Kentucky's Finest: Bourbon
Small-Batch and Single-Barrel Bourbons Revive the Good Old Days of Whiskey
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93
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If there is one thing that seems to characterize all Bourbon makers, it is dedication to their craft. It takes decades to learn the fine art of distilling, and as a result, master distillers are a rare breed, men who have patiently learned their trade through long apprenticeships. Gayheart, for example, worked for more than 20 years under Ancient Age's master distiller emeritus Elmer T. Lee, who in turn learned the craft from his predecessor, Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who managed the distillery from 1912 to 1952. At Heaven Hill, master distiller Parker Beam took over from his father, Earl Beam, whose brother, Carl Beam, was master distiller at Jim Beam distillery for many years. Parker Beam is now training his son, Craig Beam, to take over at Heaven Hill.
"It's really kind of an exclusive club," says Russell. "We're all friends down here in the production end of things. Despite the fact that strictly speaking we're in competition, we've all got a lot of respect for each other. Our roots run deep in Kentucky."
So deep, in fact, that many Bourbon makers can trace their heritage to when Daniel Boone led the first party of settlers over the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley. "In those days," says Samuels, a history buff who revels in the telling of Bourbon lore, "distilling was an adjunct to farming. Whiskey was a heck of lot easier to transport to market than corn, wheat, or rye. Every farmer had a still, and a barrel of whiskey was a kind of currency that could be traded for goods, livestock, or even land."
Samuels traces his own roots to Scottish emigrants who came to the New World via Ireland in 1712 and headed to Kentucky by way of Derry, Pennsylvania. His great, great, great, great-grandfather, Robert Samuels Jr., served as a captain under George Washington during the Revolution, and on furloughs home would supervise whiskey-making for the troops. It was Robert Samuels who first moved to Kentucky, and his grandson, T.W. Samuels, who began large-scale commercial distilling in 1842.
"That was when a lot of the farmer-distillers around here got the idea that they had it backwards, that the tail, farming, shouldn't be wagging the dog, whiskey-making," says Samuels. "After 1842, distilling became the driving force behind agriculture in this area, not the other way around."
Noe is another Bourbon maker whose roots run deep in Bluegrass Country. He went to live in his grandfather's house after the old man died and was a neighbor to the Samuelses on "Distillers' Row," a strip of stately homes on Third Street in Bardstown, all owned by distilling families. Noe traces his heritage to Jacob Beam, who came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1785. "My grandfather's father's father's father was in the business," says Noe, "and it's been passed down from generation to generation ever since."
According to Noe, Jim Beam went to work in his father's distillery in 1880 at 15, and was running the place by the turn of the century. "Prohibition came along in 1920," explains Noe, "and Jim decided he'd better get out of the business, said he didn't want to go to the penitentiary over a warehouse full of whiskey. So he sold the whole damn thing, farm, distillery and all to a bunch of bootleggers who made a fortune off it.
"Afterwards, he tried a number of different businesses, but didn't take to any of them. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Jim was nearly 70 years old. His son, my uncle Jeremiah Beam was 33 at the time, and granddad decided he wanted to get back in the business so he would be able to pass the Bourbon-making tradition on to the next generation. He went out and built a distillery, which he did in 100 days, from groundbreaking to firing up the still. Imagine doing that at the age of 70."
And, says Noe, who himself began working for Jim Beam at 21, "I guess I'm part of the tradition around here now."
During Prohibition, the Beams and the Samuelses, like most Kentucky distillers, are said to have kept a private stock of "sipping" whiskey hidden in the rafters of their family homes. Though Noe says he doesn't believe his grandfather made any Bourbon during Prohibition, Samuels claims that his grandfather and Jim Beam were caught together one moonless evening firing up a still and had to spend the night in jail.
"They weren't making whiskey to sell, because neither of them needed the money," insists Samuels. "What they were up to was replenishing their private stocks." In other words, what every good Bourbon man would have been doing at the time.
A Bourbon Tasting
Baker's 107: Yellowish brown, with an aroma of dried violets. Caramel and vanilla flavors with a clean finish. Drink straight.
Basil Hayden's: Brownish amber. Caramel and spice aromas. A woody flavor with a slightly harsh finish. Drink straight.
Blanton's: Reddish amber. Dried citrus and spice aromas. Cloves, caramel and burnt-sugar flavors. Drink straight.
Booker's: Dark amber. Smoky charcoal aroma. very "hot" straight; sweet, with caramel and vanilla flavors when cut. Drink with water.
Elijah Craig: Darkish amber. Aromas of spice and licorice. Caramel, nutty and vanilla flavors. Better with water.
Hancock's Reserve: Orangish brown. Flavors of licorice and apricots uncut; oak and caramel tastes when cut. Drink cut.
Knob Creek: Deep reddish orange. A "hot" burnt-caramel aroma. A very woody flavor on the palate. Drink cut.
Maker's Mark: Light amber. Clove and wood aromas. Light spicy flavor and a smooth finish. Drink straight or cut.
Rock Hill Farms: Honey amber. Aromas of candied fruit and honey, with the taste of caramel and a clean finish. Drink straight.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: Deep reddish amber. Exotic flower and perfume aromas. Candied spice and pepper flavors with a smooth caramel finish. Drink straight. The tasters' choice.
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