Bartender’s Best

By Charlie Wohlrab

Rye, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, the dark whiskeys, are each a matter of personal taste. However, there is a variety of subtle taste differences among the various brands of each, and some distillers have different versions of the same product. This can be delineated by phrases on the label, e.g., Barrel Aged, Aged 12 years, and Sour Mash, to name a few.

Rye whiskey has an interesting history. George Washington distilled rye whiskey at Mt. Vernon. However, this whiskey has a strong Pennsylvania heritage dating back to the 1700s and was quite popular in the day. While its popularity declined after Prohibition, it is experiencing a renewed interest with more distillers getting into the act. This creates more selection at the liquor store with various prices for the consumer.

In the United States there are guidelines in the production of rye whiskey. The mash must be at least 51% rye, there are Alcohol by Volume (ABV) specs, and it must be aged in charred white oak barrels. The remaining 49% is usually corn and barley. Rye has a spicy taste, the corn and malted barley are sweeter, and therefore, the remaining 49% will have an impact on the taste. To be considered “Straight Rye Whiskey” it must be unblended and aged two years.

Bourbon is a distinctly American product. Federal regulations require that to be labeled as bourbon and if sold in the United States, it must be made in America. In addition, the mash must be 51% corn, and aged for at least two years in charred white oak barrels, along with ABV specifics. The charred barrels give bourbon its color and taste and Federal Regulations require the barrels to be new. The used barrels are sold and are used to age other products from barbeque sauce to wine. After aging, some of the bourbon remains in the charred oak barrels. Through a proprietary process, Jim Beam has found a way to extract the liquid, blend it with straight bourbon whiskey, and then bottle and sell the precious liquid as its “Devil’s Cut,” a premium 90 proof bourbon with a robust flavor. 

Tennessee whiskey is bourbon whiskey made in Tennessee that, according to federal regulations, has the added step of the “Lincoln County Process.” This process requires that the spirit be run through charred sugar maple before aging in the barrel. The process was developed by Jack Daniels when his distillery was in Lincoln County. The distillery has since moved to Lynchburg, in Moore County. Ironically, Moore County has been a “dry county” since Prohibition. The only distillery in Lincoln County today is Benjamin Prichard’s, but the process still carries the name of Lincoln County and is a necessary step in the production of Tennessee whiskey.

Each distiller has its own formula for mash, aging and distilling. This leads to a variety of products on the shelf. My home bar does not have that much room so I like to stock only two of each. I have a less expensive bottle (taverns and bars refer to this as a “well” drink), and a premium bottle.  I like to change the premium bottle among the different distilleries to keep the cocktail hour fresh. I use the less expensive bottle for drinks made with fruit juice or sugary sodas and the premium bottle for liquor-liquor cocktails such as a Manhattan, or if it is to be enjoyed by itself  and on the rocks.

Closer to Harrisburg, I’ve discovered a very interesting spirit produced by a small craft distillery in Lititz—Stott & Wolfe. Its “American Whiskey” is 80% bourbon and 20% rye, distilled in Indiana and Virginia respectively, and does not fit neatly in the above categories but nevertheless, deserves a taste.  It has the spiciness of rye and the sweetness of bourbon, and can be enjoyed on the rocks, with a splash of soda or in an Old Fashioned.

• 1 and ½ -2 ounces Stott & Wolfe American Whiskey
• 1-2 dashes of bitters
Splash of Club Soda/Seltzer
Orange slice and Cherry

In a rocks glass, add the bitters and Stott and Wolfe, fill with ice, a quick stir and a splash of Soda/Seltzer. Spear cherry onto an orange slice and place on rim, serve with a water or soda back. This is pretty much straight whiskey and the water or soda is there to prevent the night from ending too soon. 
Notice there is no need for sugar this is because in an Old Fashioned the sweetness of the bourbon really comes through. This is interesting because if you enjoy this Whiskey on the rocks the spiciness of the rye definitely comes through.

Happy New Year!

Charlie Wohlrab is a mixologist whose motto, “Drinking. . .more than a hobby” has been topmost in his mind since he first started tending bar while getting his Pharmacy degree. Now retired, when he’s not restoring his older home in New Jersey, he’s made it his goal to elevate the experience of having a daily cocktail from something mundane to something more exciting. He is now Harrisburg Magazine’s official bartender in residence. 

My recipes are like my opinions,” says Wohlrab. “They continue to be refined as I try new products and work with old standbys.” Currently working on a book about cocktails, Wolhrab welcomes comments from his readers. He can be contacted at