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Whiskey's a go-go: Brown spirits enjoy a surge, by the glass & in recipes

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough." - Mark Twain

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much of good whiskey is barely enough."

- Mark Twain

THESE ARE serious times, and serious times call for serious spirits. When it comes to their spirit of choice, whiskey drinkers rival sports fans in their passion for a team brand.

Brown spirits - usually spelled whiskey if distilled in Ireland and America and whisky if imported from Scotland, Canada and Japan - have never been more popular. Whether tossing back pricey single malts, sipping Irish whiskey or quaffing American-made bourbon, whiskey lovers are a force to be reckoned with.

And in Pennsylvania, they put their money where their drink is. While vodka and rum are the No. 1 and No. 2 sellers in the state, the entire whiskey category is growing, according to Tim Fringer, spirits category manager for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

"Bourbon is especially making a resurgence, up 5 percent in sales in the past year" he said. "Super premium single malts are up 10 percent, and Irish whiskey is up 14 percent."

He credits the spike to the flat economy. "People aren't going out as much, so they're entertaining more at home. And they'll invest in a $40 or $50 bottle and make it last."

Within the category, Jameson Irish whiskey is the No. 1 seller.

Those numbers don't surprise Lew Bryson a bit. Bryson, a Langhorne resident, is managing editor of Malt Advocate, a quarterly magazine dedicated to all things whiskey. "The American whiskey drinker has changed: He's also a she, the old guy is also a younger guy, and the bourbon on the rocks or Jack [Daniel's] and Coke is often a rye Manhattan or Bourbon Smash," he said.

It's the water of life

An ideal antidote to the chill of a Highland winter, whiskey immigrated to America along with the early colonists, who took up arms against George Washington, no less, when he levied a whiskey tax in 1791.

The Whiskey Rebellion - which took place in, of all places, Pittsburgh - sparked a surge in rebel whiskey production in the corn country of Kentucky and Tennessee, territories that operated beyond the arm of federal law and distilled the first American-made bourbon whiskey.

American whiskey was dealt a one-two punch by Prohibition and World War II, when producers turned to industrial alcohol production for the chemical and explosives industries.

"Bourbon recovered somewhat, mostly in the South, and then went into a long decline in the 1960s when white spirits got popular," said Bryson.

The surviving companies, many now selling the aged product that had long been languishing in their storehouses, include a mix of small and big producers, like Beam (Jim Beam and Maker's Mark), family-owned Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve) and independents like Heaven Hill and Sazerac/Buffalo Trace.

"Four Roses and Wild Turkey are owned by foreign companies but allowed to operate largely independently, and all the companies are relatively nimble in the marketplace," said Bryson.

For the Roses

"The more you taste, the more complexities you discover," he said. "Philly is a Jameson town, but we get plenty of single-malt drinkers who know whether they want the smoke and peat of an Islay scotch like Laphroaig, or the grassiness of a more typical Highland malt."

While many customers order their whiskey straight or with a splash of water, whiskey-based cocktails are also popular, said Rodriguez, with the classic Old Fashioned the No. 1 fave. The key, he said, is using pristine ingredients, fresh fruit juices and house-made bitters. "A whiskey sour made with a commercial sour mix is nothing like a real whiskey sour."

If all the fuss has made you curious about expanding your wine, beer or clear-liquor repertoire, be forewarned that exploring the flavors of the brown may take some getting used to.

Bryson was originally a beer drinker, but when the magazine started focusing on whiskey in 1996, he had to learn fast.

"At first, every time I tasted, all I got was hot and burn. I didn't taste the cocoa, smoke, fudge, maple and vanilla. But I kept pushing, and one day, I broke through the wall. One day I tasted vanilla. It was bizarre, and I've talked to other people who had the same experience."

He now tastes just about everything, with 12-year-old Redbreast a favorite Irish whiskey, Highland Park his best-loved Scotch, Rittenhouse Rye his rye of choice, and Woodford Reserve prized as a sipping bourbon.

"There is a value there - unlike beer and wine, you can put the cap back on and keep it for once. And bourbon is still a bargain compared to Scotch," he noted.

A key ingredient

"I use it interchangeably with brandy and cognac," said Thomas Groff, executive chef at the modern American restaurant Dettera in Ambler. Groff, who presided over the Jefferson House restaurant in Norristown for close to 30 years, likes the complexity and richness whiskey brings to everything, from cream sauces and soups to desserts.

While experimenting with recipes for a recent four-course bourbon dinner, chef Eric Paraskevas fell in love with the natural smoke that the American spirit imbues to food.

"It can add smoke, pepper and wood flavor to a dish," said Paraskevas, executive chef at Terra, the cozy new rebranded restaurant on the rathskeller level of Tavern on Camac. Among the four dishes, one of his favorites was the chestnut blini with smoked pork belly and a Knob Creek maple foam paired with - what else, a classic Knob Creek Manhattan.

"You can't cook with the cheap stuff," he said. "Just about anybody can tell a Heaven Hill from a Makers Mark. You don't want to feel like you're eating a shot."

"I think rye whiskey is going to be very hot in 2010," predicted Groff. "Rye died for a long time, but they never stopped making it. We're now seeing an older and richer product that is rivaling brandies and cognacs for flavor complexity."

He likes ri(1), a new super premium brand that works beautifully with the richness of cream and bacon in a new chicken dish he created. "Whether you're drinking or eating," he said, "It's always about finding that perfect balance."

Incorporating whiskey into food is another way to get your dose of distilled flavor. At Village Whiskey, Iron Chef and Four Roses drinker Jose Garces' latest hot spot at 20th & Sansom, bar manager Paul Rodriguez, more of a wine guy, had to learn a whole new tasting vocabulary when picking out the restaurant's 80-plus bottle list.

Appealing for both its particular taste and its mythic lore, whiskey has a spirited history. While distilled spirits can be traced back to rice wine in ancient China, the process migrated around the 12th century to Ireland and Scotland, where the word itself is traced back to the Gaelic usquebaugh, which literally means "water of life."