Imagine, for a moment, something utterly unthinkable… imagine, if you can, something as impossible as an honest campaigning politician. A politician who got in front of the camera and said something like, “I’m going to vote my conscience. Ha ha! But seriously, I’m actually going to listen pretty carefully to those guys who donate $100,000 and up to my campaign. I'm mostly going to do what they say unless the press roasts me for it."
That’s our take on Kansas Clean Spirit Whiskey: it promises to be a blend of neutral spirit (think: vodka) and a fraction of aged whiskey to give it a bit of depth. In short, it’s a hybrid between vodka and whiskey. Truly the introduction of a confirmed vodka drinker (in the legend of Kansas Clean’s origin, Mrs. Paul Gordon who accused whiskey of being for the middle-aged) to the complexities of aging. The spirit is precisely that which it claims to be, a blend of the two spirits.
The bottle itself is strikingly different… almost a giant, clear flask of liquor. It presents in the very palest gold and almost begs to be poured and imbibed. Taken neat, the aroma is a bit sweet with fruit overtones—probably from the grain, which is a winter wheat base. There are sweet notes when tasting with a lingering finish that is never present with vodka and must be attributed to the whiskey. It’s amazing, really, how far a little whiskey can go. On ice, a little dilution smooths out the rough edges and brings out a bit of a honey flavor.
Wait… a mix of vodka and whiskey? Can't you sort of do this by yourself at home? Maybe; we gave it a try, anyway. We took ratios of 90% vodka (we used Sobieski, which is a rye base instead of wheat) and 10% whiskey, (we used WL Weller 12yr Reserve, a wheated bourbon). The result was interesting. Yes, you can almost replicate it. The pale golden cast, the light touch on the aroma… but there’s some quality missing as well. There’s a sweetness to the Kansas version that we couldn’t replicate. The oak, too, was more present and overpowering in our version. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it wasn’t as successful as the liquor coming out of the nice bottle from Kansas.
So unlike some concoctions on the market, we can say with certainty that it's not easy to replicate at home with traditional spirits. (This is important because a lot of stuff coming out can be easily copied.) With that out of the way, the next question becomes: how would this stuff hold up in cocktails?
The result in mixed drinks was also very interesting. We began with a Kansas Cooler as recommended on their website, suggesting the spirit whiskey topped with ginger ale on ice with a squeeze of citrus. This is a classic whiskey cocktail and we tried it out with vodka (Ketel One), Kansas Spirit Whiskey, and then again with bourbon (Jim Beam Black). In vodka, it was boring… drinkable, but boring; really just like drinking ginger ale with a little heat. Particularly to the whiskey drinkers among us, this was weak sauce. The drink was definitely better with Kansas Spirit Whiskey. But the spirit whiskey wasn’t quite as good as ginger ale with bourbon. In our opinion, it was perhaps a good way to introduce vodka drinkers to a cocktail with a little depth but not a replacement for whiskey for whiskey drinkers.
We had a similar experience when we moved to a more committed vodka cocktail: the Slinky Skirt, which called for equal parts Kansas Spirit Whiskey, Chambord (though we used Pama), and fresh lemon juice. This is somewhat in keeping with a Cosmopolitan style cocktail where the neutral spirit allows the sweet and the tart and the sour to shine through. It probably goes without saying that the bourbon failed utterly in this drink—there’s a reason whiskey doesn’t go into these styles. Yuck. The Kansas version was quite a bit better but our group found the best was when vodka was used and the mixing ingredients were allowed to be the star.
So, in a way, we think whiskey was better in whiskey drinks and vodka was better in vodka drinks… where does that leave the “spirit whiskey,” which is a hybrid between the two? Is there no place for a blend?
There is… and in a way, we feel that the marketing for Kanas Spirit Whiskey is perfect in that it targets a younger demographic weaning them off of clear spirits. Drinking whiskey is, in a lot of respects, like eating spicy food: rare is the youth who relishes the spiciest food right out of the gate. Rather, there is a gradual introduction to spices that eventually culminate in a broad palate able to appreciate the nuances of different peppers manifested in different dishes. But at first, everything is simply hot! So it is with whiskey. For the committed cocktail enthusiast and whiskey snob, there is probably not much reason to purchase a hybrid any more than a devotee of curry would want to blend a cream soup with a hot sauce… but a gradual introduction of curry would make a great deal of sense to the uninitiated. Kansas Spirit Whisky is precisely that introduction… a soft, subtle way of introducing aging that can lead to more and better experimentation.
In our opinion, where whiskey snobs (like us) might insist that a single-barrel bourbon with one ice cube or a cask-strength scotch with a cap of water is the perfect drink inflicting such a brew on a youngster raised in college on rum-and-coke or vodka lemon drops would do more harm than good. Rather, this “spirit whiskey” becomes the perfect liquor to keep on hand to “raise the bar” in a more reasonable and useful way. On that basis, we can easily recommend as that bridge liquor in all manner of cocktails. It is the "medium" hot sauce between "mild" and "hot."
Next time you're out with an order to pick up the lemon-marshmellow vodka or something, consider getting a whiskey cocktail recipe instead and replacing with the Kansas Spirit Whiskey... the results might be the best thing that could happen to a budding cocktail enthusiast.