Does your dream vacation include a mix of history, American whiskey, rye and bourbon, all while indulging in southern BBQ, country music, and maybe a horse race or two? Break out your pitcher, brew up some iced tea, and I'll tell you how to make it a reality as we kick off happy hour with a toast to some of the finest commerce coming from America's heartland. Here's my cocktail spin on the southern staple of sweet tea.
Whiskey distilleries across the globe are gaining popularity as destination locations for both history buffs and whiskey lovers alike. The spirits being poured right here in the states, both from the big boys and from craft distillers, are booming.
Let's start with the oldest distillery and one of our forefathers — George Washington. Did you know he made whiskey? And even better, you can visit the same spot where he toiled in colonial times at the gorgeous Mount Vernon in Washington D.C. This unique facility is the only one of its kind — it's still operating exactly as it did in the 1800's. Bottles from its production line have fetched close to $30K each at auctions, with proceeds going back to preserving the distillery and Mount Vernon giving visitors and an authentic taste of the times.
Look a little further south and you'll find that traveling to Louisville, Kentucky brings you to Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger factory, but here's the yummy part — you're only a short car ride to one of many bourbon distilleries including Woodford Reserve, which is the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Jim Beam, a producer with a pour for every taste from Knob Creek Rye to Red Stag, and of course the latest media child Maker's Mark, where you can dip your very own bottle into that iconic red wax. Each distillery has a tour and tasting perfectly suited for history- and whiskey-fanatics alike.
Venture outside of Kentucky to Tennessee, and the glistening brown spirits must be tagged whiskey (it's only bourbon if it's made in Kentucky). Which brings us to the big guns at Jack Daniel's Distillery — a Disneyland for whiskey fans — and an equally impressive but much smaller distillery called George Dickel. This darling is tucked in the hollow (for real — it's called Cascade Hollow) in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and it was here I had my cocktail epiphany.
I recently did this trek on what is now being dubbed the "American Whiskey Trail" and indulged in all things southern. Over lunch one day — a simple yet lovingly prepared lunch buffet of pulled pork smothered in homemade whiskey BBQ sauce, alongside a nice glass of sweet tea — that got me chatting with fellow writer and drink connoisseur Amy Zavatto on the nuances of said sweet tea. No we really did, this is exactly the kind of thing us food and drink nerds do.
After touring the steamy tanks at the distillery (fermentation creates heat, so leave your sweaters behind if you're headed in for a tour), we were all loving the tall ice-filled glasses being served with our lunch. But for us gals from north of the Mason Dixon, sweet tea is just...well, it's too darn sweet! The obvious choice given our locale was to offset it with some whiskey, and when we decided someone should make a sparkling sweet tea, I set off to do just that.
This is why club soda, my summer staple for making refreshing drinks, makes an appearance in this recipe. It also makes this sweet tea less sweet. So pour a drink, sharpen your pencil and start planning your whiskey lover's itinerary!
Sparkling Sweet Tea Cocktail
1 1/2 cups sugar
7 1/2 cups warm water, divided
4 black tea bags
1 cup George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey
1 (12-ounce) can club soda or seltzer water, chilled
1 orange, sliced into wheels
1 lemon sliced into wheels
In a small saucepan heat the sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water just until the sugar completely dissolves. Set aside to cool.
In a large pitcher, combine the tea bags and the remaining 6 cups of water and steep until the tea is as strong as you like it: five minutes for a weaker tea and up to twenty minutes for a stronger brew. Remove and discard used tea bags.
Add the cooled simple syrup and whiskey, and stir. Top with the cold club soda, and stir in the orange and lemon wheels. Fill the remainder of the pitcher with ice.
Serve in tall glasses filled with ice. Enjoy!
- I used the George Dickel 12 year here but if you want a little extra zing feel free to substitute the George Dickel Rye for a spicier sip.
(Images: Maureen Petrosky)