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by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes

Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, points out that Maker's Mark is good about buying local grain and refusing to purchase genetically modified grain.

There's a strong ethic behind that decision. Knowing it (being aware that buying Maker's Mark means buying into a network of local support and sustainability) makes the drink taste all the better.

When a Maker's Mark master distiller strikes out on his own, there's reason to hope that something even more remarkable coming to the shelf. WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey.jpeg

Dave Pickerell has packed his experience, talent and vision, and started producing something named for a groundhog - but Chicagoan rye lovers don't need to see their shadows to try WhistlePig. They do need to wait - just a week or so. It's coming our way. (Apart from Chicago, only New York and LA will be seeing WhistlePig this year. There simply isn't enough to go around the nation.)

Made from 100 percent rye, WhistlePig spends 10 years in brand-new, charred oak barrels. The aim, Pickerell says, is to "showcase the full-bodied spiciness of the rye" - and the trick is in the aging, so that you balance wood and grain. "Too young," he says, "and it comes across as green and spicy, on the finish there's too much of a kick, too much wood, and it comes across as bitter."

Pickerell gives his whiskey time to mellow out, to age gracefully. "Being in the 9- to 11-year range . . . it gives us a finish that, instead of being a kick, it's a nice butterscotch, vanilla, long warm finish - smoky, woody but not too woody."

As to using local grain, "We are heading toward having our own farm organically certified," Pickerell says. "We will eventually be making an estate rye there."

The first certified rye planting will take place this year, but you won't have to wait 11 years to taste the organic whiskey. "We may produce some small-barrel maturation, so that we can bring some out a little earlier," Pickerell says. He pauses for a second and adds, "'Cause I'd like it to come out while I'm still around."

By guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

On Friday, at WhiskyFest in the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker, Compass Box's U.S. brand ambassador Robin Robinson will accept an award on behalf of John Glaser, the company's founder and whisky-maker. 2010's Malt Advocate Scotch Whisky: Blend of the Year Award is being given to Compass Box for The Peat Monster, a smoky, sultry blend.

If you're ever lucky enough to attend a whisky-blending workshop led by Robinson, then you'll discover that he knows his booze and his business - and while it may be bad form to tap another person's whisky barrel, it's fine to tap a good resource for knowledge.

What's Robinson's advice on choosing whiskies for specific settings? There are no fast rules. As Robinson observes, "Things like this are subjective." He is, however, willing to give some tips and recommendations. Here are the results of a sippable Q&A:

As an aperitif:
You're looking for something lower in alcohol, around 40 percent, with notes of light malt, citrus, honey and toffee. Consider bottles from the Speyside District or the Highlands.

Grill-side, to go with a slab of meat:
High spiciness is what you're after. "There are some wonderful Highland whiskies," Robinson says, "that have some nice spicy notes. I'd also recommend something that has a bit of peatiness to it, because that matches up very well, but nothing with overly heavy peat." (Trivia note: peat is measured in parts per million.) Look for bottles from the Isle of Islay. Pressed for specific recommendations, Robinson suggests Springbank, Oban and Compass Box's Spice Tree.

With chocolate:
"Surprisingly, peaty whiskies work quite well with chocolate," Robinson says. "Laphroaig and chocolate is superb." So do some of the larger, more full-bodied Speysides; Robinson recommends Aberlour a'bunadh. Go Irish, with Clontarf or Connemara. Want something different? Compass Box makes Orangerie, an orange-infused whisky. Your guests will never expect that - and it's gorgeous.

About the blog

Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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