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Battle at the Bar

Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
10th Anniversary Issue, Nov/Dec 02

(continued from page 7)

THE FAMOUS GROUSE GOLD RESERVE This 12-year-old Grouse has additional complexity and a stronger role for malts. Tastes of honey, rum, burnt nuts and French bread. Smoke medium to full body.

JOHNNIE WALKER Lack of an age statement belies the maturity of the Blue Label. Fruit and honey harmonize with wood, salt and peat. Pair full-bodied. The 18-year-old Gold Label isn't as complex or peaty, but makes up for it with a chewy, toasty, nutty character. Pair medium to full. Twelve-year-old Black Label pairs mild to medium.

CUTTY SARK A bright whisky, created for light tastes. Floral nose with a hint of sour wine. Peaty on the palate with chewy bread dough and almost no sweetness. Pair mild to medium.

Bourbon

Bourbon lacks a convenient niche by which to claim a strong cigar affinity. It's not made side by side with fine cigars like rum. (Bourbon's birthplace, Kentucky, is famous for cigarettes). It doesn't have Cognac's tradition of being sipped at elegant affairs. (Bourbon is associated with card games and horse races.) It doesn't get peat-smoked, aged for 25 years and feted in the parlors of London like Scotch. (Bourbon gets no smoke; 10 years is pretty old by its standards; until recently, a call for Bourbon in an English bar would get a glassy stare.)

No, nothing seems to argue in favor of Bourbon -- except the taste buds. The sweet, woody, creamy spirit which is Bourbon just seems to pair well with a wide range of cigars. When you scratch the surface of how the whiskey is made, this begins to makes a lot more sense.

First of all, distilling tradition is a great part of the end product. Eighteenth-century Scotch and Irish immigrants to America brought their stills and know-how with them. Eventually many headed west to Kentucky. When they arrived, they added a key component to any successful cigar/spirit interaction: sweetness. Without abundant barley and rye, they made whiskey with the local grain, corn, a far sweeter ingredient. The water was naturally filtered by a great limestone shelf.

Second, folklore tells us that serendipity added the next integral part of the formula. A Baptist minister who dabbled in distilling was cleaning a barrel with kerosene, the story goes, when it caught on fire. He doused the fire and used the cask anyway. He discovered that the charring of the inside brought out the charms of the wood much faster than normal aging. A tradition was born. Significantly, the aging was being done in Kentucky, where sweltering summers expand the whiskey into the layer of wood char, and chilly winters draw it together with the attendant flavors, back into the barrel. That explains the dearth of superannuated Bourbons.

If I were posed the same conundrum as mentioned in the section under rum -- blindfolded at a bar with a cigar and asked to make a house call based on type of spirit -- I'd make mine Bourbon.Why? Because it is the most consistent of brown goods. First, it is made in a small area of Kentucky that offers much the same climatic conditions throughout. Second, strict legal boundaries define how straight Bourbon whiskey may be made: the grain formula, or mash bill, must be corn rich (more than 50 percent, barley and rye or wheat make up the rest); distillation can be no greater than 160 proof (usually it's much lower), which insures retention of flavor from the grains, and the product must be aged a minimum of two years. (If it isn't at least four years old the label must say so, but practically none do.) Furthermore, aging must be done in new charred, white oak barrels. (The stipulation that they must be new explains why so many used barrels make their way into other uses.) And nothing but water can be added to the final product when it goes into the bottle. Both Cognac and Scotch makers can color their spirit, and rum can be flavored. Bourbon is pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Despite the bad reputation Bourbon suffered after Prohibition (it took years to get quality products back on the shelf), Bourbon makers in the last two decades have taken a page from the Scotch makers. They have worked hard to create products that show their artistry at its utmost and most interesting levels. Small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons are part of this revolution. Most are very good with a cigar.


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