Q&A with Ryan Irvine

On June 29th, 2016, Spice Kitchen + Bar welcomes guest whiskey expert Ryan Irvine to our weekly summer event, Pig + Whiskey Wednesdays, where we’ll feature his signature cocktail at our new botanical bar on the patio! Irvine is the creator and founder of Full Measure Bitters, a Cleveland-based company that crafts fine bitters–a key flavoring ingredient in many cocktails. Read on to learn more about his informed take on the nuances and complexities of whiskey and join the fun at Spice Kitchen + Bar on June 29th to taste his work firsthand.


Tell me about your love for whiskey.

When I first started dating my wife in 2010, we were both really into craft beer. Then, she developed a gluten allergy, so we started keeping spirits around instead. We enjoy cooking together and started experimenting with cocktails. At first, we drank traditional sweet cocktails, but more and more, over time, the drinks got boozier and we got more interested in the ingredients themselves. Eventually, I was just drinking straight whiskey.


What’s your favorite whiskey and why?

There are very few terrible American whiskeys out there. In the US, laws mandate how it’s made which serves as a sort of quality control. Congress actually defines bourbon as made from a mash of at least 51% corn, aged in a new charred American oak barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV, and bottled at no less than 40% ABV. Whiskey has to be aged for at least 2 years to be considered straight whiskey.

Under $30, I like Elijah Craig, a small batch blend of multiple barrels aged for 8-12 years. Elijah Craig is made with a traditional 70%+ corn recipe and is the rare oak-dominant bourbon that isn’t overly dry, making it fun to drink on its own or in a cocktail.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, I like Four Roses Single Barrel, aged 7-9 years at $30-$40. The oak is present, but it’s more integrated and is a little spicy. The interesting thing about this whiskey is that it was originally conceived as an ingredient for a Seagram’s whiskey. The rye content of the mash bill is extremely high—this recipe was never intended to be drunk on its own—but Four Roses Single Barrel is extraordinarily well balanced.


What, in your expert opinion, makes a great whiskey?

It depends what you’re going for. There’s a whiskey for almost every occasion. It should have a good nose and well-incorporated oak (which, when it shows up, manifests as caramel and vanilla notes from the charring of the barrel). I also like a little tannin at the end – this is what makes me come back for another sip!

Aging is important, and people generally think older is better. This isn’t always true. Aging mellows out the harshness of unaged alcohol, so whiskies aged under 4 years are often a little raw. My sweet spot is in the 8-10 year-old range.

There is a science behind everything you put in the barrel, but the barrel itself is imperfect. The art of whiskey is taking 100 barrels and creating a consistent flavor profile despite the variables of the barrels. That’s really hard to do and it’s why master distillers are in the business for life.

There are so many variables beyond the ingredients and the method of distillation. For example, whiskey from two different barrels can taste entirely different due to variations in the humidity and temperature from one area of the rackhouse to another. Whiskeys from different parts of the country also have their own unique terroir because of climate and temperature.

That’s one of the things that makes this so cool – what you taste is only fractionally related to the ingredients. Distillers put so much effort into making it consistent—and many of them do this very well—but 75% of what we taste is determined by influences out of their control.


What’s your favorite whiskey cocktail?

My favorite drink in the world is an Old-Fashioned. It’s been around for 150+ years and can’t be improved upon. So simple and so perfect. 90% of the time, when I mix a drink for myself, that’s what I drink. 

For mixing drinks at home, I recommend a higher proof whiskey because it shows up better in a cocktail. Wild Turkey 101  has a spicy note that can hold its own in cocktails. I also use Elijah Craig or Bulleit Frontier Whiskey from the bourbon family. A good rule of thumb is not to go under 90 proof (45% ABV) or else the whiskey will completely be trampled by other ingredients.

I like drinks that showcase the spirits. Most of the cocktail recipes we’re familiar with today were developed before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Alcohol production was largely unregulated and shady rectifiers could darken their whiskey artificially with chewing tobacco spit if they wanted. Today, we have access to some of the best spirits ever created, so simple drinks that draw out the nuances of the whiskey are growing in popularity.


What whiskey or whiskey cocktail pairs best with pork?

High proof-spirits are hard to pair with food because they can cause palate fatigue, so it’s best to enjoy food with cocktails that aren’t super boozy. Something in the Whiskey Sour family or the Whiskey Buck family—think a Moscow mule but with whiskey—would work great. Pork (especially smoked) has a strong affinity for drinks made with mature, oak-dominant Bourbons like Russell’s Reserve or Elijah Craig.


Tell me about Full Measure Bitters.

My wife and I love making cocktails at home. Famous Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler once said that there are only so many ways that you can improve upon a cocktail: you can find a better recipe, better ingredients, or a better technique. Since bitters are so important to many drinks—and since it’s illegal for us to make whiskey in our apartment—we decided that would be an interesting project to tackle. We worked on the recipe for 5 years before releasing it.

Beyond my personal passion for an Old-Fashioned, I also think Cleveland has a really cool bar scene. Unfortunately, I get tired at 9:30pm so I could never work at a bar. Full Measure Bitters is my way of being a part of that community in a meaningful way.


What is your favorite way to use Full Measure Bitters with whiskey?

My favorite way is in an Old-Fashioned. But if people really want to understand the importance of bitters, I would tell them to make a Manhattan with just whiskey and vermouth and no bitters. It tastes terrible, but you can really taste the difference they make when added. I like to think of bitters as the salt & pepper of cocktails—they add flavor and really bring a drink to life.