A Whiskey Pilgrim Finds a Kentucky Home in the Capital of Bourbon
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
The Yankee is smoking a cigar on a park bench in the middle of Bardstown, Kentucky, when a Jaguar sedan pulls up and out pops a mere slip of a Southern belle in sneakers, who proceeds to struggle with boxes full of flower vases. Intrigued by the out-of-place wheels in a town full of pickups and growling muscle cars--and feeling sorry for the little lady--he offers a hand, which is graciously accepted. On the way to the florist, between "thank you" and "you're welcome," it develops that the Yankee is in town for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
"Well, that's nice! Do you like my daddy's bourbon?"
"Your daddy's bourbon?"
"Yes. I'm Leslie Samuels Tucker."
Jackpot. Not 10 minutes in this "Bourbon Capital of the World" and the Yankee has stumbled onto the very daughter of Bill Samuels Sr., developer of Maker's Mark, one of the leaders in the trend toward superpremium bourbon that is spurring the market. A convert to corn liquor, he's come, with no introductions, to the industry's annual fete, hoping to scam invitations, soak up atmosphere and sop up quaff. Resisting the urge to propose, he manages: "I like his bourbon very much."
"You've been so nice, you should come out to my brother's house. He's throwing a little party and they're all going to smoke his cigars." The brother in question is Bill Samuels Jr., the renegade of bourbon marketers, and his cigar is a whiskey-soaked number, wax sealed in glass like his bourbon.
Sadly, the Yankee will be otherwise occupied at the festival's own "Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz" event, and begs off. She takes his name and assures him that she'll repay the favor.
Two hours later on this September evening, a hundred or so bourbon and cigar enthusiasts gather in the ballroom at Bardstown's Best Western General Nelson Motel to mix pleasures. Not the most atmospheric venue in this historic town 40 miles south of Louisville where Jesse James once rode and Stephen Foster slept, but no one seems to mind as they take advantage of the freely pouring bourbon and listen to jazz.
The cigar portion of the presentation begins with a short clinic on how to light a cigar, by Louisville cigar retailer J. Paul Tucker, who has supplied two Canary Island brands. "You want to take your match and barbecue the outside," he counsels the crowd, using an image appropriate to Kentucky. Tucker's comments on the resurgence of cigar smoking run to their ubiquitous availability. "In Louisville, there are 25 or 30 places you can buy cigars, from a Thorton's gas station to a dress shop," he says. Not surprisingly, his advice is to deal with a tobacconist.
The Yankee, seeking deeper knowledge, corners Tucker later and asks for his wisdom on pairing cigars with bourbon, a personal quest. Tucker inscrutably offers: "I never met a cigar that didn't go well with bourbon." The search for enlightenment will have to go on.
Elmer T. Lee, master distiller emeritus of Ancient Age, which created Blanton's, the bourbon being sampled, details the 130-year-old distillery's heritage and describes Col. Albert B. Blanton, the Ancient Age master distiller until 1957, before succinctly telling the story of the drink at hand. It was in 1984 that Blanton's became the first single-barrel bourbon to be marketed. "The owners decided there was room to compete with the single-malt Scotches, but it had to be dressed up to compete." The round Blanton's bottle sports a horse and rider on top and a label annotated by hand with the number of the barrel it was taken from and the date the whiskey was dumped.
The premise of single-barrel bourbon is that the distiller has chosen particular barrels from the warehouse for distinct flavor characteristics. Though the distiller strives for consistency in a single-barrel bourbon, variations always exist between bottles from different barrels because barrels are not mingled together, as is commonly done with most other bourbons. The barrel number is meant as a fanciful aid to those who want to repeat the exact same experience, Lee explains. "You could try," he conjectures, "but it would be damn near impossible."
Happily, the Yankee falls in with a local television marketing director who has the place wired. Without a game plan, he confesses, he is at a loss as to how to continue. She offers the intelligence that Four Roses will host a tour of its distillery, in Lawrenceburg, the very next morning. "I'm sure if you ask real nice they will be happy to have you along."
Eight the next morning, he is standing at the Bardstown Tourist & Convention Commission's visitors information center, a quaint little building off the even quainter town square. Invited guests are awaiting rides to the distillery, about 40 miles away. The interloper from the North explains his predicament and is instantly included. A few minutes later he is heading east with Scott and Judy Cederholm, who have volunteered to ferry people back and forth. The night before, Judy had organized a bourbon-style cooking dinner in which Jim Gerhardt, executive chef at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, demonstrated dishes cooked with bourbon. Scott is now a voice-over announcer, but explains that he used to be in the bourbon business. "That is, until I burnt the distillery down," he says with a chuckle. Actually Scott was only working at Heaven Hill near downtown Bardstown on the day in November 1996 when a fire started in a warehouse, was fed by high winds, and flamed out of control.
Warehouse J caught fire, and as workers watched helplessly, the flammable barrels inside started to tumble out of the building and down the hill. "Here comes this wall of flaming bourbon," Scott recalls with a shudder. Soon they had what amounted to a burning river of whiskey--real firewater--which wiped out a car and crossed a road to engulf warehouse I. "One guy was cut off and had to walk down the river to get out." Firefighters rushed in, but a containment strategy wasn't very effective. The fire consumed seven of 44 warehouses and the distillery, and Heaven Hill lost almost 95,000 barrels of whiskey, more than 16 percent of its 590,000 barrels.
It was typical of the close-knit community, Scott Cederholm says, that producers from all over the state offered help to get Heaven Hill back on its feet. It didn't hurt that Heaven Hill holds a special place in the bourbon world as the only remaining family-owned distillery.
A small coterie of artisans possess the skill to create America's only native spirit, and strong ties have developed among them. Having played together as children, worked together as adults and, in many cases, being related by blood, whiskey men share a mutual respect, even while parent companies fight for market share.
Max L. Shapira, whose family has owned the Heaven Hill property since the repeal of Prohibition, decided to stay the course and temporarily moved production to the Early Times distillery in Louisville. Now he has purchased the Old Fitzgerald brand as well as the Old Bernheim distillery from United Distillers, which recently left the bourbon business. Heaven Hill, which is well known for supplying private-label whiskey, also focuses on the superpremium market, in which it creates several products, including Evan Williams vintage single-barrel and Henry McKenna single-barrel.
Shapira points to the success of bourbon on the international market over the past decades to explain the revival of the spirit at home. "Uniquely American, it expresses the rugged individualism of the U.S," he summarizes its appeal. "We're not in the computer chip business, so you can't look for double-digit increases, but bourbon is coming back."
The spirit is like other American inventions, such as rock and roll, that had to be transported overseas before they could be fully esteemed back home. One of the places that made an appreciative adoptive home for the quaff was the Asian market.
At the Four Roses distillery, a seemingly misplaced plant built in a stucco Spanish style, a contingency of Japanese has gathered for the occasion, wearing green warmup jackets with four red roses emblazoned on the back. The history of the Four Roses name in the United States reaches back to 1888, but was interrupted in the 1960s when the owner, Seagram, took it off the domestic market. Still made at thisdistillery, which also makes Bulleit boubon, the brand has recently been reintroduced in Kentucky and Indiana.
The guests sit down to a bourbon symposium delivered by master distiller Jim Rutledge, master distiller emeritus Ova Haney, and Pete Gunterman, Seagram's director of training. Gunterman handles the history portion with some histrionics. Closing his eyes and holding out one hand, he intones: "I have this vision of an Arab crossing the desert and maybe he had some figs. The figs were bruised and fermented along the way and fig wine was invented."
The lecture fast-forwards through the invention of distillation to the colonization of the New World, where rum was the drink of choice, because molasses was readily available in the colonies and didn't have to be converted into sugar--as grain does--to be fermented. When the Scots and Irish emigrated to America, they brought their knowledge of distilling as well as crude stills. Heading west for open land, they poured into Pennsylvania and made whiskey from the rye they grew. After the American Revolution, the new government imposed taxes on distillers, fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. George Washington saw the dissent as a challenge to federal authority and quickly put down the rebellion (he is rumored to have put down some whiskey as well). Some distillers pushed westward to the no man's land now known as Kentucky, but then part of Virginia. There, native corn was easy to grow but hard to sell, as it had to be hauled to distant markets. Fermented and distilled, however, corn became a portable potable that was even used as money. "No one set out to make a bourbon whiskey. It just evolved," Gunterman underscores.
Part of that evolution, legend has it, came when an eighteenth-century Baptist minister by the name of Elijah Craig accidentally charred the inside of a barrel, but used it to store whiskey anyway. The whiskey leached into the charcoal lining and took on new flavors; when Craig tapped it he was pleasantly surprised. Later, according to the story, whiskey was shipped downriver in barrels labeled "Bourbon County." Aged by the trip, it took on a particular character that became known as "bourbon whiskey" and was highly prized. Kentuckians like to point out the irony that Bourbon County is now dry and whiskey is no longer legally made there, but the entity that is now Bourbon County is much smaller than the original domain, which covered much of the state.
The serendipity of the birth of bourbon is now mandated by federal law: it must be made in America of a grain mash that is at least 51 percent corn, and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. In practice, most mashbills, or grain recipes, contain about 75 percent corn (rye or wheat, and barley malt make up the other grains), and most bourbons are aged at least four years. Because the barrels are charred and never reused for bourbon (many are sold to Scotch makers) and because the Kentucky summer is sweltering, the whiskey ages far more rapidly there than in chilly Scotland. Many feel that bourbon does not profit from much more aging than six or seven years, although some distillers are experimenting with superannuated whiskeys like the 15-year-old Jefferson Reserve, 18-year-old Elijah Craig and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle.
Each distiller has a mashbill that includes about 10 percent malted barley to promote its conversion into grain sugars. Yeast microbes are added to break down the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and a beer is produced. The next step is distillation: simply put, heating the beer to a temperature higher than the boiling point of alcohol, but lower than that of water, and then cooling the alcohol-rich steam in a condenser. Bourbon is distilled twice, usually in a continuous still and then a pot still, before being aged in a barrel before bottling.
Rutledge, introduced as "plant manager, master distiller, or god," then leads a small group through a plant tour, starting where trucks roll in to dump loads of corn. Selecting grain is paramount, as distillers believe "garbage in, garbage out." With a probe he takes a sample of grain, puts it into a shot glass and nukes it in a microwave. This allows him to smell impurities in the corn. Four Roses formerly used a conventional oven, but that took hours, he says. This corn is fine, he observes, but a load that came in the day before had a funky barnyard odor. It was rejected and used for neutral spirits production at another Seagram's plant.
While showing off the beer that bubbles and ferments in huge cypress wood vats in another building, Rutledge explains that part of the Four Roses philosophy is using two different mashbills as well as five to six yeast codes. That way he can tweak the taste in the final blending process. "We do it by design," he says of the method that creates a signature light-bodied spirit. "You will never hear me say our bourbon is better than their bourbon. They're all different. It's a matter of personal taste."
In a computerized control room, the mild-mannered Rutledge points out how every aspect of production can be monitored on screen, and records are kept for every gallon made. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are empowered to spot-check distilleries to confirm that they operate within the range of their statement of process. "If it's off we could be shut down," Rutledge informs the group, then corrects himself. "Not could be. Would be."
The tour doesn't include a look at the aging facilities. The multi-story rickhouses next door are used by Wild Turkey. Instead, Four Roses uses single-story facilities some 50 miles away, in keeping with the theory that single-story warehouses deliver more uniform aging with fewer temperature fluctuations.
At a tasting of the four-brand Four Roses line held afterwards, a group of journalists from Britain eye the provincial liquid suspiciously, still not convinced anything can replace their Scotch.
Back in Bardstown, the Yankee has wangled an invitation to a backyard barbecue. Booker Noe, the grandson of Jim Beam and master distiller emeritus as well as something ofan ambassador of bourbon for the company, sits on the porch of his stately house just outside downtown Bardstown. Sporting a Panama hat and brandishing a cane, he welcomes visitors and sends them through the house to a large garage in back that doubles as a tasting room. The solemnity of the occasion, at which are assembled three noted whiskey writers, as well as distinguished guests from England, Japan and Denmark, is broken when Booker's grandchildren skate through followed by a dog.
When everyone is seated, Jim Kokoris, the executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, leads the gathering through a tasting of Baker's, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek, before surrendering the floor to Booker to introduce his namesake bourbon. A natural raconteur, Noe rambles through the origins of the Beam brand names before getting to his whiskey. Beams have been making bourbon since 1795, when Noe's great-great-great grandfather Jacob Beam, a German immigrant, first made whiskey as part of his grist mill operation. In 1882, the company's first liquor with a label--Old Tub--was made. "Old," it seems, is almost a family name in the bourbon industry. More than a hundred brands have used the word in their titles. After Prohibition, Noe's grandfather, whom he describes as a "stuffed shirt" who wore a tophat and tie to go fishing, rebuilt the distillery in 120 days. The first bourbon named for him, "Colonel James B. Beam," was a two-year-old rushed to market to revive interest in bourbon, which was losing ground to imported blended whiskies that hit the stores immediately after repeal. In 1945, the now well-known "Jim Beam" brand, a four-year-old, was introduced. While bourbons can be as young as two years, those that have no age statement--which is usually the case--must be at least four years old.
The bourbons sitting in front of Noe, the Beam small-batch collection, were all released in the past 15 years. Baker's is named for Noe's cousin, Baker Beam. Knob Creek is named for the farm where Abraham Lincoln was born and which his father sold for $20 and 10 barrels of bourbon. Basil Hayden's, with its heavy rye content, is named for an eighteenth-century distiller who came upon bourbon by way of rye making.
"Before we do anything, just get a good whiff of that good stuff," Noe says, and holds a glass of Booker's to his nose.
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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