An In-Depth Guide to The Metro’s Finest Spirits and Vintages
Whiskey and wine seem to be the oddest of pairings, and while it’s true you will find them combined in a New York Sour, they tend to appeal to different drinkers or different moods. (Also, don’t feel that you have to drink a New York Sour just because it’s a lovely cocktail; it’s not exactly a match made in flavor heaven.) The genius of combining wine and whiskey in an editorial way, though, is that bars and restaurants that have a great selection of both will appeal to a broader range of clients, whether couples or groups of friends. Here, then, is a quick survey of the whiskey and wine climate of Oklahoma City – cheers.
► Whiskey: The Styles
Jeff Cole is the corporate beverage director for Coury Hospitality, the group that owns The Ambassador Hotel and O Bar. He is also the president of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. Before he became a director over multiple concepts, Cole spent years behind the bar as one of the city’s best bartenders – so we asked him to walk us through the different styles of whiskey (or whisky, as we discovered).
“There is no such thing as bad Bourbon,” Cole says. The legal parameters nearly guarantee drinkable product, so absent a painfully drunk or incompetent distiller, this full-bodied and slightly sweet liquor is going to be a solid product. To use the name Bourbon, it must be made in the United States, and it has to be made from 51 percent corn, but beyond that most distillers use a combination of rye and barley or wheat and barley to make a house style. For newbies, Cole recommends Four Roses or Wild Turkey 101.
The best analogy Cole offered in the whole discussion was the one comparing rye bread (Rye whiskey) to cornbread (Bourbon whiskey). Suddenly, whiskey made sense. Rye has to be made from 51 percent minimum rye in the U.S., but the grain is notoriously difficult to distill properly, so distillers typically blend rye with another grain such as malted barley. Rye whiskey distilling was pioneered in Canada, a country that is both too friendly and too cold, and they only require there be “some rye” in the mash (the crushed grain). That’s all we’ll be saying about the Canadians. To be fair, Cole did recommend one Canadian Rye: Crown Royal Northern Harvest. To prove he isn’t biased toward Canada, he also recommended Rittenhouse and Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition-Style Rye.
There are only two of these available in the state as far as any of the whiskey nerds know: Jack Daniels and Dickel. In truth, you can just take all you’ve learned about Bourbon so far and add one additional step – a charcoal filtering process called the Lincoln Country Process – and you have Tennessee whiskey. If you have never tried Jack Daniels, you did not grow up in Oklahoma or drink at night on dirt roads.
Single malt whiskey can be made anywhere in the world, but Scotch whisky (note the spelling difference) is only made legally in Scotland. The distinct flavor of most Scotch comes from the use of peat in drying the barley. Scotch has to be distilled from 100 percent malted barley, and that barley is dried with the smoke from burning peat (really nasty mud and decaying botanicals). The mélange of decaying and dead things in peat gives some Scotch whiskies their famous notes of iodine and smoke (and sadness). A few are made without peat, including The Macallan 12 Double Cask and The Dalmore. For the timid, Cole recommended Glenmorangie 10, which he laughingly called “breakfast whisky.” If you are far more intrepid in your taste adventures, try Lagavulin or Oban, but be prepared for the dark peatiness.
Blended Scotch Whisky
It exists. You can find it. No Scotch drinker we talked to understood why you would look for it, but it does exist.
Cole said these are made with techniques similar to Bourbon, and they had the great good sense to spell it properly. Aside from the type of still in which it must be produced, the grain blend is unrestricted. The two best-known brands are Jameson and Bushmills. If you’ve never had either, you’ve never been drinking with a chef or kitchen staff after close.
► Recipe Trio
From Michael Harper at WSKY Lounge, a modification of the Vieux Carre (old square)
• 1 oz Corsair Quinoa Whiskey
• 1 oz Torres 10-year Brandy
• 1 oz Hidalgo Alameda Cream Sherry
• Dash Winship Orange Bitters
• Dash Winship Old Fashioned Bitters
• Dash of Bittercube Cherry Vanilla Bitters
From Karli Koinzan at Rockford Cocktail Den
• 2 oz High West O.M.G. Silver Rye
• 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
• 1/2 oz simple syrup
• 1/4 oz Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram
• 2 dashes Bar Keep Apple Bitters
• Shaken and poured in a Collins glass
• Top with 4 oz soda water and garnish with lemon twist
From Kyle Zimmerman at The Hutch on Avondale
• 2 oz Medley Brothers Bourbon
• 3/4 oz Amara Montenegro
• 1/4 oz Cappelletti
• 2 dashes rhubarb bitters
• Stir and serve on the rocks; garnish with orange peel
►Where to Find Them
This one is not even close. The best whiskey (whisky) selection in Central Oklahoma is at WSKY Lounge. The beautiful back bar is home to more than 300 bottles, and every region and style is represented. The staff is made up exclusively of whiskey geeks, it seems, so feel free to ask questions. You will get an amazing education.
Probably the second largest. They keep a diverse list with all the main styles and most regions represented.
Jeff Cole maximizes space better than any other beverage director in town. His list is impressive, and while it’s thin in some areas due to space constraints, you will regularly find great whiskey in a variety of styles, as well as knowledgeable bartenders.
Brady Sexton’s joint boasts 90 different selections. There may be a larger selection in Norman, but combined with Kristin Weddendorf’s bartending wizardry, it’s the best whiskey bar in Norman.
Colby Poulin and Chris Barrett oversee five shelves of whiskey, and they are simply two of the best bartenders in the state. They excel at both knowledge of the products and the ability to blend flavors. The Scotch selection is surprisingly large given the size constraints.
The best selection in Edmond without doubt. Pete Holloway keeps an excellent selection of Bourbon and Scotch on hand.
The Hutch on Avondale
Managing partner Kyle Fleischfresser is obsessed with Bourbon, and it shows. The bar is well-stocked, and thanks in part to his bartending background, Fleischfresser keeps one of the most up-to-date, creative liquor selections in the city.
► Cocktail as Art
WSKY Lounge is making 45-minute infusions as of November 2016, and they are both delicious and beautiful. The idea came from the infusions at Aviary in Chicago. At the famous restaurant, they are served as part of a coursed meal, so controlling the timing and delivery is easy. Michael Harper, a bartender at WSKY, said they are still tweaking the process. “People can obviously call ahead and order them, or they can have cocktail or dinner first while the drink infuses.”
The whiskey infusion, called The Red Layer (see this issue’s cover), is made with Old Overholt Rye, Licor 43 (a quaffable liqueur in its own right), dill, celery bitters and oak chips. Each infusion is equivalent to about three and a half cocktails, so the $40 price tag makes sense. Also, Harper said the cocktail evolves over time, as the infusing continues as long as the beverage is in the infuser. In other words, the first drink will be much different than the last.
Colorado Most likely it’s a combination of creative distillers and the water. Like Scotch distillers, the Colorado distilleries have access to snow melt. The water has already gone through a natural filtration process. (It also partly explains the goodness of Colorado beer.) Much of the product is American Straight Whiskey, which means the grain options are pretty open. For a nice flight of these whiskeys, head to WSKY Lounge, which is nonsmoking now, too. Try the Breckenridge, Stranahan’s and Tincup.
Japan The distilleries simply can’t keep up with the demand for single malt whiskey from Japan. The prices are starting to reflect that, so try some while you can. WSKY has two styles, and O Bar has two. Fans of Scotch will love the Nikka.
India Seriously, India. The trend is growing so rapidly that the Wall Street Journal made mention of it in July of this year. Amrut is available in the market, and they have been making whisky – yes, that spelling again – since 1948. The Fusion is probably the best introduction to this line. Paul John makes a couple, as well, with the Brilliance being the most balanced and most accessible.
► The Equipment
Colby Poulin, bartender at Ludivine and raconteur extraordinaire, created a “bar starter kit” for us so that you’ll not be forced to drink your whiskey straight … even though there’s nothing wrong with that. All the hardware can be ordered online at Cocktail Kingdom or locally at Parks Distributing Company. The whole kit can be had for less than $50.
The Wine Standard
LaVeryl Lower has been making wine the focus of The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro since the day she opened. “I just believed that to be a wine bar, you have to offer a lot of good wines by the glass,” Lower says. “There is a point of overkill, obviously, where there are too many choices.”
Lower has avoided finding the overkill point by setting a limit that is manageable but allows for diversity. From the beginning, The Metro has offered 10 red and 10 white by the glass. Three sparkling wines are on the list, too, because she loves bubbles, and because bubbles are delicious. For several years, she had three dessert wines, but she has reduced that to one, and it’s pretty specific for now: Tintero Moscato d’Asti, a sweet Italian sparkling wine that is certainly the best of its style available in the state.
The composition of the other 23 wines on the list is what sets Lower apart from her competition. Julie Nguyen – a private chef and catering specialist who has worked with Lower for more than a decade – says, “LaVeryl has one of the most knowledgeable and discerning wine palates in the city. Hers is the best list in OKC: thoughtfully chosen, interesting and always reasonably priced for the caliber of the wine.”
The price point is a big deal. She prices for volume as opposed to markup, so she can offer wines other restaurants won’t. Still, she’s not afraid to put a $25 glass on the list … because her clientele will buy it, mainly because they trust her. Alex Kroblin, founder and managing partner of Thirst Wine Merchants, says, “Even though the word ‘curated’ has been bastardized by every wannabe mixologist, barista and vinyl aficionado, it truly applies to the wine list that LaVeryl has put together. You’d be hard pressed to find a more thoughtful, well-rounded and – perhaps most importantly – constantly evolving wine program anywhere in Oklahoma.”
When she first started, Lower updated the list every month, but that proved time-consuming for her and frustrating to staff and guests, insofar as constantly learning the new list was difficult. She backed off to every two months, and everyone was happy. In 2016, she moved the glass list off the large menu and onto its own card, which means she can reprint it as often as she wants. It’s only a matter of erasing a wine from the chalkboard and printing new by-the-glass sheets, meaning the list is now even more dynamic than ever.
Trying to identify precisely what makes Lower so good at picking great wines proved futile. There is no heuristic that can be converted to a checklist. She tastes the wine, and she experiences it as an event, not as a list of criteria to be scored. She seems to resonate with wines she likes, and even as she admits balance is very important, she can name no other key factor in her choice. It’s an intuitive approach, and that so many people agree with her taste is either serendipity or an inexplicable gift. Kroblin sums it up best: “As a ‘wine professional,’ people ask me all the time to name my favorite wine. My typical response is, ‘whatever’s by the glass at The Metro.’”
► Grape of the Year
Grenache trended throughout 2016, and it’s not likely to level out in early 2017.
The French would read that, exhale smoke and try not to look bored, as Grenache has been a star in the Rhone Valley since before the U.S. was a country. In Spain, where it’s called Garnacha, the grape has been the core of outstanding wines for centuries, too, especially in Priorat. Why the sudden surge in American interest? The domestic market is always trying to catch or create the next trend (Remember Shiraz? Or cheap Pinot Noir?) but Grenache also does really well in warm to hot climates. That means areas of California that are murderous to Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet handle Grenache well.
If you’re new to the grape, it can be light to medium bodied, and there is typically plenty of fruit on the palate. The French have used it as a blending grape because it can be too thin to hold up from first taste to finish, but the fruit never needs help. The prices for Grenache are all over the place, too, which means it’s accessible to any budget.
It’s rare that something is so easy, but this is totally true: If you see Jorge Ordonez on the back of the bottle or a Thirst tag hanging below the bottle, buy the Garnacha. You’ll pay between $8 and $20, and you’ll be glad you did.
Start with the Telegramme Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s 90 percent Grenache, and its affordability makes it a great introduction to a French classic.
Last Summer. From young, gifted winemaker Jennifer Bartz, this is one of the juiciest, freshest Grenaches available in the state. Bartz was the assistant winemaker at superhot Field Recordings, and she did Last Summer as a side project. All side projects should be this damn good. Oklahoma got fewer than 10 cases, so ask your favorite wine shop to order a bottle or 12 for you – quickly.
Villa Creek. They call theirs Garnacha. This is one of the best wineries no one has heard of yet available in the state. Everything they do is delicious.
Birichino “Old Vines.” For a taste of how big Grenache can get, try this Central Coast offering from two guys who used to work for Bonny Doon winery.
► Buy The Bottle
Broadway Wine Merchants
David Lack tastes everything that hits his shelves, and he likes good wine. If he recommends something, you should trust him.
This Norman store boasts probably the best wine selection in the metro area. Matt and Joe Sterr have nearly everything that’s good available in their store, and their staff is remarkably well trained.
Edmond Wine Shop
Vance Gregory should be in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He had the first specialty wine shop in the metro. He opened in 1973, and has helped shape the market with class, kindness and a great palate.
Freemans Liquor Mart
Appearances can be deceiving; the selection here is unbelievable, with probably more critically acclaimed wines than anywhere else in Oklahoma City.
Byron’s Liquor Warehouse
The prices are excellent. The selection is huge, which means you won’t necessarily like everything you find, but there are some gems here, too.
► Wine Lists
In addition to The Metro, these area restaurants take wine seriously and build great lists, both by the glass and by the bottle.
Packard’s New American Kitchen
Fun. Affordable. Flexible. Check the board for features.
Serious. Impressive. Deep and wide in focus.
Opus Prime Steakhouse
For sheer numbers, this one is hard to beat. You’ll find more off-the-beaten-path bottles here than most places.
Interesting and focused. At times quirky – in a good way.
Big reds abound, but Pete Holloway’s list is not just about Napa. He likes wine, and it shows.
The best reason to go to Bricktown. Randy Meyer was serious about wine before most of the businesses in Bricktown existed.
Mainly the bottle list here. The wine storage downtown is beautiful, too.
Mary Eddy’s at 21C
Its glass list is pretty unique in the city. Sometimes we need input from fresh viewpoints to help us avoid the obvious choices.
Small but excellent. Jeff Cole builds a diverse, creative list that focuses on excellence, not merely name recognition.
The new kid on the block. Diverse and approachable, and it’s paired with Chef Shelby Sieg’s excellent food.