An Evening With A Whiskey Master

Tucked away in a dark corner of New York City's famous Friar's Club is Irish whiskey master, Gerry Graham. Gerry, alongside Bushmills, presented dinner and drinks to celebrate the Roast of Boomer Esiason and gave us some time for an interview. In the brief time we spoke with him, Gerry let us in on the history of whiskey, the perfect date drink, and his views on ordering a Long Island Iced Tea.

What is the difference between a whiskey expert and a whiskey master?
We're just spreading the gospel on this side of the water. A whiskey expert is someone who's in tune with everything, but doesn't have access to the distillery or the people who work there. That's what sets us apart — the practical side of it. An expert has book smarts. We take it a step further and actually get our hands dirty with the guys who make the magic happen.

When did you realize whiskey was your drink?
Growing up in Ireland, its always been a thing where, if you've got a cold, you have a hot whiskey. If it's a cold night out, you have a whiskey. I met a gentleman out of Texas who was originally from Scotland — he walked into a bar and got a whiskey ginger. I had just met the guy and he was pretty inspiring. He knew everything there was to know about whiskey and the fact that you could drink whiskey with ginger ale was foreign to me. But then I thought, well, if he can drink it with ginger ale, then I can drink it with ginger ale. The love connection was instant.

What do most people not know about whiskey?
How it's made and how the ingredients vary. We're, thankfully, in the time when everybody is really getting into whiskey. We went through the craft beer phase, everybody was into their wines, and now people are paying attention to whiskey. Where it's from, if it's made from corn or rye, if it's from Ireland or Scotland, if it's made with barley. I think people are starting to delve deeper into whiskey and branch out and learn about it.

Give me a little bit of history on what we're drinking. 
On every Bushmills bottle, you're going to see the number 1608. That signifies the year we got our original grant to distill. 1608 is actually the oldest license to distill any spirit in the world. So, we have over 400 years of experience, of craftsmanship, of heritage, of friendship.

How do heavily-sugared fruity cocktails make you feel?
There's a resurgence in craft cocktails and classic cocktails. Sometimes, with that, comes a snobbery to move away from the Long Island Iced Tea or the apple martini. My opinion, honestly? When you're dealing with spirits and when you're dealing with alcohol, the most important thing you're dealing with is hospitality and friendship. If two people sit down at a bar, I think it's our job to make them feel at home and welcome and happy. If someone wants a Sazerac and their friend wants a Long Island Iced Tea, then you know what? You give them a Long Island Iced Tea. It's all about enjoyment.

What drink continually impresses you?
An Old-Fashioned. And the amount of venues that serve a quality Old-Fashioned. It's just great seeing people drink it who never would have drank it before. It impresses me that it survived the test of time. More recently, what really impresses me, is a Hot Toddy. I've seen so many variances of the Hot Toddy. You can use it with hot water, tea, allspice, cinnamon, there are so many flavors to add with a nice honey whiskey base.

What's the best date drink?
The most important part is to know your audience. So it's good to find something approachable, because the last thing you want to do on a date is look across the table at somebody making a face at what you've just proudly ordered them at the bar. That's strike one. Keep it simple, keep it classy. If your date enjoys a nice whiskey, it's already time for a second date.

What will you not drink ever?
Tomato juice. I despise tomato juice.

That knocks out a huge part of brunch!
Plenty of room for mimosas. That's why there's two drinks for brunch. But, as far as spirits, I try not to discriminate.

Even Everclear?
That's where I draw the line.

What's the perfect pairing with a nice whiskey?
Simple answer to that: friends.