that can be a nice complement with a sweet, soft, fruity whisky,” Chan says. His Daybreaker Roaster combines the two ingredients with cold brew coffee for a refreshing, light—and energizing—drink.
Bell Pepper: Build a structured single malt cocktail
Herbaceous, tannic red bell pepper helps balance a sweeter whisky cocktail, like the Moving Swiftly by Stephen Thomas of aRoqa in New York City. “This drink is like a boozy iced tea,” Thomas says. “It’s very complex with the scotch, elderflower, cherry, and lavender. Add the bell pepper for structure, and you have something really amazing.”