I tend to buy a lot of whisky. As an extension, that means that maybe once out of every five bottles, I end up with a product I don't particularly look forward to drinking straight. This article is the story of what tends to happen to bottles of exactly this sort.
For example: right now I have poured myself a glass of the zero-star Collingwood. To provide some Cliff's Notes from my previous review: it isn't good, and it has some strange chemical and artificial tastes that ooze forward in the finish. However, the miscellaneous crap I have added into it has made for what I would consider a two-star cocktail.
Today, I want to share three cocktails whose additional ingredients tend to pave over the faults of mediocre-to-shitty whiskey. Some might call for ingredients that aren't terrifically well-known, but think of it this way: wouldn't you invest $20 to effectively mulligan a bottle you don't feel like drinking? Silly question, I know. Let's dig in. (Also, don't worry: these recipes are majorly simple.)
#1 - The Godfather
2 oz Whiskey
1 oz Amaretto
I'll be honest: I have a sweet tooth. To the point where I can pour Amaretto over ice and drink it cheerfully as liquid dessert. My girlfriend, on the other hand, cannot stand any variety of liqueur. To each his or her own.
However, assuming you can abide the saccharine nature of amaretto, the almondine sweetness effectively bulldozes away the jagged edges of rotgut whiskey. At a two-to-one ratio of spirit to liqueur, you end up with a drink that has some balls, but is also palatable. There's something kind of perverse about two wrongs being forced to make a right here. A shitty, rough whiskey is forced to make good friends with saccharine, overly sweet candy booze. As a result, the whiskey loses its aggressiveness, and the liqueur becomes less cloying. Win-win!
#2 - The Little Italy
2 oz whiskey
3/4 oz Carpano Antica
1/2 oz Cynar
Originally I stumbled upon Cynar when I asked a bartender at a great LA bar, "Make me something that uses Cynar and takes advantage of it." Cynar, for the uninitiated, is a liqueur that lists artichoke among its many ingredients. That sounds disgusting, but the drink I was served was delicious. Cynar is a classic "amaro," which is to say it's somewhat bitter. It doesn't taste like artichokes, thankfully, but it is intensely herbal and balanced out with enough sugar to make it taste palatable.
I can't explain why the Little Italy works, but it certainly does. The Carpano Antica is a sweet vermouth (so you could sub in the red Gallo or Martini and Rossi if that's all that's around), but here it creates a depth and richness of flavor that compliments the Cynar. The shitty whiskey provides a runway for the flavors of the Carpano and Cynar to take off. The cocktail does improve with a really good rye, but you'll quickly hit a wall of diminishing returns.
#3 - Absalom, Absalom!
2 oz whiskey
1 oz Yellow Chartreuse
There was a recipe I stumbled across not long ago called "Absalom's retreat." That basically called for equal parts of whiskey and Yellow Chartreuse with some simple syrup and bitters. The problem: too sweet.
Yellow Chartreuse is already a liqueur, which is to say it's sweet enough on its own. I figured the simple syrup was redundant and axed it from the recipe. In a basic 2:1 ratio of spirit to the Chartreuse, it worked well. I found this one goes well with Irish and Canadian whiskies, where the lighter body will give more ground to the interesting diversity of flavors in the liqueur.
A true mixologist will likely be able to do better with finding a good combination of bitters, additional spirits, and perhaps fresh juices. For me, the fact that the Chartreuse obliterated most major faults of the bad whiskey when stirred over ice spelled "mission accomplished," and that was sufficient.
So long story short, don't dump a bottle down the sink, even if you're sure that you hate it. There's more than enough out there that can elevate a poor bottle of whiskey that accounts for a variety of tastes—and hell, sometimes it's just plain fun to mess around with reckless abandon.