A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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Launching into a reverie over the quality of Kentucky water, which filters through a large limestone shelf in the state to create strong race horses and good bourbon, Noe tells a story of his grandfather piping water from the distillery spring to a girls' school run by nuns. "Those nuns were so thankful they said a prayer for Jim Beam every night."
A woman asks the ill-advised question: "Don't you ever worry that the spring will dry up?" Noe's face becomes a mask of discomfiture. "The spring will dry up?! Oh no, no," he dismisses the suggestion as blasphemy.
His brand came about when "a fellow came by and said, 'What do you drink?' I said, 'I drink uncut, unfiltered, straight out of the barrel, before they filter out the goodies.' We got some out for Christmas and there was such approval we decided to market it." One of the philosophies behind Booker's is that bourbon ages best in the middle stories of the warehouse, where temperature fluctuations are least. "If you like this, that's where you have to go to get it," Noe explains, noting that he tastes every barrel that becomes Booker's.
Uncut as it is, the bourbon has an alcohol content in the rarefied range of 124 to 126 proof. By way of example, Noe tells the story on his lovely wife, Annis, of how she once made her famous Pork'n'Beam recipe using Booker's instead of regular Jim Beam: "It blew the oven door and lifted a 100 pork chops." This is all to explain that he suggests drinking it with a little water. Then forgoing the sip and swizzle method employed in the earlier tastings, he says, "Take a good slug!" He slams down his shot. "Hold your breath." Smacks his lips. "How about that?!"
Everyone repairs to the yard for barbecue, and Booker gives a tour of his smokehouse, pointing out hams hanging in anticipation of Thanksgiving. The Yankee ends up seated with the director of the Japan Bourbon Whiskey Promotion Association, who explains--through an interpreter--the effect his country's economic downturn has had on their thirst for fine bourbon. "We skimp on other things. Not bourbon."
After dinner, Noe introduces his favorite musicians, the Wally Helton Band, who predictably play in the style of the hills. Booker joins the musicians, blowing on a whiskey jug in accompaniment. Homemade rhythm instruments are handed out and before long the evening has progressed into a full-blown hootenanny with even the Yankee and the reserved journalists from England joining in the fun. Before the evening ends, word arrives from the Maker's Mark camp that the Yankee has succeeded in his shameless mooching campaign and will be welcomed for breakfast with Bill Samuels Jr., himself a godson of Jim Beam, at Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto.
It doesn't take much of a nose for bourbon to find Maker's Mark--huge signs point the way from Bardstown through 20 miles of countryside to the Star Hill Farm distillery. It's a painstakingly preserved national historic monument, which Samuels' father, now deceased, began restoring in 1953, when he decided to return to the bourbon business, feeling no one was making quality product any longer. After a long search, he bought the Loretto site (partially because it offered a good water supply) and set about creating small quantities of whiskey (the company spells it whisky, as do the Scots) by old-fashioned, hand-crafting methods. It didn't take long for the bourbon to garner attention, and it might be said that Samuels and his son have led the industry towards the superpremium end of the market, except that these distant relatives of the outlaw Jesse James have been renegades in the staid world of brown-beverage marketing. Since being bought by Hiram Walker in 1981, it has aggressively--considering its small output (nearing 300,000 cases a year)--advertised, and the younger Samuels has been a whiskey gadfly, going out of his way, for instance, to claim that bourbon makers know much more about aging whiskey than the vaunted Scots.
At breakfast, the irreverent Samuels finishes conferring the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel on two employees--referring to them as reprobates in the process--and then turns to educating the Yankee on bourbon marketing history. "We haven't done a very good job of it until lately," is his summation. It was Prohibition that caused the decline of America's taste for its own native quaff, he claims. When liquor was allowed to be sold after an almost 14-year hiatus, bourbon distillers had to wait years before they could age their product for market. Scotch and Canadian blended whisky makers filled some of the void left by bourbon and rye makers. "We're only just now getting over that," Samuels says. It nettles him that Scotch makers have managed to build a cache of age and quality for their blended and colored product that bourbon doesn't have. "Most Scotch drinkers don't even know what they're drinking." He points out that Scotch is often aged in used bourbon casks, and that liquor takes longer to mature in a cold climate. "In a sense bourbon is older," he says, "though nobody's ever sold it that way."
A postprandial tour of the distillery is a picturesque walk in the Kentucky countryside from the Quart House, the package store where a century ago neighbors came to have jugs and jars filled, through the distillery and warehouses, to the bottling room where the trademark red sealing wax is applied to each bottle by hand. David Salmon, a vice president, runs visitors through the process, explaining that the mashbill includes winter wheat that defies the pressure cooking that would trim hours off the beer-making process. In the old days, making the beer was much less predictable, but now distillers can time fermentation so they needn't rise in the middle of the night to start distillation. Another regulation of the process was developed in the early nineteenth century by Dr. James Crow, creator of Old Crow. Sour mashing, or saving a a portion of the mash from one fermentation to place in the next, assures yeast uniformity from one batch to the next. Virtually all bourbon is sour-mash whiskey. Farmers feed their livestock with left-over mash.
Crow, a Scottish physician, chemist and acquaintance of Louis Pasteur, is credited with standardizing bourbon production through the use of instrumentation and sanitation. He was master distiller at a distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, now called Labrot & Graham. It was bought in 1994 by spirits giant Brown-Forman, which did its own laudable restoration of the then-shuttered facility. The company now does the final aging of its small-batch entry, Woodford Reserve, there, but it won't be until 2003 when it will package examples of the brand made entirely at Labrot & Graham, using its traditional copper pot stills. Master distiller Lincoln Henderson says that the present whiskey is a result of marrying the best barrels from his Old Forester distillery, "the select, the reserve, the honey barrels, we call them."
Maker's Mark uses a column still and an old-fashioned pot still in its two distillations, but rather than searching for the bourbon that has matured the most sublimely, it rotates barrels in a specific sequence to maintain even maturation in all its whiskey.
The tour ends at the old Bickle fire truck that sits in a shed, and Ed O'Daniel, the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, who grew up hunting on the property, points out that you can still hear the birds chirp even when Maker's Mark is in full production. "They have been too modest about their restoration of this place. It was literally falling down when I was a kid."
Back in Bardstown the bourbon festivities are hitting full stride with a barrel-making demonstration and the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay in the park surrounding the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which is packed with artifacts and explanations about the progress of the craft. Particularly interesting are the thousands of old whiskey containers and bottles used over the years.
Inside the museum, an auction begins in full camp style. Carl Lusk, of the Kentucky Railway Museum, is bringing the show to order. In rushes a woman, wearing turn-of-the-century garb, spouting slogans about the evils of alcohol, and brandishing a hatchet.
"Carrie Nation, you get out of here," says Lusk. When she doesn't acquiesce, he tries another tack: "If you don't want people to drink, you can buy all of this whiskey." She doesn't, and is summarily dismissed.
Bourbon makers have donated dozens of new bottles, the proceeds from which will benefit the museum, but the whiskey that draws collectors' passion is the Prohibition bourbon. While alcohol was outlawed during the Noble Experiment, some was available by prescription only for "medicinal purposes." The small quantity that is extant is very rare.
The culmination of the festival comes that night at the Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala, a black-tie affair under tents at the My Old Kentucky Home State Park. It seems as though the entire bourbon world has dressed up and turned out, despite the oppressive heat. At the premeal tasting the sponsors are doling out their product in a festive atmosphere. Booker Noe, with his trademark cane and hat, sits at a booth modeled after the porch of a Southern mansion. Ever the bourbon outlaws, the Maker's Mark crew is dressed in Roaring Twenties gangster gear and running around shooting toy guns. Leslie Samuels Tucker searches out the Yankee and thanks him again. He assures her that he is taking out the debt in trade as he fades away for a free sip of Wild Turkey Rare Breed.
Breed, a barrel-proof whiskey (bottled at the strength it comes out of the barrel), and Kentucky Spirit single-barrel bourbon are the highly respected master distiller Jimmy Russell's forays into the superpremium market. He maintains his philosophy of using a higher percentage of small grains (rye and barley) in his mashbills and distilling at low proofs for all the Wild Turkey products. In the rickhouse, windows are kept open in the summer to assure air circulation and add flavor to the bourbon. "Every distiller has their own philosophy depending on the taste they want, if it's light or full bodied," Russell says. "I want more flavor and I strive for consistency. I want all Wild Turkey to taste the same."
Among the thousands of guests who in some way contribute to the art of making Kentucky bourbon is a table full of coopers. Bourbon's insatiable appetite for new barrels keeps them in constant business. While the law doesn't specify using American white oak in its barrels (or American cooperages, for that matter ) most distillers do because the wood's tight grain is best for aging. Distillers can choose from four levels of charring the insides of the barrels. Some (such as Russell) feel that a deeper char adds extra flavor. One barrelmaker notes that despite the outpouring of Kentucky pride, these are not his only customers in the American whiskey world. Bourbon is also made in Virginia (Virginia Gentleman), a cousin to the whiskey is distilled in Tennessee, and rye whiskeys are making a resurgence in places as far-flung as California. Tennessee sour mash whiskeys (George Dickel and Jack Daniel's) are often referred to as bourbon and could be so designated if the manufacturers chose. Those products are created under the legal regulations that apply to bourbon, but they then undergo a mellowing through charcoal.
Jimmy Bedford, a Jack Daniel's distiller, makes a single-barrel product himself. The tradition, he says, goes back to the days when Jack Daniel's sold all its whiskey by the barrel. While, by law, whiskey must now be bottled before sale, the company allows visitors to its Lynchburg plant to assist in choosing an entire barrel for purchase, which is then bottled with special labels. The customer receives the empty barrel as well as 240 bottles of whiskey. The purchase (about $7,000) can also be arranged for customers who don't visit the distillery.
As the meal ends, the Yankee is rolling that information aroundin his head and planning more whiskey forays south, when one of the journalists from England converts a skillful turnaround. He succeeds in cadging a cigar from the perpetually palms-up Yankee. Sipping a Blanton's, the Britisher puffs on his hard-won Fuente Fuente OpusX and allows, "They make a pretty good pair."
The impeccable bourbon-and-cigar combination is an elusive ideal that enthusiasts have been chasing for years. Look upon that as a happy problem: you can spend years in search of perfection and have outstanding experiences along the way. To forge a trail, we tasted several tandems, using direction from Adam Seger, the director of restaurants at Louisville's Seelbach Hilton, where the bar features 38 bourbons and often stages cigar pairings. He suggests matching cigars and bourbons of like body strengths. Four Cigar Aficionado senior editors tasted nine bourbons selected to fill a spectrum between light and full flavor, and then smoked four similarly positioned cigars with them. Impressions follow in order of light to full body:
The lightest-bodied of the bourbons tasted, Four Roses exhibits honey, anise, walnut and carmel notes, with a slight Scotch-like peatiness. True to expectations, it paired well with the light-bodied Macanudo Prince Philip, as the cigar and bourbonseemed to make each other perform better. A bit more powerful, the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo tested neutral to negative against the Four Roses, which seemed to mute the cigar's nutty flavor. Surprisingly, the still fuller-bodied Montecristo No. 2 made a better pairing with the bourbon, enhancing its herbal qualities. The Fuente Fuente OpusX Perfexcion No. 2, perhaps the fullest-bodied of the bunch, clashed with the light whiskey, as the heat on the bourbon'sfinish became pronounced.
JACK DANIEL'S SINGLE BARREL
Technically a Tennessee sour-mash whiskey, Jack Daniel's is nonetheless hard to ignore when tasting bourbons. With its light-bodied smoothness and caramel, orange and wood notes, it fits in well with its Kentucky cousins. Predictably, it also drank very well with the light Macanudo, enhancing some of the cigar's sweetness and woodiness. The other pairings were not as good. The Padrón clashed with the orange character. The Monty was a neutral partner. The Fuente made the whiskey seem hotter.
EVAN WILLIAMS SINGLE BARREL
Light- to medium-bodied, this smooth bourbon mixes orange, vanilla, and anise flavors with a sweet caramel nose and a long finish. The whiskey seemed to draw out the creamy, spicy sweetness of the Macanudo. It paired even better with the Padrón, the weight of their bodies being more evenly matched. The combination with the Monty was closer to neutral, although some peppery notes seemed to arise. The Fuente overpowered the bourbon.
BLANTON'S SINGLE BARREL
A sweet, flavorful bourbon with a strong charcoal- and-wood character and hints of pear and anise; its nose is sweet and the finish long. Blanton's paired extremely well with the Macanudo and the Padrón, which sang with the wood of the bourbon. The Monty reacted badly to the whiskey, but the Blanton's brought out molasses notes in the Fuente.
The solidly medium-bodied Maker's shows orange, vanilla and caramel flavor, with a sweetness informed by molasses and maple sugar. The woody finish is zesty and effervescent. The light Macanudo faltered next to the bourbon, but the other three cigars made a very impressive pairing with Maker's. The Padrón tasted even sweeter in that context, the Monty balanced well, and the Fuente seemed more leathery and full-bodied.
This smooth, sweet bourbon exhibits maple candy, cherry, vanilla and caramel with a meaty character, smacking of peat or tobacco. Dilution with water is recommended to unleash its entire flavor profile. The Woodford overpowered the Macanudo, making it seem papery, but matched well with the other cigars. It showed off the woodiness of the Padrón and brought out the cocoa in the Monty. The Fuente helped the Woodford, but the bourbon had a neutral effect on that cigar.
WILD TURKEY RARE BREED
A huge, smooth, complex bourbon, Rare Breed shows orange, caramel, licorice, maple and floral characters, with a long, sweet finish. The Macanudo seemed to disappear next to the Wild Turkey's flavor profile. The Padrón and Monty were neutral partners with the bourbon, the latter cigar gaining some toastiness but giving the whiskey a bite. The Fuente was a near-perfect match, enhancing the Rare Breed as the bourbon returned the compliment.
A high-octane fuel at 125 proof, Booker's nevertheless has orange, vanilla, leather, pecan, honey and cherry charms that easily stand up to the alcohol. It cries out, however, to be diluted. The Macanudo was overwhelmed by its power and intensity. Booker's also proved too much for the Padrón. When paired with the Monty, it was at its best, pulling flavors from the cigar that weren't apparent before. The Fuente weighed in well, with its equal balance of full flavor.
PAPPY VAN WINKLE'S FAMILY RESERVE
At 20 years old, Van Winkle is the senior citizen of the bunch (as much as five times as old as some of the others). Possibly an acquired taste, its preponderance of woody, smoky, almond and cherry tastes are alluring to some, but off-putting to others, who detect a musty, tannic quality. It matched poorly with the Macanudo, easily outrunning the cigar. The Padrón was a neutral partner. With the Monty, it matched well, finding cocoa and cedar qualities previously downplayed in the cigar. The Fuente was a well-balanced match.
The 1999 Kentucky Bourbon Festival will be held September 15 to 19. Contact the Bardstown Tourist Center (800) 638-4877) for information.
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