Each year, Utah’s High West Distillery issues A Midwinter Night’s Dram, a rye blend aged in Port barrels made from French oak. According to the company’s tasting notes, it’s best enjoyed “next to a warm fire as the snow piles up on the windowsill.”
It’s not the only cold-weather whiskey, of course. There’s even an entire subsection of winter-themed Scotch intended to be served straight from the freezer, like The Famous Grouse’s Snow Grouse, Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold and 2019’s Johnnie Walker Game of Thrones-themed White Walker special edition.
This year, several distillers are releasing limited-edition “winter” or “holiday” bottles, ideal for gifts or to add to a collection. These aren’t the usual year-round whiskeys spruced up with a festive label. What’s in the bottle is something a little different, often more robust or channeling seasonal flavors like dried fruit, chocolate or baking spice.
With these, “winter” is a state of mind, not of marketing.
Creative distillation techniques yield characteristics that suggest rich fruitcake, or fresh-from-the-oven oatmeal cookies served alongside hot cocoa. At the end of a particularly challenging year, whiskey makers happily lean into these comforting seasonal flavors.
“We didn’t set out to make a ‘winter’ whiskey,” says Peyton Mason, chief financial officer of Laws Whiskey House in Denver. In November, Laws released an heirloom-grain Bourbon, finished for two years in ruby Port casks, to kick off a series of limited-edition releases.
When the Laws team tasted the finished whiskey, it revealed fruitcake-like plum, cherry and raisin flavors.
“It evokes a cozy, sitting-by-the-fire feeling,” says Laws barrel manager James Kunz.
These aren’t the usual year-round whiskeys spruced up with a festive label. What’s in the bottle is something a little different.
Founder Virag Saksena had a specific flavor profile in mind for 10th St Distillery’s Holiday Edition whiskey. After offering a Holiday Edition last year, the San Jose distillery refined the concept. Distillers rested their peated whiskey in a Port-like cask supplied by a small Sonoma winery for 10 months. The final effect is like dried cherries toasted over a campfire.
“We wanted to create something for the holidays, something people will enjoy drinking,” says Saksena. “It’s sweeter, it has more notes of spices: vanilla, nutmeg. It embodies the festive spirit.”
In October, New Riff Distilling, of Newport, Kentucky, unveiled what it dubbed a Winter Whiskey, made with malted oat and chocolate malt. It’s reminiscent of a hearty chocolate oatmeal stout, and not far from oatmeal cookies studded with chocolate chunks.
“Truly, we had no plans for anything ‘winter’ when we made it,” says New Riff co-founder Jay Erisman. More than four years ago, he and head distiller Brian Sprance, a former brewer, set their sights on using oats in a Bourbon, not building a seasonal special release.
When the whiskey was sent out into the world this year, the name was selected to eliminate confusion.
“We considered that some Bourbon consumers, being whiskey drinkers and not necessarily chocolate oatmeal stout drinkers, might not know what “chocolate oatmeal stout” means,” says Erisman. “We decided to find a new name for it, and considering the hearty and uniquely spicy flavor of the whiskey, [we] thought it would make a nice ‘winter edition.’ ”
In retrospect, he’s glad that it’s framed as a winter whiskey, even though it’s not an official or historic spirits classification. He’s happy it came out this year, too.
“I think we can all agree that here at the end of 2020, we Americans well deserve some winter whiskey,” he says.