Last spring, I went to a small dinner party in New Orleans attended by several food writers – I could count five James Beard Award medalists among them. As usual, I brought a bottle of liquor for the table. As usual, I chose an imitation peanut butter whisky.
I will admit that I did this partly for the creation of a personal brand. (Slogan: OFTEN BORING.) After dinner, I opened the bottle and, ignoring the sighs, eye-rolls and “suggestions”, I go out and find something else, doling out. Guests sipped.
What followed was an unusual moment of quiet around the table. And it was not the kind of silence that accompanies horror, but that of reluctant admiration. We were all expecting some sort of cartoonish peanut butter taste, but it was deep and rich, more reminiscent of hazelnuts than peanuts. At the end of the night, one of the writers asked to take the rest of the bottle home.
Peanut butter whiskey suddenly appears everywhere. You may find it worthy of celebration or mourning. Because maybe you like peanut butter. But more likely, you love whiskey and wonder why anyone would vandalize it with unhappy memories of elementary school sack lunches. It doesn’t help that many options have adopted goofy names, like Skrewball, SQRRL and Shepherd’s P’Nutty Peanut Butter Whiskey.
But here’s the hard truth: Peanut butter and whiskey go great together. Some brands, including Southern entrants like Ole Smoky Peanut Butter Whiskey from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Bird Dog Peanut Butter Flavored Whiskey from Bowling Green, Kentucky, are perfectly drinkable with just ice in a glass, with a roundness that tends towards sophistication.
Admittedly, making a cocktail out of peanut butter whiskey comes with risks. Chief among them is that everyone seems compelled to make a drink reminiscent of one of two things: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a cup of Reese’s peanut butter. So they add berry or chocolate liqueur and that’s it. (A few unheralded trailblazers reached for banana liquor to honor Elvis.) All of that is fine if you fancy a comic book sip, but if you want the complexity of a well-crafted novel, you’ll have to keep looking.
Good news: you might be able to stop when you hit big horse in Louisville, a craft cocktail bar disguised as a neighborhood bar (we’ve celebrated its Harvey Wallbanger in the past). Bar co-owner and manager Marie Zahn serves an inviting cocktail made with SQRRL whiskey, made by Jim Beam, which she mixes with fino sherry and a touch of raw, savory sugar, then accents with nutty bitters .
Inattentive readers will point out that this Manhattan riff is still a twist on the peanut butter and jelly combo — the sherry, of course, comes from the grape. But that’s like saying diamonds are just charcoal. A higher level of finesse is achieved here. And if you don’t have nutty bitters, Angostura bitters work well. Other fortified wines can substitute for sherry, such as a Rainwater Madeira. As with bagged lunches, the variations are nearly limitless.
As for the name, Reservation at the Nuthouse, Zahn created last year’s holiday menu drink at the bar, when they named all the cocktails after the lines of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And so one classic begets another.