CHARLESTON, S.C. — “You sure you don’t want a cocktail?”
Sean Brock, the executive chef at Husk Restaurant, proposed the question for the third time, and so it seemed I should finally accept.
Brock, who was named the best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation last year for his work at McCrady’s restaurant (where he continues to serve as executive chef), recently opened Husk in a renovated house in downtown Charleston. He uses only Southern products in the kitchen — some local, some from as far away as Texas and Virginia, but none from across the Mason-Dixon line or the Pond.
But one of the best features of Husk has nothing at all to do with food. It is the Bar at Husk, set in the adjacent stacked-stone carriage house. Of specific interest here: the incredibly comprehensive lineup of bourbon whiskeys. Of specific specific interest: the nonpareil collection of bottles from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.
These Kentucky bourbons are made with wheat (in addition to corn and barley), which give them a mellower flavor. The whiskeys are further smoothed by a minimum of 10 years aging in charred oak barrels. The bourbons labeled “Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve” after distiller Julian Van Winkle III’s grandfather have a cult following, are expensive to buy, and so are usually sipped purposefully. When Brock offered to turn one of them into a cocktail, it sounds like sacrilege.
Yet Brock wanted to prepare an Old-Fashioned he learned from Van Winkle himself. He began with a rocks glass and a paper towel laid across the top of it. He placed a sugar cube on top of the towel and proceeded to saturate it with bitters. First came seven or eight drops of Angostura bitters, then seven or eight drops of orange bitters. Much of the dark liquid seeped through the sugar cube and onto the absorbent toweling. Before dropping the sugar cube into the glass, Brock hit it with a drop or two of sorghum. Why sorghum?
“Julian uses a brown sugar cube, and I couldn’t find a Southern producer, ” Brock explained.
Brock fished around for a wedge of juicy satsuma to add to the glass along with a quarter-ounce of the 15-year-old Family Reserve, which clocks in at 107 proof. Brock explained the recipe is precisely calibrated for 107-proof whiskey.
He muddled the sugar, orange and whiskey well with a slender muddling stick that was a gift from Van Winkle, then added ice cubes and an ounce of the whiskey. Brock gave the drink a good, long stir to blend it before floating a final quarter-ounce of whiskey on the surface.
“Here you go, ” he said, handing it over.
Now, “balance” is a word that gets overused in any discussion of cocktails. I wish I could figure out a way without using it to tell you how the sugar and bitters stood their ground against the inevitable sting of ETOH, which is always there in the back of any drink, that chemical with the rude burn that makes you feel good. Or how the cold-barrel flavors of malt and caramel responded to the sunny suggestion of citrus oils.
It was a fascinatingly delicious drink, one that kept changing during the 20 minutes or so that I sipped on it. The ice melted but the flavors never lost that quality of precision-tooled focus.
A great cocktail is like a clash of mini titans, with flavors that can be unpleasant on their own responding to each other, interlocking like enzymes and cell receptors, creating something that wasn’t there before. Mixology, it seems, can be every bit the art that cuisine is.