The Alembic’s bar manager Daniel Hyatt says he’s “over the snobbery in cocktails”—a sentiment we’re likely to hear more often as bartenders tire of the increasingly precious spirits movement and return to the down-home stuff formerly known as hooch.
If anything qualifies as hooch, it’s American corn whiskey. San Francisco is just starting to see a glimmer of appreciation for this whiskey’s humble profile amid the expensive, aged alternatives. “Corn whiskey can be a fun thing to play with,” says Hyatt, who’s been stocking The Alembic’s shelves with under-the-radar American whiskeys for nearly five years.
Not usually considered a West Coast thing, corn whiskey is as old as the hills where the term hillbilly originated and even nowadays is distilled in many a Southern backyard. As an unaged or barely aged whiskey that’s too young to be bourbon, it’s made from a minimum of 80 percent corn.
Today, it’s having a renaissance and garnering respect from serious aficionados. Balcones from Texas is made with blue corn, while other distillers, such as Prichard’s in Tennessee or Kentucky’s MB Roland, use sweet white corn. Around here, Ukiah’s respected Craft Distillers is working on Low Gap corn whiskey using Mendocino corn, aiming for a September release. Distiller and former Germain-Robin apprentice Crispin Cain plans to produce four Low Gap whiskeys made of varying grains. With a white wheat already on the market, Cain chose corn next. “I’ve encountered some poorly made corn whiskeys that are commercially available, so my work is cut out for me,” he says. Given the excellent reputation Craft has for brandies sand spirits, Low Gap is likely to be exemplary.
Back at The Alembic, Hyatt appreciates corn whiskey for its cocktail friendliness. “It has a great capacity to highlight other flavors while still retaining its own character,” he says as he mixes a Georgia Mud Squid into a rocks glass. Made with Platte Valley’s corn whiskey, it’s enhanced with black tea, lemon, and a splash of pinecone liquor. In keeping with corn whiskey’s lowbrow roots, the cocktail is made with Lipton tea and topped with a flaming peanut shell. You can almost taste the wink in it.
Whiskey A Go Go
1. Prichard’s Lincoln County Lightning ($19)
Flavors of sweet white corn, balanced with mellow heat and a creamy finish. prichardsdistillery.com
2. Kings County Corn Whiskey ($20)
This Brooklyn-produced whiskey is gentle on the tongue but has a fiery finish. kingscountydistillery.com
3. Balcones Baby Blue ($44)
Hardly hillbilly, this is elegant and layered with notes of butter and toffee, all with a balanced heat. balconesdistilling.com
4. MB Roland Black Dog ($20)
White corn is dark-fired in a tobacco barn for an earthy, smoky, toasted finish. mbrdistillery.com
Most available at K & L Wine Merchants, 638 Fourth St. (at Brannan), 415-896-1734, klwines.com