"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time."
Bill Murray's Lost in Translation character may have been skeptical of the whole Japanese whiskey-commercial situation in which he found himself, but the crew got one thing right: Whiskey is a great relaxer. Whether imbibed medicinally or socially, your brown liquors – whiskey, Scotch, rye – are just the ticket for those moments when holiday stress has you tense or social anxiety makes you seize up at the office party. You can't (or anyway, shouldn't) gulp down two fingers of single malt; you sip slowly, the world takes on a slight golden glow, and you stop sweating the small stuff.
America is in the middle of a whiskey renaissance right now, with new microdistilleries coming online seemingly every day. Maker's Mark, Bushmills and Bulleit are all fine choices, to be sure, but if you want to step outside the box (and are ready to drop a bit of cash), try to locate bottles from celebrated small distillers like Hudson, Stranahan's or Corsair. And if you're not one to drink it neat, below are a few whiskey-based mixed drinks sure to keep party spirits high; I've taken classic cocktails and tweaked them a bit for special relaxing times.
BOURBON: The Boulevardier
A classic Boulevardier is equal parts bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth, but my version incorporates Hum, a 70-proof spirit with a kick-in-the-head bouquet of aromatics including cardamom, pepper, ginger and kaffir lime leaf. Hum has such big shoulders, though, that I went with Aperol rather than Campari, for the bitter component (Aperol is like Campari's little sister: more sugary, less bossy). The result is a gloriously spicy, ruby-red libation perfect for cool-weather drinking.
1 1/2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Aperol
3/4 ounce sweet red vermouth
1/4 ounce Hum liqueur
Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well chilled. Strain into a glass with one large or two medium lumps of ice. Garnish with grapefruit peel.
RYE: The Sazerac
This drink started out as a medicinal concoction of imported Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils cognac and bitters brewed by Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud, sweetened with a bit of sugar, but after phylloxera killed most of the grapevines in Europe, American rye whiskey was substituted for the cognac. A later addition was the absinthe rinse, which gives the Sazerac its distinctive herbal aroma. I was hesitant to tinker too much with such a classic, but I wanted to honor its roots with a half-and-half mix of cognac and rye; the ginger gives it an unexpected but welcome warmth.
1 1/2 ounces rye
1/2 ounce Domaine de Canton ginger cognac
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
spoonful of absinthe
Pack a rocks glass with ice and set it aside. Drop the sugar cube into a shaker, add the bitters, and muddle until crushed. Add the rye and cognac, drop in some ice, and shake to the count of five. Dump the ice out of the now-chilled glass, pour in the absinthe, and swirl to coat the sides and bottom of the glass, discarding any extra. Strain the shaken sugar-bitters-rye-cognac mixture into the absinthe-coated glass and serve.
SCOTCH: The hot toddy
Smoky, warm and rich, this updated seasonal classic will hug you like your favorite sweater. The campfire aroma of the Lapsang Souchong tea (it's toasted over wood fires rather than simply air-dried) gives this cocktail a single-malt aroma without squandering the precious stuff. That rich flavor coordinates perfectly with applejack, a brandy made of apple cider aged to a bourbon-like sweetness. Mesquite honey also has a smoky, piney taste, and green Chartreuse lends a sharper herbal note. If that's altogether too much smoke, add hot water until it's right for you.
1 ounce blended Scotch
1 1/2 ounces applejack
1 teaspoon green Chartreuse
4 ounces double-strength Lapsang Souchong tea
1 tablespoon mesquite honey
Set your kettle to boil and get out two cups and a tea infuser. Measure and mix the three spirits together in your favorite cup, and measure double the usual amount of tea into the teaball – the rule of thumb is one teaspoon per 6 ounces of water, so for this drink, use two teaspoons – and get it ready to steep in the other cup. When the kettle boils, pour in 6 ounces of water and let the tea steep for five minutes. When it's done, pour 4 ounces of the tea into the cup with the rye, applejack and Chartreuse, then add the honey, stir and drink.