Celebrate the Fourth of July with American Spirits

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


It just doesn't feel right to toast the Fourth of July with vodka. Or with scotch or aquavit, for that matter, or any of a number of other spirits that are perfectly appropriate pretty much any other day of the year. But for a celebration on the Fourth, it's not a bad idea to keep the drinks in theme, and turn to a classic American spirit for the day's festivities.

Bourbon, of course, is the domestic spirit that always comes to mind. No matter what any marketing material may tell you, nobody's certain exactly who made the first bourbon, or when, but this corn-based whiskey first came out of the then-wilderness of Kentucky in the years that followed the American Revolution (though it would still be a few decades before the word "bourbon" was regularly attached to what became this distinctive style of whiskey).

Bourbon has changed a great deal over the past couple of centuries, probably entirely for the better, and today's arguably the best time in history to be a bourbon drinker. There are plenty of good finds in the bourbon aisle; some of my favorites include smaller brands and bottlings such as Jefferson's Reserve, Noah's Mill, and Weller 12-year-old, as well as major brands such as Basil Hayden, Evan Williams Single Barrel and Four Roses Small Batch (and bargain bourbon doesn't necessarily mean bad whiskey; more inexpensive whiskies such as Old Fitzgerald 100-proof, Old Forester and Ancient Ancient Age are very good bourbons for the price).


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

For a Fourth of July barbecue, classic bourbon drinks such as the mint julep or its close (and much easier to prepare) relative, the bourbon smash, are great choices.

Before there was bourbon, there was rye whiskey. Made by Scots-Irish settlers in western Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, rye whiskey is the ancestral link between the Old World barley-based spirit, and today's American whiskies. Once the most prominent style of American whiskey, and the kind of spirit originally used in most classic whiskey cocktails, rye was nearly wiped off the map by the double-whammy of Prohibition and the vodka invasion of the 1950s and '60s. Today, rye is again ascendant, with a number of new brands joining a few old stalwarts. Rittenhouse 100-proof is the rock star rye of the cocktail set, and Sazerac Rye has a number of adherents; of the newcomers, Bulleit Rye is very nice (and reasonably priced). For summer sipping, you may wish to avoid the high-octane cocktails and aim for something long and slow; the aforementioned julep and smash are equally great with rye, or make it easy with a highball.

It's often overlooked, but American apple brandy has a history that predates the republic. During colonial days (and well into the 19th century), farmers and homesteaders throughout the mid-Atlantic and into New England turned their customary hard cider into something more potent on a massive scale. Different in flavor and character than more familiar Calvados from France, American apple brandy (long known as applejack, though today's applejack is apple brandy softened with neutral spirits, much in the manner of a blended whiskey) is another boom-to-bust spirit. New Jersey-based Laird's, which has been in the apple brandy business and owned by the same family since the late 17th century, is the most prominent maker of applejack and apple brandy, and until very recently, they were the only ones. With a taste more similar to rye or bourbon than to either apples or brandy, this spirit is easily deployed in almost any drink that calls for whiskey.

Vodka? Gin? Rum? Well, if you or your guests insist on sticking with this route, keep in the Independence Day spirit by using a brand made by a small domestic distiller. The boom in microdistilling means many of us can go locavore with our booze: in Philadelphia, Bluecoat is a dry, self-described American-style gin for your backyard gin and tonic; Prichard's, from Tennessee, makes a tasty rum for summer punches; and pretty much anyplace with startup distilleries has its own local vodka—Seattle-made Sound Spirits vodka is my neighborhood pick.

I'll likely break out some nice bourbon for the Fourth and, weather permitting, enjoy the holiday with a nice mint julep. What are your plans for drinks over the holiday weekend?