Smile Politely

Cocktails 101: the Whiskey Skin

In Champaign-Urbana there are plenty of places to get a good beer (a great beer, even) or decent wine.  But, excepting a few bright spots in the desolation, it’s sadly lacking in places that know how to mix a good drink.  If you want a good cocktail around here, you’re gonna want to mix it yourself.  And, with the surging popularity of Mad Men, that seems like the in thing to do, anyway.  I’m planning to write about classic drinks and cocktails that don’t require exotic ingredients and which I promise will beat the hell out of anything you can buy from most of the local bars.  Impress your friends!

First, some semantics.  These days, the word “cocktail” conjures images of either sickly-sweet, technicolor mixtures in long-stemmed glasses (all of which are mysteriously called “Martinis” of one sort or another) or mystery elixirs controlled by a brotherhood of humorless, tattooed guys with facial hair and suit-vests, willing to argue to the death over the proper technique for stirring a drink.  But cocktails (and other mixed drinks that might not technically be cocktails — we’ll get to that in a second) don’t really have to be either of these; ideally, making a cocktail is an opportunity to make something impressive and tasty (and boozy!) without getting too many dishes dirty or spending a fortune.  It’s like cooking without the burning and cutting yourself.

Technically, not all mixed drinks are cocktails, because the word “cocktail” originated in the 1800s as the name of a specific drink —- a chilled mixture of spirits, water, sugar, and aromatic bitters — among many others, with names like “julep”, “skin”, “sling”, and “toddy”.  But language is a living thing, and just as “Martini” increasingly (frustratingly) means “served in a long-stemmed glass” rather than “a mixture of gin and vermouth”, “cocktail” has come to mean any combination of spirits and flavorings.  I’m going to go ahead and just use “cocktail” interchangeably with “mixed drink”, to save on the word-count.

In the future, I promise I’ll spend less time inveighing and more time dispensing my measureless wisdom.  I just wanted to set out the why for all this.

Now that we all know what’s going on, I’d like to talk about an incredibly old drink, one which has largely disappeared, but which is the perfect antidote to the miserable weather outside.  The Whiskey Skin is a drink older than the cocktail itself, and even simpler.  Any “Skin” is just a combination of spirit, sugar, citrus peel, and hot water (it could be cold, but not in early December).  It’s like a Hot Toddy’s simple, country cousin, but, as Hannah Montana: The Movie taught us all, sometimes cities make you into a rock star, but it’s the country where you return to your Wal-Mart roots.  I’m pretty sure that was the message, anyway.

Why, of all the cocktails in the world, start with a Whiskey Skin?  Well, it’s less controversial than opining on the origins or correct way to make a Martini, for sure.  Also, Skins, Toddies, and Slings are, according to David Wondrich, cocktail historian extraordinaire, some of the oldest drinks we still talk about, dating as far back as 1750.  So we’re starting at the beginning, as it were.  They are ridiculously simple, but surprisingly delicious.  Wondrich recommends using only pot-stilled spirits for their heavy body (examples of pot-stilled spirits are some Irish whiskeys, Armagnac, Cognac, genever, and single-malt Scotch).  However, since that can be difficult and expensive, I think it’s ok to cut corners here (but, as usual, if you can go the extra mile you’ll get a little extra out of it).

A final advantage of the Whiskey Skin (besides deliciousness, simplicity, and excellent warming qualities) is that it requires no formal cocktail equipment.  No shaker, stirrer, or fancy glassware.  Which is lucky, because I bet you’re unprepared for class.  I’ll tackle that stuff later.  For now, all you need is a way to measure your liquor and a glass to drink it from (and a way to heat water, I guess, but you’re on your own with that).  Oh, and you’ll need a basic vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife, to get the essential citrus skin.

Whiskey Skin

  • 2 oz Irish, Scotch, bourbon, Canadian, rye, or what-have-you whiskey
  • 2 tsp sugar (or more to taste)
  • 4 oz hot water
  • 1 long strip of citrus peel (avoid the pith as much as possible; lemon is best, but orange will do)

In a sturdy mug, combine the whiskey and sugar.  Squeeze the citrus peel over the drink (you want to point what used to be the outside of the fruit towards the drink, grab the edges between thumb and forefinger and squeeze inwards so that the oil is expressed into the drink). Then drop the peel in.  Top up with the water, stir, and drink.  Try not to cough because of the alcohol fumes.


This is the perfect antidote to the cold. Also, it’s way tastier than putting the whiskey into coffee or tea. If you don’t have a bottle of whiskey lying around (for shame!) pick up Jim Beam Black or (slightly pricier) Buffalo Trace, if you want bourbon. Wild Turkey Rye or Rittenhouse are good cheap choices for rye. Bushmill’s or (splurge-worthy) Redbreast are excellent, heavy-boded Irish whiskeys. For Scotch, The Famous Grouse or Dewar’s are acceptable blends (but, really most, blends are acceptable), and Tamdhu 10-year is the cheapest single-malt I can find. While it does make a lovely Whiskey Skin, it is kind of pricey, so take heed. I honestly don’t have a recommendation for Canadian whisky (besides “why bother?”), so let the spirit guide you (to a non-Canadian whiskey, ideally).

All of these can be bought for a reasonable price at Friar Tuck’s (1333 Savoy Plaza Ln, Savoy) or the Piccadilly near the Champaign Library (505 South Neil Street, Champaign), which, by the way, seems to be the only Piccadilly with a worthwhile selection of liquor.

Oh, and bonus: to make a Whiskey Toddy, leave out the lemon peel; if you want to make a Whiskey Sling, grate some nutmeg (make sure it’s fresh, the pre-grated stuff tastes like sawdust) on top of your Skin (without the lemon, ideally).  Threefer!

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