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Kentucky's Finest: Bourbon

Small-Batch and Single-Barrel Bourbons Revive the Good Old Days of Whiskey
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

On an afternoon in late spring, Booker Noe stands in the dimly lit passageway on the fourth story of a 20,000-barrel warehouse at the huge Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. Though rain from a sudden storm pounds down outside, inside the warehouse it is monastically quiet, the air heavy with the scent of musty wood and the caramel-and-alcohol aroma of aging Bourbon. "This is the part of the warehouse where Bourbon ages the best," says Noe, a grandson of the legendary Bourbon-maker Jim Beam, as he selects a barrel for drawing a sample. "I call the whiskey we draw from these barrels the center cut. It's like the heart of a watermelon, strong and flavorful."

Noe, a giant of a man with a slow, deliberate down-home style, takes a large mallet in one beefy hand and rests the other against the side of the nearest barrel. With three sharp whacks on the barrel's staves, Noe skillfully removes the two-inch-thick softwood plug, called a bung, that protrudes from the barrel. With a pop, the bung almost flies out. "There's pressure builds up in a whiskey barrel this time of year," explains Noe, who is a retired master distiller and a self-appointed "ambassador of Bourbon." "In winter, it's just the opposite, and you've got to get hold of the damn thing with something and give it a good pull."

Using a copper siphon, Noe draws a glassful of dark-amber liquid from the barrel. He holds it up in the dim light to check the color, sniffs at it twice and reverentially offers it. "Here, take a good snort of this. It's just what Bourbon was meant to be, the way our forefathers drank it. I kept telling the marketing boys that we ought to be putting this in bottles, and they finally listened to me." The Bourbon has a rich bouquet of smoky spice and the full sweet flavor of burnt caramel and oaky vanilla.

"That's Booker's," says Noe, referring to the label under which this particular whiskey will be bottled. "It goes into the bottle just as it comes out of the barrel, at about 125 proof, not cut or filtered. It's a sipping whiskey, just right for the back porch in the late afternoon."

Later, during that same warm day, Bill Samuels, a lanky talkative Kentuckian with a maverick's reputation in Bourbon circles, tours his Maker's Mark distillery. Nestled in a quiet hollow at the corners of Marion, Nelson, and Washington counties, Maker's Mark retains much of the charm of the old Burke's distillery, which Samuels's father, William Samuels Sr., bought in 1953 for $67,000. The purchase price included the 200-acre Spring Hill Farm, a farmhouse, and a cluster of aging buildings, some dating back to the early 1800s. Most distilleries have an industrial air about them, with 1930s-style, vertical metal architecture and paved parking lots, but not Maker's Mark. With its meticulously restored buildings and tastefully landscaped grounds, the look is distinctly nineteenth century. And the pace is geared to match: Maker's Mark limits production to 40 barrels a day--tiny compared to the industry average of nearly 600 barrels.

"Our philosophy has always been that rather than make a lot and pick out that which is really good from the bunch, we prefer to make a little bit and have it all come out right," says Samuels.

After the tour, Samuels arranges for a comparative tasting of premium Bourbons in the distillery's small conference room decorated with family memorabilia: the revolver of outlaw Frank James, a distant cousin by marriage; a photograph of great-great-grandfather T.W. Samuels, founder of the defunct T.W. Samuels distillery, just up the road in Deatsville; a letter from Ronald Reagan thanking Samuels for a bottle of Maker's Mark delivered to the president's hotel room on the eve of a debate with Walter Mondale in Louisville during the 1984 presidential campaign. ("Reagan was just awful against Mondale in that debate," jokes Samuels, a lifelong Republican. "I'm sure that bottle of Maker's had something to do with it.")

Lined up along a tasting counter are 14 Bourbons. Mostly single-barrel or small-batch, they include some of the finest premium Bourbon whiskeys available: Hancock's Reserve, Rock Hill Farms, Blanton's and Ancient Age 10 Year Old from Ancient Age; Elijah Craig and Evan Williams from Heaven Hill; Wild Turkey Rare Breed from Wild Turkey; Baker's 107, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's and Booker's from Jim Beam; Old Forester from Brown-Forman; and Maker's Mark standard six-year-old and an experimental eight-year-old.

J. Bennie Miles, assistant vice-president for production at Maker's Mark, supervises tasting of the distillery's Bourbons throughout the aging process. A polite, soft-spoken native of nearby Bardstown, Kentucky, Miles has been at Maker's Mark for 27 years. "The best way to taste a bunch of Bourbons," explains Miles, "is to cut them all down to the same proof. Otherwise, you'll find that the higher proofs will be too hot compared to the lower ones, and your taste buds will get burned."

Miles picks up a glass of Hancock's Reserve and offers it along with some tasting instructions. "What you're looking for is any overaging, which gives it a bitter tannic taste; underaging, which leaves it grainy and sweet, and balance, which means the charcoal, alcohol and wood are all more or less right. Just take a little sip and let it hit the front of your lips, then back it around the tip of your tongue, roll it a little and spit it out."

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