Ask any mental health professional: There’s a lot of ways to solve a problem. There’s compromise, for example, or negotiation. You could perhaps work around it, persuade through reason, or overpower via authoritative fiat. Or, you could take a page from the Incredible Hulk school of conflict resolution and use violence to smash your problem to bits.
This is more or less how we get the Whiskey Smash, a solution to the persistent problem with Whiskey Sours. The problem with sours isn’t with the flavor—Whiskey Sours are delicious—but with its abrasiveness, not with the message but with the tone. Drinking a whiskey sour in its most basic construction (bourbon, lemon and sugar) is like if someone complimented you, but did so via high-decibel profanity.
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More specifically, the issue comes from the fact that tannins, the chemical in the oak barrels that give whiskey the majority of its character, are fairly abrasive and clash with the citrus (if you’ve ever oversteeped your tea, tannins are what’s making it unpleasant). Now, how to solve that? You can avoid them almost entirely by using a barely tannic Irish or Canadian whiskey; you could neutralize them, as with the Whiskey Sour’s egg white or the Gold Rush’s honey syrup; or you can provide some distractions, as with the Whiskey Smash, by throwing some mint and lemons in the shaker tin, and shake (smash) the hell out of them with the ice, extracting all their flavor to occupy the space where the drink would get unpleasant, thereby trading an off putting note for a bright and irrepressibly summery one.
The Whiskey Smash is different now than it was when it was invented, not just degree but in type. When it emerged in the 1830s, it was made of whiskey, sugar and mint, essentially a Mint Julep without the precious metal cup or crushed ice and over the next 100 years would get overshadowed by this more-famous Julep and ultimately forgotten. Fast forward to the 1990s: Dale DeGroff, a New York bartender as responsible as anyone on earth for the mixology renaissance we now enjoy, began making a drink at the Rainbow Room he called the Whiskey Smash—the familiar whiskey, sugar and mint, but this time, with lemon wedges added to the mix, muddled with the mint into a pint glass and the whole thing shaken together.
“I created this drink,” wrote DeGroff in his 2008 book The Essential Cocktail, “because, frankly, I was a little bored by Mint Juleps, which have a tendency to be too sweet and too uncomplicated.” Whether or not he was right about Juleps, he’s dead-on that the addition of lemon completely changes the nature of the cocktail, a leap to an entirely distinct cocktail family tree. Now, we’re in Whiskey Sour territory, and the mint and lemon proved to be outstanding solutions to the Sour’s original problem. The addition of mint—plus, importantly, the extra lemon oils extracted from muddling the wedges as opposed to just using juice—transforms the bourbon not just into a summer drink, but an especially fresh and radiant one, with the zestiness of the lemon oil and the mentholated fireworks of the mint providing some deliciously deft misdirection from the tannic sore thumb that tends to weigh down whiskey sours.
As far as solutions go, it’s simple, easy, delicious and extremely effective, which is as good as one can reasonably hope for. Even the most bookish psychoanalyst would have to admit what the Hulk already knew—sometimes, you just need to smash.
2 oz. bourbon
0.75 oz. lemon juice
0.75 oz. simple syrup
6-8 mint leaves
1 lemon peel, about 2” or so
Add all ingredients, including mint and lemon peel, to a shaker tin. Add ice, shake hard for 6 to 10 seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass, garnish with a mint crown and enjoy.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Whiskey: This is remarkably resilient, and many types of bourbon or rye work just fine. If I were maximizing the drink, I’d aim for the sweeter end of the bourbon spectrum, as opposed to the spicier—mint and rye tend to work against purposes, so the less rye involved, the better. Something like Buffalo Trace, Four Roses Small Batch, or Elijah Craig are as good as I’ve had.
Lemon: DeGroff, as mentioned, made his original Whiskey Smash by muddling half a lemon into a pint glass, as opposed to using pre-pressed juice. What makes this step great are the explosively flavorful oils in the peels of citrus fruit which get released when they’re pressed, so muddling the wedges makes it zestier and more delicious. What makes this not great is the catapult-like imprecision. Lemons are all different shapes and sizes, to say nothing of different levels of juiciness and freshness. How much lemon juice is in half a lemon? It’s going to be in the neighborhood of 0.75 oz., but with something as intense as lemon, it’s kind of important to be precise.
There are two solutions. One is that you could do it DeGroff’s way and muddle, then shake and adjust the sweet/tart balance after, as needed. My favorite way, however, is to measure out exactly 0.75 oz. lemon juice and then just grab a 1- to 2-inch piece of lemon peel and throw it into the shaker. Shaking with ice will smash out all the lemon oil you could ever want, and because it’s a peel and not the pulp, it won’t mess with the balance.
Simple Syrup: Equal parts, sugar and water. Stir until the sugar dissolves. If you use hot water, the sugar will dissolve in about 30 to 60 seconds, if room temperature water, three to five minutes. Keep it in the fridge and it’ll last about a month. Use white sugar—less refined sugar like demerara or brown can be great in some applications, but here they interfere with the mint’s brightness.
Mint: Spearmint is ideal. Peppermint is less ideal but still works ok. There are lots of kinds of mint, and some people get prescriptive about this kind of thing (Mojito people in particular talk about a type of mint called “Yerba Buena”) but honestly any mint you can buy at the supermarket will be more than fine.
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