Friday, November 12, 2010
Whiskey Tasting in Brooklyn
Last night, I joined a group of friends for an evening of whiskey tasting at an adorable Brooklyn restaurant called Char No. 4. Now, I lived in Kentucky for a spell, so I know a little about bourbon, but my knowledge is fairly limited on the subject of whiskey on the whole, so I was glad to be sitting across from my friend, Paul, who knew enough to serve as the entire table’s veritable brown booze aficionado. Prior to my arrival, I made it clear to Paul that I don’t go all the way out to Brooklyn for just anything, so this restaurant had better be well worth my while. And interesting enough to blog about. Well, it absolutely was. Here’s the skinny.
My first impression of the empty restaurant (we arrived at 5pm) was that it was simple and charming. The décor was minimal, but homey, with the towering wall of alcohol behind the bar as the main focus. Before we sat at our table, we sidled up to the imposing bar and chatted up Jeff, the bartender (who, incidentally, looked like he should be working in the information section of Barnes and Noble). Jeff told us that the collection of whiskey displayed behind the bar was the result of one man’s lifelong quest to buy one bottle of whiskey from each distillery in Ireland (a practically impossible task). After spending years (and, I’m sure, thousands of dollars) buying hundreds of bottles of scotch, this guy (we’ll call him Mr. Char) became interested in American whiskey and started buying bottles of that. Then, Mr. Char became enamored with Japanese whiskey. And so on. I’m guessing that Mr. Char either became too old to appreciate his collection (or his liver gave out) and the owner of Char No. 4 bought his collection and opened a restaurant to share it with others.
I looked at the wall of brown bottles. The wall was literally lined with whiskey. And the amazing thing is that not one bottle was duplicated. There bottles with names I’d never even heard of or seen before. And some I couldn’t even read. It was BY FAR the most impressive collection of whiskey I’ve ever encountered (not that that’s saying much since I haven’t really ever seen a whiskey collection at all before). I had no idea how to choose one. Luckily, Paul helped me pick. Char No. 4 serves their whiskeys in one or two ounce pours. They have a few interesting mixed (only with brown liquor) drinks and a fairly impressive wine list, but drinking from the collection on the wall is strongly encouraged. And ice is strongly discouraged. I looked at the menu and realized why. The choices of one-ounce pours of whiskey ranged from $1 to $100 and covered everything in between. Yeah. If you’re paying $100 for one ounce of 75 year old whiskey, don’t add a chunk of ice. Just saying.
For those of you that are wondering how much variation there can be in one kind of alcohol, let me give you a little info on the art of the brown liquor. If I’m insulting your intelligence, skip to the next paragraph. Whiskey is distilled from fermented grain mash; the grains are usually either barley, rye, wheat, or corn. Most whiskey is then aged in wooden barrels or casks and actually gets more than half of its flavor from the type of cask that’s used to age it (and the color). Some corn whiskeys are not aged and are, thus, clear). Scotch whiskey is from (obviously) Scotland and Bourbon is made in Kentucky.
I started with Paul’s recommendation – an ounce of High West whiskey that was created from two exotic straight rye whiskies: a 6-year-old 95% rye and a 16-year-old 80% rye. It was interestingly earthy tasting. Then, I bravely looked at the wall. “What’s that pretty yellow one”, I asked Jeff, exposing my lack of whiskey tasting prowess. He seemed not to be bothered by my ignorance. “American Honey”, he answered, “it’s a blend of Wild Turkey bourbon and real honey“. I tried an ounce. It was literally like drinking a glass of liquid alcoholic honey. Yum! Our party of five people moved to a table and passed around our different choices of drinks for everyone to taste. I had a Woodford Reserve bourbon that was aged (Jeff said for at least a year) in a barrel that had just been emptied of Sonoma Cutrer. You could literally taste the white wine at the front of it and the whiskey at the back. Then, I tried a 6 year Suntory Japanese whiskey (anybody seen Lost in Translation?). We passed and sipped, passed and sipped. The star of the evening was a Charbay hop flavored whiskey. It was, honestly, the most favorably complex-tasting thing I had ever put in my mouth. We all tasted different things after sipping it. “Do you get the mint at the end?”, Andrew asked? “Ooh! I get vanilla”, Heather said. “Definitely worth the money”, Paul answered. At $30 per ounce, I actually agreed.
I have written a lot about the whiskey, but a quick note about the food: it was equally as fabulous. Victor and I had a jalapeno bacon cornbread with sweet butter that would make a southern woman swoon. The kale was flavorful and perfectly cooked, and the maple sausage with bacon and brussels sprouts officially won me over. This was definitely a place I would come back to. Even if it was in Brooklyn. The great thing about Char No. 4 is that you don’t have to know much to enjoy the different things it has to offer. The staff is friendly, patient, and knowledgeable, and I’ve got to say that it’s always fun to try and learn about new things. I guess that’s what this whole blog is about. Hmm . . . wow, full circle. Love it.