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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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.
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