American Spirit: Bourbon

Spring2016_Liquor-1A Bourbon is as vintagely American as cowboys, gangsters, cotton aristocracy and trailer-park white trash. But after years of being a Southern preserve, bourbon is finally escaping history and geography and establishing itself as the favored tipple of the smart set in the sophisticated big cities of the North. Andrew Harvey looks at the rehabilitation of the true American Spirit.

Those wild Atlantic rollers have mellowed into the refined slap of marina water on quayside by the time they reach the walls of the Boston Harbor Hotel.  You could say much the same about the bourbon in the Rose Wharf bar.  The fiery Southern corn liquor which fueled the pioneers a couple of hundred years ago is a calmer spirit now.  Shocking as this may seem, if you prefer your American image straight up – all through denim and hard drinking – the reality is that, in Boston and in many other US cities, bourbon has become sophisticated.

It has, as they like to say, cachet. Take a walk into the Rose Wharf.  The bar is long: 20 dark-green leather stools. It’s a masculine sort of place with armchairs, sofas, low tables, solid wood and deep colors, greens, gold and burnt orange.  The atmosphere is redolent of a gentlemen’s club and the air would be heavy with the rich waft of cigar smoke if it weren’t for the efficiency of the air conditioning.

You are in a typical and carefully-crafted up-market American bar where the clientele in their twenties will be in a minority to those in their thirties and forties, and where the malt whiskeys and single-cask bourbons are pointedly on display.  The customer will be expected to ask for a Scotch or a bourbon whiskey by name and be ready to part with $12 for a measure of two-and-a-quarter ounces poured straight from bottle to glass by a bartender who will know that a banker will probably want Blanton’s, and will certainly not be drinking Jim Beam.

Spring2016_Liquor-2Just as America has changed, so has the culture of bourbon. Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women might once have parceled up the notion of a rugged attitude in a neat jingle, but today tobacco carries a dire health warning. Whiskey is in the hands of marketing men; and women have gone corporate.  If they are still wild, it is not politically correct either to inquire or pass on the answer, although I can tell you that they are drinking more bourbon.

You will see women drinking whiskey with their male business colleagues or on an evening with their girlfriends anywhere from Kansas City to Los Angeles.  “Bourbon isn’t strictly a guy thing these days,” says Charles Cowdery, a drinks commentator in Chicago.  “Plenty of women like the imagery of being tough and to show they can handle anything.  They don’t want to be seen drinking something blue any more than a guy does.”

The triumph of the bourbon makers, who come almost exclusively from Kentucky, is in making their product fashionable. They have gradually weakened their link with the iconography of the Wild West and the cowboy, and now prefer to clink tumblers with the qualities of rarity, exclusivity, knowledgeability, and success. Not that you would guess it from a visit to the British cinema where, for some curious reason, Jack Daniel’s defies its popularity with the fast-moving music-and-movie set by throwing up advertising images of geriatric barrel minders from the land that time forgot.

Spring2016_Liquor-3The word bourbon does not appear on the label of a Jack Daniel’s bottle and therein lies a distinction which concerns the purists, but scarcely anyone else. Strictly speaking, Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee sour-mash whiskey which is made in the same way as a bourbon, except that there is an additional process in which the spirit is filtered through charcoal. The result is a whiskey that tastes more oily than the bourbons; although by the time Black Jack is mixed with Coke you’d be hard put to tell the difference.

The Lynchburg distillery also produces a premium whiskey called Gentleman Jack which is charcoal-filtered a second time just before bottling. Bourbon, as distinct from its neighbor Tennessee whiskey, dates from the 1770s when it was first made from the corn and limestone water of Bourbon County in western Virginia, an area now in the state of Kentucky. Right up until the period of Prohibition (1920-1933) when the manufacture and sale of spirits was illegal, bourbon was outsold by rye whiskey which was the real spirit of the frontiersmen.

Miraculously, Prohibition turned out to be bourbon’s best friend. The bootleg whiskey made during the era was often so terrible that when the restrictions came off and legal bourbon came back, the sweeter taste of the corn spirit surged in popularity. By the late forties, rye was in serious decline and today is almost extinct – although two of the classic American cocktails, Manhattan and Old Fashioned should be made with rye. Corn’s supremacy was a long time coming.

Not until 1964 was bourbon defined and protected by law, even though President Andrew Jackson from South Carolina first brought his barrels to the White House in 1829. And only in the last ten years has the rest of America been convinced that it could be fashionable to drink a spirit so associated with the Southern working class. Keith Richards, in the days when the Rolling Stones were young and dangerous, had already given Jack Daniel’s immense status by demanding it was supplied by the gallon to his backstage quarters on tour; but bourbon had no such champion.

Even the rat pack buddies like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra, who could clean up a bottle of liquor before the dice stopped rolling, were in the Daniel’s camp. Things are different today. Kentucky whiskey has moved up the social scale and if you’re drinking bourbon you are doing the American thing. Chris Morris, a marketing executive for United Distillers and a native of Louisville, the bourbon city, thinks that recognition is richly deserved. “Now that the South basically runs the United States, and Atlanta has become the new capital of the country, bourbon is very much an in proposition,” he declares.

Spring2016_Liquor-4“Young people are the most exciting part of the bourbon business, especially young professional people. They’ve got their minds wrapped round the fact that it’s worth paying a higher price if they’re getting a drink that’s special.” What Morris means is that people like him have taught America a little bit of Southern snobbery. There are only Wild about a dozen Kentucky distilleries and yet there are more than 60 brands of bourbon all claiming distinctive characteristics.

The British cynic from the school of single malts might be tempted to wonder if there is really $15 worth of extra class in a bottle of Booker’s when it’s made alongside the favorite cheapo, Jim Beam.  Morris’ own company, which owns one distillery, turns out Rebel Yell, Old Fitzgerald, IW Harper, Old Charter and WL Weller, all made on the same premises by an almost identical process until the aging begins in the barrel.  But who wants to be a cynic amid such a generous outpouring of this fine brown spirit?

There is another legend that needs checking out: the theory that you can tell a lot about a man by the bourbon he drinks.  Well, there’s no better place to start a bit of research than Louisville, so my first call was to Elaine Garcia who runs the bar at the Brown Hotel on 4th and Broadway.  This place is heaving around Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May when everyone drinks mint juleps, the classic race-day cocktail made with bourbon, mint leaves and crushed sugar.  Garcia is pretty busy at most other times, as regulars and travelers take their pick from at least 50 bourbons.

Top of the range at $12 a shot (remember, you can buy a bottle of Jim Beam for $8) is Elijah Craig, aged for 18 years in those white oak barrels and named after the founding father of bourbon.  At the lower end of the price range come Beam and Maker’s Mark, the best of the blends at $5.

This is the lore according to Garcia: “An accountant will probably try one of the Jim Beam group, Knob Creek or Baker’s. A lawyer might drink Booker’s, that’s 126 percent proof (63 percent alcohol), because attorneys seem to be a bit more adventurous with their proofs and look for something stronger. Booker’s is a smooth single-barrel bourbon at $9. A shopkeeper or entrepreneur will order bourbon and soda, maybe water. A racehorse trainer, he’s going to ask for the bottle. I’ve worked with these people; they just want a bottle and a glass, probably Wild Turkey, Maker’s or Beam. Your racehorse owners are going to be drinking Elijah Craig. And
Heaven Hill, that’s for the truck drivers. More women drink bourbon now and they generally go for Maker’s Mark.”

People who Elaine Garcia categorizes as “almost middle class” will drink bourbon and Coke. “A real bourbon drinker has it up, maybe with some iced water on the side. You don’t put water in bourbon,” she says. “That adulterates it.” You also give yourself away as a tourist if you ask for a mint julep outside the week of the Kentucky Derby. I asked Chris Morris who’s drinking what. “A guy who served in Vietnam would most likely be drinking Jim Beam because a lot of it went out there and that largely defined their generation,” says Morris. “In Texas, WL Weller is the bourbon of cattle barons, the cowboys and the oil tycoons; and that goes back to the heady days of the television show Dallas. That’s where the people with money did, and still do, drink Weller.”

Blanton’s, Special Old Fitzgerald, IW Harper, Booker’s, Baker’s, Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve (which is the same as Old Forester but aged longer), and plenty of others are all single-cask or single-batch bourbons. This doesn’t mean they come from just one barrel, but from one specific period of distillation or one area of the warehouse. Kentucky has learned a lot from Scotland where the distinctive flavors of malt whiskey vary according to the malting process, the water, the shape of the still, and especially the barrel.

Bourbon doesn’t have the same variables. The water is all filtered by the natural limestone and corn is corn. It is the charring of the barrel and the aging of the contents that gives the bourbon makers the chance to put up rivals to the malts. Even so, the range of taste is a subtle one; you won’t find the dramatic contrasts that exist, say, between the reeking peat of Lagavulin and the heathery aristocracy of the Glenlivet.

Single-malt whiskey is now sold around the world as a premium product at premium prices, and bourbon is catching on quick. This is hardly surprising when there’s a buck to be made, and especially as some of the Kentucky distilleries are now owned by the same conglomerates who make scotch. You can tell a man by the bourbon he drinks. You can tell he’s swallowed the alcohol and the alchemy of the marketing department.

Bourbon: The Knowledge

A few insider tips to let the bartender know he’s pouring for a serious drinker.

AH Hirsch, 20 years old, $60 A fabulous taste, and one of the rarest bourbons in the US. Made not in Kentucky but in Pennsylvania at the now-closed Michter’s Distillery. There are just 6,000 cases left in the whole of America (although the 16-year-old is more plentiful!); robust, slightly dry and spicy, hint of wood smoke and a heady aftertaste. If you ever see a bottle, buy it and treasure it.

Booker Noe, age never given, $44 Generally known as Booker’s, this is a big bourbon from the Jim Beam company and is named after a distinguished master distiller who still, at the age of 80, helps select barrels for bottling. Barrel-proof bourbon at around 126 percent proof, this will really numb your tongue if taken neat. Most drinkers cut it with a little water.

Pappy Van Winkle, 20 years old, $40 Top-of-the-range blend at 90.4 percent proof from a distillery still owned by the Van Winkle family. Good old-time flavor, brash and rustic, this is the Marlboro cowboy with a glass in his hand instead of a cigarette. Look out also for Old Rip at $16 for a bottle of ten-year-old.

Blanton’s, no age, $40 Doesn’t spend so long maturing as any of the above, but a classy and subtle single-barrel bourbon. Smoother at 93 percent proof than the Van Winkles with a taste of sandalwood.

Elijah Craig, 18 years old, $31.50 Good top-range bourbon and the oldest singlebarrel available. 90 percent proof and smooth with a terrific nose, and a favorite of the Louisville elite.

Woodford Reserve, $26 An interesting bourbon which is marketed heavily as a heritage spirit from “Kentucky’s oldest distillery site.” Actually the place has been recently revamped; and until it brings its own bourbons online it is marketing an extra-aged Old Forester as Woodford Reserve. Despite the deceit, it’s a decent drink, smooth with a hint of marshmallow.

Wild Turkey, $14.50 The hottest thing out of Kentucky since Cassius Clay. Go for the stronger 101 percent proof variety and drink like a real man. Real women go for it too.

Maker’s Mark, $13 My favorite of the lower-priced bourbons (and one that is available in Britain, though not at this price); a smooth blend with a kick which tastes good either straight up or with water. The most popular bourbon in the state of Kentucky.

Jim Beam, $8 The ubiquitous four-year-old basic bourbon. Simple quality – nothing wrong with it, but nothing special about it. Nevertheless a good introduction bourbon.

Evan Williams, $7.75 A shade cheaper than Beam with a bit more character. Named after one of the first bourbon distilleries in Kentucky.

Four Roses, export only One of the most widely-available bourbons in Europe and one of the most disappointing. Never drink it if you can find an alternative.