September can be confusing for some spirits lovers, caught in between summer’s ice-cold margaritas and winter’s piping, spiced cocktails. But for gin and bourbon drinkers, early autumn is the perfect time; it’s when Washington indulges in the delicious, mellow sting of connoisseur-class liquor.
“We definitely see an uptick in the small-batch varieties of gin and bourbon that we sell come early September,” says Jon Genderson, co-owner of the venerable spirits and wine shop Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. “Small-batch spirits are really kind of cult favorites [for] people who know those spirits very well. [They] taste great alone, especially if you know which flavors and notes you’re looking for, or they can add something special to a number of cocktails.” Genderson’s carefully selected roster of small-batch gins include Leopold’s, Plymouth Sloe gin, Hendrick’s, and Broker’s Premium London Dry gin; the store’s best-selling small-batch bourbons include Four Roses, Elmer T. Lee, and Willett.
And just who is buying these spirits by the bottle or ordering them by name at bars? You might be surprised, says Jim Ross, bar manager of The Prime Rib, the landmark steakhouse downtown serving up classic high-end meat-and-potatoes fare. “Our clientele is a little older here than your average bar, but we’re beginning to see a lot of younger people who are ordering classic bourbon and gin drinks,” Ross says. “We’re getting a lot of people asking for very old-fashioned drinks like Manhattans and martinis—drinks that go back 50 years or more.”
Thanks to the resurgence of those classic cocktails and others—think French 75s and Gin Rickeys—gender differences disappear as fast as a shot of whiskey after a tough day. Women and men alike are willing to experiment with liquors that emphasize complex and elegant flavors, like dusky sweetness, peppery fruit, woody caramel, and toffee.
Derek Brown, the James Beard Award nominee and co-owner of the bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Northwest, notes that small-batch spirits—sometimes called single-barrel or special selection—are “made by distillers who take a particular storage barrel that’s different from the rest of their units. They’re kept in different micro-climatic conditions that produce a certain special [quality] that can be very appealing.”
The best way to become an expert at knowing your small-batch varietals, Brown says, is to dive right in. “If you’re not used to tasting the strength and character of a bourbon, let’s say, then just sit down with a couple of different styles and try it. Most people rarely forget about it—and they’ll end up going back later to learn more.”
“With small batches, it’s like skydiving,” adds Brown. “After drinking that, flying kites just isn’t as much fun anymore.”