Thursday, May 14, 2015

Kentucky Bourbon: Great American Whiskey

I did not know bourbon was whiskey. I didn't know what it was made from, how it was made, nor had I tasted it. I've tried drinks with Canadian whiskey, Scotch whiskey, tequila, vodka, and gin, and didn't enjoy any of them enough to stick with it, always returning to beer as my adult beverage of choice. Then, a trip through Kentucky in the summer of 2014 got me interested in bourbon.

It began at a dinner conversation with a friend of a friend in a restaurant on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, across from Cincinnati. She told us a little of the process of distilling bourbon, and she mentioned the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. After this conversation, I had a sudden interest in this American whiskey primarily produced in the great state of Kentucky.

A little research gave me a better idea of what makes bourbon whiskey different than other whiskies. Bourbon, as defined by law, is (in part) whiskey distilled with at least 51% corn, and aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. Most bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, although it can be produced anywhere in the US as long as it follows the guidelines. Other whiskies follow a similar process, but are distilled with less than 51% corn, and may be distilled with malted barley, rye, or wheat as the primary grain.

Kentucky distillers (and some in Tennessee) believe the local water is better for making bourbon because it is filtered through limestone bedrock that exists in the area. The rock filters impurities and metals such as iron, leaving purer, cleaner water, leading to the uniquely flavored spirit known as Kentucky bourbon.

Back home, I went to a liquor store and browsed the selection. Some of the names were recognizable from television advertising: Jim Beam, Old Crow, and some others. There were a dozen or so I had never heard of, and I decided to go with a bottle of Jim Beam, since it was the most familiar name.

We tried a Manhattan, with bourbon, vermouth, and bitters, but it was too much booze for us. Then we tried bourbon and ginger ale and we had a winner. This was good stuff; I don't know why I had never thought of trying it before. For whatever reason, ginger ale fits perfectly with the taste of bourbon, at least for us. A couple of months later, when the Jim Beam bottle was nearly empty, I wanted to try some other brands.

Next, we tried W.L. Weller Special Reserve, from the Buffalo Trace Distillery (suggested by our friend Terry). It's a little stronger (90 proof against Beam's 80) with wheat and barley as the secondary grains used in the distilling process, as opposed to Jim Beam that uses rye and barley. The Weller bourbon flavor is deep and smooth, and after a few weeks with Weller and ginger ale, I decided I prefer the slightly sweeter taste of wheated bourbon.

The next on my list was Maker's Mark, another wheated variety. This bourbon has a stronger aroma of vanilla and is as smooth as the Weller brand, but tastier and even better. Now that I know I prefer wheated bourbon, I'm on the lookout for other such brands, but I'm still willing to try non-wheated products.

One legendary brand, Pappy Van Winkle, is so limited it is extremely hard to find. With a limited release, only in the fall, and a select very few stores getting only a few bottles each, it's not likely I'll get to try Pappy anytime soon. Internet conversations suggest that people are often willing to pay thousands of dollars a bottle for this stuff bottled in three aged varieties, 15, 20 and 23 years. Obviously, I would love to try it, but I'm not spending a small fortune – even if I could find a bottle in a store.

After enjoying two straight bottles of wheated bourbons (Maker's Mark and Weller), I decided to try a rye/barley brand, to be sure I could really tell the difference.

"On the bourbon trail, are you?" said Ron, manager of my favorite liquor store.

"I keep searching for the perfect bottle."

"We have a lot to choose from," he told me.

We spoke about wheated bourbons, and he pointed out the Garrison Brothers brand – a Texas bourbon, selling for $82 a bottle.

"A customer came in here a few days ago and bought six bottles at eighty-two dollars a pop."

"Sorry, I'd love to try it, but I can't make myself spend that much."

"This guy wasn't even buying it for himself. He said they were going to be Christmas presents for friends and relatives."

"I need relatives like that."

"Don't we all."

Ron pointed out a less expensive, newer brand of wheated bourbon on his shelf – Larceny, from the Heaven Hill Distillery. This Kentucky whiskey producer makes three styles of wheated bourbon, including Cabin Still and Old Fitzgerald, but Larceny is the only Heaven Hill bourbon I have seen in local stores.

"That's on my list to try, along with Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve," I told him.

"Larceny is pretty good stuff, and priced about the same as Maker's Mark and Wellers."

"Those are my favorites so far."

I had already decided to buy a non-wheated brand this time, so I picked up a bottle of Buffalo Trace, from the same distillery that makes Weller. After a week, I was enjoying it, but it became obvious that for my taste I prefer wheated bourbon.

"Gonna try the Larceny?" said Ron, the next time I visited the liquor store.

"I think so."

"You sure you don't want to go for this fine Garrison Brothers?"

"Not unless you're having a big sale."

"Then Larceny it is," he said with a smile. "If you liked Maker's and Weller, you should like this one. It's slightly different, as you would expect. After all, it's from a different distillery."

At home, I opened the bottle, noticing that like Buffalo Trace, the bottle is corked rather than topped with a screw on lid. The aroma and taste are different – woodier, as opposed to the vanilla dominated scent and flavor of Maker's and Weller. Larceny is yet another very good wheated bourbon, slightly sweeter than Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace, and helps to lock in my preference for this type.

A few months later, I spotted a bottle of W.L. Weller 12-Year, and had to try it.

"You buy good whiskey," said Ron.

It was good, even better, I thought, than the Weller Special Reserve or the Maker's Mark. It wasn't long before this 12-year-old variety was at the top of my list of favorite wheated bourbons.

It doesn't mean I won't drink anything else, but those will always be my go-to spirit. I'll keep searching for that perfect bottle. Maybe with a little luck, I'll even get to sample some Pappy Van Winkle without going broke.

Browsing the liquor store reminds me that I still have many options to explore in the journey to discover and appreciate the many varieties of Kentucky bourbon – great American whiskey.

Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories', 'A Sports Junkie', 'The Avery Appointment', 'Between the Fuzzy Parts'.

He also writes about baseball for Climbing Tal's Hill, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.

He lives in Central Texas with his wife and family.

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