Last spring, I went to a small dinner party in New Orleans attended by several food writers—I could count five James Beard Award medals among them. As is customary, I brought a bottle of liquor for the table. As is uncustomary, I chose an imitation-peanut-butter-flavored whiskey.
I’ll admit I did this in part for personal brand building. (Slogan: OFTEN ANNOYING.) After dinner, I cracked the bottle open, and, ignoring the sighs and eye-rolling and “suggestions” I go out and find something else, I doled out shots. Guests sipped.
What followed was an unusual moment of quiet around the table. And this wasn’t the sort of quiet that accompanies horror, but one of grudging admiration. We’d all expected a sort of cartoonish peanut buttery taste, but this was deep and rich, more reminiscent of hazelnuts than peanuts. At the end of the night, one of the writers asked to take the rest of the bottle home.
Peanut butter whiskey seems suddenly everywhere. You may find this worthy of celebration, or of mourning. Because maybe you love peanut butter. But more likely you love whiskey and wonder why someone would vandalize it with unfortunate memories of grade-school sack lunches. It doesn’t help that many of the options have embraced goofy names, like Skrewball, SQRRL, and Shepherd’s P’Nutty Peanut Butter Whiskey.
But here’s the hard truth: Peanut butter and whiskey go very well together. Some brands—including Southern entrants like Ole Smoky Peanut Butter Whiskey out of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Bird Dog Peanut Butter Flavored Whiskey from Bowling Green, Kentucky—are perfectly drinkable with just ice in a glass, with a roundness that edges toward sophistication.
Admittedly, crafting a cocktail from peanut butter whiskey has its hazards. Foremost among these is that everyone seems compelled to make a drink that recalls one of two things: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. So they add some berry or chocolate liqueur and call it a day. (A few unheralded pioneers have reached for banana liqueur to honor Elvis.) All of this is fine if you feel like sipping a comic strip, but if you want the complexity of a well-wrought novel, you’ll have to keep searching.
Good news: You might be able to stop when you hit High Horse in Louisville, a craft cocktail bar dressed up as a neighborhood dive (we’ve celebrated its Harvey Wallbanger in the past). Co-owner and bar manager Marie Zahn serves an inviting cocktail using SQRRL whiskey, made by Jim Beam, which she mixes with a fino sherry and a touch of raw, flavorful sugar, and then accents with walnut bitters.
Uncommonly observant readers will point out that this Manhattan riff is still a variation on the peanut butter and jelly combo—sherry, of course, comes from grapes. But that’s like saying diamonds are just charcoal. A higher level of finesse is achieved here. And if you don’t have walnut bitters, Angostura bitters work fine. Other fortified wines can substitute for the sherry, such as a Rainwater Madeira. As with sack lunches, variations are nearly limitless.
As for the name, Reservation at the Nuthouse, Zahn created the drink for last year’s holiday menu at the bar, when they christened all the cocktails after lines from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And so one classic begets another.