If I were to come up with the perfect destination for a good drink The Whiskey House would be right up there among the very best in Des Moines. Like a well-prepared cocktail, this bar and restaurant hits all the right notes.
First, I’ll start with the most important aspect of any place calling itself “The Whiskey House.” To make a great cocktail a bartender needs good ingredients. Behind the bar is probably the deepest selection of whisky in Des Moines. The bottle list (and I could spot many of these on the shelf closest to where I was sitting) includes a lot of impossible to find whisky, including eight Japanese Nikka whiskies – Nikka Taketsuru 12, 15, 17, and 21 year – and two age-statement Suntory whiskies, the slightly peaty Hakushu 12 year and the mild 12 year Yamazaki. I also found the biggest selection of Taiwanese whiskeys I’ve come across with five Kavalan expressions on hand. Pretty much all of the better-known Kentucky brands are available, including what looks to be a complete collection of the sometimes challenging Orphan Barrel series as well some Pappy and Old Rip Van Winkle. There was a healthy list of craft distillery brands including as four different Hudson whiskeys, six different bottlings of High West, Stranahan’s, and a few I’d never heard of. There were a lot of well-regarded sourced whiskeys as well, including several Jeffersons. For Scotch whisky fans, the list isn’t quite as wide but there are a lot of expressions from some of the bigger brands. There were seven different Glenmorangie whiskies, seven Macallans, including a 25 year sherry cask Macallans, and five Glenlivets, including a 21s year Archive. If you come to The Whiskey House and bring a fat wallet then you can spend a small fortune investigating the different world whiskeys.
Second, if a cocktail is in the plan for the evening, then you need a cocktail artist to construct it properly. When I was there during the soft opening week there was an army of bartenders behind the bar making drinks. Blake Brown (Americana, Creme Cupcake, Table 128) was on hand as well. I hope he can stick around for awhile at The Whiskey House because I’ve never seen a bad cocktail pass through his hands. Though my bartender (not Mr. Brown) seemed to be new to what I’d call high-end whiskey cocktails (Hell, I’ve met experienced college town bartenders that have never made a Manhattan) he religiously followed the recipe and presented me with an absolutely perfect cocktail.
Third, a good cocktail list is a necessary ingredient to finding a great cocktail. I have only visited once, so I can only attest to the two different cocktails that I tried, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail and the Dark, Spicy, n’ Stormy. Usually when I visit a new place I order either a Sazerac or an Old Fashioned as the recipe seems to separate the mixologist from the wanna-bes. However, the ingredients listed in the Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($12) – Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, absinthe, demerara sugar, Old-Time aromatic bitters, and a lemon peel served in a coupe glass – made me give this one a try. I want to know where this cocktail has been. It was absolutely superb. I spent the next week making my own version and it is now my go-to cocktail, pushing aside my usual favorite, the Sazerac. The Luxardo liqueur and absinthe make a great combination, but don’t forget the sugar. The Dark, Spicy, n’ Stormy, part of the bar’s seasonal cocktail selection, is a nice take on the classic and is served in the obligatory copper mug. It was extremely easy to drink.
Fourth, good ambiance is a necessary ingredient. What is the point of a good drinking session with friends if the surroundings are more “grocery store” than neighborhood bar? (this is a directed dig to a really bad Manhattan I had at another Ankeny eatery). I think that the lighting is perfect and the acoustics are also well done in my opinion. As a side note, I love the chemically treated copper bar top. There is a stage on the south wall for a small band or singer and a wall of booths and tables in the middle for groups.
Fifth, location is important. What good is a great bar if it is in south central Manhattan, some swanky part of San Fransciso, in a hidden basement in London, or in Tokyo? They may have rockin’ cocktails, but if I can’t get there without spending thousands of dollars what good are they to me? Of course Ankeny isn’t London. Or Chicago. And some locals might add that it is not Des Moines, either. But don’t knock it until you have visited the rapidly growing Prairie Trail urban development in Ankeny. There are two commercial districts in Prairie Trail. The Whiskey House is just off of SW Oralabor Road and SW White Birch Drive. You can also get there from the other commercial district, known as “The District,” (home to Jethro’s, Fong’s Pizza, District 36 and the similarly-named Whiskey River) by just driving a bit down SW State Street and turning west on SW Plaza. The developer has done a nice job of somehow making commercial districts that are pedestrian friendly with an urban feel. Adequate Parking is tucked into slightly hidden areas so you don’t get that mall parking lot feeling. Sometimes it is nice to be able to go to a place where I don’t have to fight for a parking spot. Ankeny is, after all, the third fastest growing community in the U.S. and it is time for Ankeny to put on the big boy (or girl) food and drink pants. My real hope is that Ankeny will prove more hospitable than West Des Moines has been for locally-owned eateries.
When you put all of these ingredients together with care you will end up with a fantastic destination. With food prepared under the guidance of Chef Baruthio (Blue Tomato, and Baru 66) I think it is worth a future visit. Food was not yet being served when I visited. Cheers to a great new bar and restaurant!