Where might you direct your favorite whiskey lover to indulge in the town’s best selection? The Muddy Pig and Happy Gnome would certainly fit the bill. You might suggest Butcher & The Boar for a bourbon fix and the St. Paul Grill for scotch.
Pip Hanson (above) would like you to add Marvel Bar to that company. Since opening, Marvel has enjoyed justifiable praise for its cocktails— ones that were deemed a decisive factor by Bon Appetit for including The Bachelor Farmer in its 10 best new restaurants for 2012. But Hanson and his crew have been on a yearlong quest to ensure the bar doesn’t become one-dimensional.
“We’ve always been known as a bar that serves cocktails,” says Hanson. “I don’t think people really know what all we have on the back bar. So this is a way of showing people we have a whiskey list that rivals just about anyone’s and that we’re serious about it.”
He’s speaking of Marvel’s new whiskey menu, an idea that’s been evolving since a trip to bourbon country. “We went to Kentucky in January of last year,” he says. “We came back and were loving bourbon more than ever, so we decided to do a bourbon week. It was a huge success. We had a daily bourbon cocktail and featured flights and people loved it.”
Since then they’ve been quietly growing their whiskey collection, which now exceeds 150. As they’ve done with all of their spirits, they’ve only added a whiskey to their list based on its performance in blind tastings. “As it turns out, some of the stuff we like is very obscure and some of it is very mainstream,” says Hanson.
The list is currently heavy on bourbon and scotch, with a dozen ryes and a few Japanese single malts in the mix. The trick for Hanson became how to present them all with the same thoughtful and detailed manner they use for mixed drinks. So he undertook an excruciating quest to catalog all of his whiskeys’ manufacturing details.
It has resulted in one of the most data-rich spirit lists we’ve seen anywhere in town. Marvel now chronicles each whiskey along with details including how long it was aged, the grains in the mashbill, the toast level on its barrels, its proof, and who distills it. They’re attempting to strike at the heart of connoisseurship: to give people enough information to help them figure out what they like and what they don’t.
“It’s hard to understand whiskey if you don’t know how it’s made,” says Hanson. “We wanted to cut through the marketing stories where they aren’t relevant, instead focusing on what goes in to them and how that affects them… mashbill information, sherry finishes or peat levels, or if it’s chill-filtered. That’s the info that helps us wrap our heads around these whiskeys, not a label note that says it tastes like honeysuckle.”
Whiskey flights at Marvel now consist of three 20-ml pours into Riedel tulips, a glass we’ve long appreciated for its superior ability to capture aromas. They’ll also provide an accompanying beaker and eyedropper to administer distilled water — an accessory we found supremely helpful to better understand the gorgeous flight of ryes we sipped on last week.
“There are chemical reasons why adding water to whiskey brings out new flavors,” he explains. “There are aromatic compounds, fusel oils, and esters that are soluble at a certain proof, and when you lower the proof below that threshold, they come out of solution. There are new flavors in play. I’m not a chemist and make no pretense of being one. I’m trying to feel my way through all of this information as well.”
What’s refreshing about their approach is that it’s very clear Marvel didn’t buy a ton of whiskey just for the sake of saying their list is huge. If you’re going to expect people to learn something from your whiskey list, it should be clear that you’ve learned something from compiling it. Hanson is quick to tell us that this collection is the result of an in-depth search for deeper understanding among their whole staff.
Aside from simply learning more about their favorite whiskey, guests can also use this information to be able to pick out good values. “You can use it to get an idea of how much a whiskey costs to make,” suggests Hanson. “If you see an NAS [no age statement] whiskey [in a retail store] for an extremely high price, it’s possible you’re getting ripped off. Whereas with Elijah Craig 12-year — Heaven Hill criminally undervalues their whiskeys, in my opinion — this is a 12-year bourbon being sold for 8 bucks.”
Marvel is intent on making a huge list more digestible through informed service, that is, if you care for it. “We’re not going to shove this down anyone’s throats,” says Hanson. “But if they want it, we wanted to create a list that’s educational even for people that know their whiskey.” As for how he himself takes it, Hanson motions to our flight. “This is really how I like drinking whiskey,” he laughs, adding, “Although, I might have a little pony of Budweiser on the side.”