SG | My appreciation of bourbon has gone through several evolutions over the years. Mellowed and aged, if you will.
In college, I had a penchant for what is the gateway cocktail for many burgeoning bourbon lovers: Jim Beam and Coke. In a mason jar. My roommates and I developed a “set it and forget it” technique for mixing, whereby – thanks to perfectly-sized mason jars – one could simply fill a jar with ice and a healthy measure of Beam, then crack a Coke and leave it upturned on the jar’s rim, slowly chugging out its contents. Mixing perfectly. Well, perfectly for what it was. It got the job done, so to speak.
Many a gameday was fueled by those jars, and the taste of a Beam and Coke still brings back a torrent of memories. Cheering from the student section, rolling Toomer’s Corner if we got a win that weekend, sitting on the couch playing my roommate’s Xbox if we didn’t.
Surely I must have tasted good bourbon, and known it as such, at some point during my Auburn days, but danged if I can remember it. Crown Royal was “fancy” whiskey in my mind at that time, so, there you go. When I was living in Denver, a bottle of Bulleit’s “Frontier Whiskey” was a fairly standard commodity tucked under the front seat of my Jeep Wrangler (it helped when things got dicey on off-road trails). That was definitely a step in the right direction.
Birthplace of bourbon
But it wasn’t until a bachelor party, circa 2008, that things really started falling into place. The same cohort that had cut our teeth with Beam-filled mason jars met up in Kentucky for a few days on the Bourbon Trail. Using Bardstown – the self-proclaimed “Bourbon Capital of the World” – as a base, we saw wonders such as the Woodford Reserve distillery (a treasure nestled in rolling emerald-green hills and lines of white fences in the heart of horse country) and, what I now consider the grandaddy of them all, the Buffalo Trace distillery.
Allegedly, some form of distilling has taken place on Buffalo Trace’s campus, in Frankfort, since 1775. Look at the top shelf of a package store or behind any decent bar and you’ll see their hit list: Weller, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, Sazerac Rye. The more coveted of their libations include Elmer T. Lee, George T. Stagg and Pappy Van Winkle. (I naively sent my brother on an ill-fated quest to find a bottle of the latter for our dad’s 60th birthday. He was essentially laughed out of any number of Atlanta liquor stores. If you can find a bottle, it sells for thousands.)
At Buffalo Trace, our eyes were opened to the rich history of bourbon making. We strolled wide-eyed among stacks of aging barrels towering over us in the shadows of a warehouse. We marveled at bourbons on display that had been bottle-aged for 20+ years. We hung on every word of our tour guide, third-generation employee/bourbon ambassador Freddie Johnson (he’s still there). And we tasted bourbon. Really good bourbon. With Freddie to tell us exactly why it was really good.
After that, my relationship with bourbon leveled-up. I stopped mixing it, unless it was with maybe some ice or a splash of water. I ventured beyond the brands advertised in magazines and inched up from the bottom – even middle – shelves in the liquor store. I started putting thought into “gifting” bourbon. Blanton’s was my go-to for birthdays, anniversaries, family visits – and the birth of my niece (“So good,” my brother commented, “it made me consider having a second child.”).
My dad developed a fondness for Eagle Rare after being introduced to it second-hand through my time in Kentucky. So it made sense that when my daughter was born, not four months after his death, I had a bottle on hand for a toast. I kept the tradition going, toasting my son’s birth from a bottle of Four Roses, and my youngest daughter from a bottle of (now hard to come by) Blanton’s I had on the shelf.
Reaching the pinnacle
For my 35th birthday, my wife surprised me with a trip down from Northern Virginia to Richmond, where we went for what I assumed was a round of drinks at a place called McCormack’s Big Whisky Grill. I could have gawked at the bottles spanning up from behind the bar all night, but Kelly coaxed me to peruse the menu and try the best bourbon I could find. Knowing full well what she was doing, she sat back satisfied as I looked up in disbelief. They served Pappy. Yes, it was an $80 shot, but it was the sole reason for our trip to Richmond.
The bartender brought out the coveted bottle of 20-year Pappy Van Winkle and gingerly placed it before us. “I … I don’t know what to do …” I stammered, intimidated by the visage of Mr. Van Winkle himself, casually striking a cigar in profile on the seemingly brittle label. Having no doubt seen my type dozens of times before, he calmly asked how I typically drank bourbon. “On ice … can I use ice?” He nodded, left briefly for the bar and returned with a small glass of ice and a pitcher of water.
“Try it straight,” he encouraged me, “then with a little water. Add ice if you want.”
I dutifully obeyed. Whatever way I tried it, it was amazingly smooth. Excellent all around. Dare I say – worth the hype.
I thought I had it all figured out. Until, that is, my friend Adam hosted the same crew that had hit the Bourbon Trail those many years ago at his home in Chapel Hill. In 2016, we reconvened for a weekend, kicking things off with a bourbon tasting at a bar called The Crunkleton. There we were seated in a cozy private nook, dark walls adorned with stag heads and portraits of men who were vaguely familiar from middle school history books – perhaps presidents from the mid-1800s or titans of the industrial revolution. And before us, lined up in orderly rows, were nine bottles of whiskey.
At least, I think there were nine.
Unlike my friends, who knew enough to merely sample from each glass as it was poured, I had it in my mind that one needed to finish a pour before moving on to the next. About six glasses in, I looked around in horror to realize everyone else’s glasses were fairly full. I was entering a strange new land, and I was alone.
Thankfully, I documented my top picks by texting photos to my brother, so I do know this: Maker’s 46, Michter’s 10-year and Colonel E.H. Taylor rye were among my favorites. What’s of note here, and what makes this a historic stop on my personal, ongoing Bourbon Trail, is that last one: rye!
I was knocked off my bourbon high-horse, and not just because I was three sheets to the wind. After our trip to Kentucky, I had it in my mind that A) bourbon was the end-all-be-all type of whiskey, and B) it had to be from Kentucky. Now both of these are still very close to realities for me, but I’ve given up some ground here and there. For one, a rye whiskey (made of at least 51% rye) can be quite respectable, and is actually best in many of my preferred cocktails. Second, bourbon (made of at least 51% corn) doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky.
It can be made anywhere in the United States (though only in the United States). My wife has recently gifted me lovely bottles of bourbon distilled in Virginia and [gasp!] New York.
This is all a lot to process, I know. Consider it a first step on your own bourbon trail. Or perhaps, if you’re more seasoned than I, you can help me along my own trail by posting some suggestions in the comments. In trade, I’ll offer this recipe for a rye cocktail I recently discovered, similar to a Sazerac but with more staying power — and a cooler name.
The Battle of New Orleans
2 oz rye whiskey (Michter’s is currently my preferred)
¼ oz simple syrup
1 dash absinthe
1 dash orange bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Mix ingredients and add to rocks glass with ice. Garnish with a twist of lemon rind if you’re feeling fancy. Serve to impress, or enjoy for yourself.