Monthly Archives: March 2014

What You Really Need To Taste

Drink:  Evan Williams 1783

With bourbon, as with any food or drink, before you can even try to commit to a preference or opinion, you try the product.

Children will tell you that they don’t like something just by looking at it.  They don’t like peas because they’re a vegetable.  They don’t like cauliflower because it’s on their plate.  In the whiskey aisle, you can be easily enticed or put off by a bottle alone.  But that’s not fair to the whiskey and it’s certainly no way to judge the liquid inside.  To form a reasonable opinion, you must sample it.  You must taste it.

At times, people in the whiskey world will tell you that tasting is easy, that anyone can do it.  Then they will tell you about the special glassware you can purchase and how it will help bring the scents right to your nose, or something to that effect.  The problem I see with this is that you can’t tell someone that something is easily within their grasp then follow it up with the special equipment they’ll “need” to do it.  I went skiing once and absolutely loved it.  To ski, however, there really is set equipment that you need.  Ski boots and skis come to mind.  You’ll not make an easy time of the slope on a pair of sneakers.  With whiskey tasting, you don’t need special equipment at all.  In fact, you probably have all the equipment you need already.

What you don’t need:
1.  A special, fancy, and/or expensive glass.
2.  An expensive whiskey
3.  A vast background in food and beverages
4.  A large vocabulary
5.  A 100 point rating system

What you do need:
1.  A whiskey
2.  A glass
3.  Eyes (optional)
4.  A nose
5.  A mouth

That’s it.

1.  The Whiskey:

There are plenty of options in most liquor stores.  As I live in suburban Connecticut, my options may be more varied and convenient than yours.  But somewhere relatively close to you, surely there is a liquor store that carries at least one whiskey.  If you’ve never done a tasting before, or consumed whiskey at all, it doesn’t have to be anything special.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that cost directly correlates to quality.  It doesn’t.  Anything under $20 will do fine.  Even a nip will do and those typically go for only a couple of bucks and have the bonus of being the cheapest way to sample a product you’re interested in (except for a friend who’s willing to give you some of theirs for free).  You can even find a bar, or a restaurant with one, and try something there.

When trying to decide where to start, don’t make the mistake of asking someone, “What’s a good bourbon?”  The answer to that is wholly subjective.  A better question might be, “What’s a good bourbon to start with, and what should I expect from it?”  I might tell you, “Evan Williams 1783 might be a good place to start.  Around here it’s a mere $17, it’s fairly smooth, has a good depth of flavor, a noticeable oak influence, and while it isn’t ‘sweet’, it falls on the sweeter side of the bourbon flavor wheel.”  We’ll get more into that later.

2.  The Glass:

Many times in pictures, in reviews on blogs or on Youtube, you’ll see or hear about the special glass being used for the tasting.  Typically it’s a Glencairn glass, but it can be other types as well.  Even a standard wine glass.

I have a set of six Glencairn glasses that I purchased two years ago for when Jake, the only friend I have who really likes whiskey, and I do tastings.  As our journeys have begun to take different directions, he and I view the whiskey world differently.  Jake is more into Scotch and likes to try and be wowed by special releases, one-offs and rare spirits (and their price tags).  I tend to try and be wowed by the time-tested, bottom shelf, solidly produced products that sit quietly unassuming, waiting to be discovered by those in the know.  I have become very aware of marketing and just how much I succumbed to its song and dance, charming bills right out of my wallet and into someone else’s hands.  Like peoples’ houses you visit who have a few (or a lot) of those As Seen On TV products lying around collecting dust.  Borne of a weak moment in front of late night TV, they are now just a reminder of marketing’s siren song.  When I behold my Glencairn glasses now, occupying valuable cabinet space, that is how I feel.  It was a fledgling moment.  Fresh into the whiskey scene, I wanted to do it right.  All the big names used Glencairns in their tastings, so I had to do the same.

But after two years I’ve learned a lot about my relationship with bourbon.  I found that my nose gets claustrophobic in a Glencairn, and numbs quickly.  It’s almost like all of the smells are bottlenecked into a tight exit and, as they’re moving past, it becomes difficult for me to sort them out.  What helps me is a wider rimmed glass, like an Old Fashioned Glass, with enough surface area for the whiskey to spread out and gently drift its smell upward.  to that end I have a Jameson glass that I bought really cheap (that link is only to show you the glass; I paid like $1 at a liquor store when it was on sale).  I actually had the glass long before I got into whiskey, and it was convenient as I already had it on hand.  So it’s what I used and I found that, over time, I preferred it to the Glencairn.

Now don’t hear me saying that a Glencairn is bad, because it isn’t.  It’s just not my preference, which is what I’m getting at.  For now, if you’re going to start sampling whiskey, just use what you have at home.  Don’t buy something special just to taste whiskey in.  I found too that, even if I tasted a bourbon in my Glencairn, when I sat down to just have a glass I’d use the Jameson lowball.  So use what you’ll be drinking out of.  It’s ok.  It’s also convenient and cheaper.

Maybe this is because I’m a blue collar worker with one child in the house and another on the way and no second income.  On the rare occasions I get to try something new, I don’t have the time, finances, or inclination to grab for the fancy glass.  I just want what I have and what I like because that’s all the energy I have at the end of the day.  But even if I were a bachelor millionaire with ample time on my hands, my advice would still be the same:  Use what you have, and what you like.  Don’t get fancy.

3.  Eyes (optional):

While this isn’t an incredibly important part of tasting, it’s one of my favorites.  I enjoy looking at the color of the whiskey.  Bourbon, while it looks brown on the shelf, shows orange when held up to the light.  Like amber or burnt sienna.  One of my favorite scotches, Macallan 12 year, is pink.  It’s 18 year old brother is nearly purple.  If you want to get really fancy, you can swirl the whiskey in your glass and watch the legs (those streaks running back down into the liquid after you let it settle).  I tend not to because it enhances my tasting experience in no way.  It’s supposed to tell you about the sugars (not table sugar, but the natural sugars) contained within (the thicker the legs, the more sugars are present).  But they all look relatively similar to me, and they don’t tell me what the whiskey will smell or taste like, so I usually skip it.  You decide for yourself.

Oh, and while we’re at it, sometimes you’ll find reviewers who will include the bottle in their rating system.  I find this practice to be silly.  The bottle has no bearing on my experience of the whiskey in my glass and I therefore ignore it.  Some bottles I enjoy, others I find very ordinary.  Some I even find odd.  Corks and screw caps have their benefits and drawbacks.  But in the end, none of it matters.

4.  The Nose:

The nose, to me, is the most important part of a whiskey tasting.  In fact, it’s often the most rewarding aspect and far exceeds the taste.  If you’ve never smelled a whiskey before, take it slow and don’t get too close.  You’ll anesthetize your nose (meaning all you’ll be able to smell is what my wife describes as ‘rubbing alcohol’).  Start from at least eight inches away, slowly approach the glass while breathing through your nose and stop when you start to smell the whiskey.  You don’t want to flood your olfactory and overwhelm yourself.  I find slow, steady breathing through my nose, with the glass three to four inches from my nose, tilted so that the opening points toward my nose and mouth, helps to stir the air inside the glass and raise the scents up to me.  You may do this any way you want, but the end goal is to smell the nuances of the whiskey.

When you’re nosing a whiskey, you’re not looking for scents and flavors that are actually in the liquid.  When you read a review and the author says things like, “vanilla, maple syrup, baking spices,” I can assure you that, as the definition of bourbon disallows it, those flavors are not actually there.  The distillery did not pour in vanilla, maple syrup, and a dash or two of nutmeg and cinnamon.  What you’re smelling are the nuances imparted by the distillation and aging process.  The grain (corn, wheat, rye) and the barrel (charred American White Oak).  Corn and wheat tend to impart a sweetness where the rye imparts a spiciness and sourness.  Wheat can leave maple syrup, rye can leave briny pickle juice and mint.  The oak influence can leave a woody smell, along with some sweet notes of its own like vanilla and toffee.

There is no wrong ‘answer’ when smelling a whiskey.  It’s what the scents remind you of.  When smelling Rock Hill Farms and Jim Beam Black, I detect a large amount of cherry.  Jefferson’s Straight Rye smells like pickle juice and mint, with a sweet wood base.  Some bourbons leave a large impression of marzipan.  I’ll never forget the only glass of Elijah Craig 18 I was able to have (it’s no longer in production) had a note of honeydew mellon.  Again, none of these are actually there.  It’s just what the smell of the ingredients, distillation, and barrel aging have imparted.  So take your time, and see what you can find.

5.  The Mouth:

Here, the goal is much the same as the smell only, instead of using your nose, you’re using your mouth and ultimately your tongue.  You’ll be looking for flavors.  I find that this portion of the tasting is less enjoyable than the nose.  Some bourbons I can smell for hours and be completely content to never take a sip.  But inevitably, it should be tasted and consumed.  The best way I can describe drinking whiskey if it’s your first time is this:  The first sip sucks.  The second can be worse.  The third is wonderful (unless you’re drinking a terrible whiskey; then it never gets better).  The first sip is typically a primer for your palette, getting it ready for the strong liquid.  Once you’re used to it, typically by the third sip, you’ll start to taste the flavors.  Sometimes, before the flavors become apparent, there is a vague sense of sweet, spicy, sour, and/or dry.  Again, it’s not what’s actually there (though sometimes it is; rye really is sour), it’s the impressions left.  You may not be able to identify or describe everything.  For example, there are some bourbons I drink that have what I call a “grassy” component.  Especially if I drink them outside (I don’t know why).  I just learned today what it is.  Another blogger, reviewing a bourbon, mentioned a flavor they find, typically in younger bourbons, that they describe as corn husks on a hot, summer day.  That is exactly what I taste.  Sort of.  It’s one of those “this tastes like something smells” things.  It tastes like corn husks smell.  Smell and taste are closely linked after all.  

Take your time between sips (though not too much or every sip will be like the first).  Some people like to ‘chew‘ on their bourbon, and I do find that this helps sometimes to discover flavors I would not have otherwise noticed.  I found out about chewing by accident when I reflexively did it while tasting a rum at a liquor store (though much slower than Fred Noe), then saw a video like that one.  As with the nose, there are no wrong answers here (unless you say something like, “I taste the hull of the shuttle Endeavor,” unless you have licked the Endeavor’s hull and what you’re drinking does actually taste like it, then fine).

Don’t worry about being fancy, or comparing your drink to a million things.  Whatever you find is fine.  The ultimate goal in all of this is to enjoy the experience, and to enjoy the whiskey.

There is one factor here that can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted.  Some whiskeys draw you in for another glass.  They sit on your shelf and, when you find yourself in the mood, are just so easy to choose.  Lately for me it’s been anything with Evan Williams on it.  The standard black label, the 1783 “small batch”, the single barrel expression.  I don’t know what it is, I really can’t quantify it.  I find myself standing in front of my basement liquor shelves, ready to pour myself a glass, and there are select whiskeys that are just so easy to grab over the others.  It’s not that they smell or taste better, though some certainly do.  It’s just that…well…I don’t know, I just really enjoy sipping on them.  They just draw me in for more.  I suppose, if I do any future ratings, I’ll call that aspect “the draw”.  Does this bourbon have the draw?

So, as you sample and taste the various whiskeys available, take your time.  Enjoy it.  Don’t rush or you’ll miss a lot.  And if a whiskey has the draw for you, enjoy it all the more.

One more thing while we’re at it.  When you’re figuring out what you might like to try next, don’t look at ratings.  If a whiskey has a ?/100 rating, ignore it.  Find reviewers who take the time to describe what they’re smelling and tasting and see if it falls in line with the type of whiskeys you’re finding you enjoy.  I tend not to like high rye content bourbons, so if I find a reviewer describing “baking spices” a lot, I’ll usually skip it.  If, however, I’m hearing a lot of “vanilla, maple syrup, toffee,” and things like that, I’ll give it a try.  If you don’t like red wine, 98 points tacked onto a bottle won’t matter.  You probably still won’t like it.  Points are useless.  Tasting notes are much more helpful.  And do your homework.  Don’t buy into marketing hype and spend lots of money on whiskey.  If you see a bottle you are interested in, research it.  If it’s not there when you get back, don’t worry, there are plenty of other delicious options available.

 

 

Media Blackout

Drink:  Canadian Club Classic

This past February my wife and I decided to “fast” from certain forms of media for a week.  No Facebook, movies, TV or video games (including on our iPods).  We hit a point where we realized that these forms of entertainment and social media were consuming far larger quantities of time than they should have been.  We were neglecting certain responsibilities, spending little time connecting with each other, becoming less concerned with the growing messes around the house.

Our default for the end of the day had become the TV.  While Good Eats and Downton Abbey are great shows, spending our limited, evening, the-kids-are-finally-asleep time learning two or more meals a night we’re unlikely to ever cook, or watching early twentieth century events affect the fictional staff of an English manor, seems irresponsible.  And if we aren’t doing that, we’re checking Facebook for the latest real-time status updates or writing emails that simply can’t wait (no, seriously, I have to do this now!).  

So we decided to put up a temporary barrier.  A boundary.  A guardrail.

For one whole week, Facebook, TV, movies, and video games (I play the GTA franchise almost exclusively and together we play Behemoth releases; first Castle Crashers and now Battleblock Theater), had no place in our home.  It’s not like we put our TV in the garage for the week, we just left it off.  We had a penciled in plan for what to do with all of the time that was now free to spend on other things, but nothing concrete.  We just knew that these forms of media were sucking the lives out of our relationships with each other, with our family, and with our friends, because we let them.

My wife and I are typically enablers of each other.  If one of us is stays up too late, we both do.  If one of us is eating way too much dessert, we both are.  If one of us doesn’t feel like walking the twenty feet to the car to get that thing we left inside it, that thing stays there until the next time we go out or until we absolutely need it.  So it was imperative that we both resolve to see this media fast through lest we both give in and render it ineffective.  Fortunately, our ability to enable is outmatched by our ability to spur each other on through difficult challenges (at least when we’re determined to do so).

And with this, we were determined.

The first day was the most difficult as we both didn’t know what to do.  Our defaults weren’t an option and we had never really established secondaries.  We made it through doing something trivial just to help pass the gobs of extra time we had.  Conversation, I think.  Or maybe it was a board game we feigned enjoyment through.  Anything to deal with the sheer boredom.

That, of course, is sarcasm (just in case you thought we really feigned enjoyment).  It was difficult to determine a good use of our time, but it was thoroughly refreshing to have our evening back.  We talked.  I mean we really talked, like we hadn’t done in a while.  We did play a game, which we really did enjoy.  We laughed so much more, and not at some scripted line an actor delivered, but at the jokes and fun of our own making.  We enjoyed some private marital activities as well.  And when we thought we’d had enough fun and perhaps we should be responsible and get to bed, we did.  And it was only 8:45!  A new family record!  And we were happy about it.

It was relaxing.  After a normal night in our house spent glued to a screen we would wonder where the time had gone.  How can three hours just disappear?  How?!?  But after the evenings during our media fast, not only did we know where the time had gone, but we had spent it on worthwhile activities.  Intentionally.  Dishes were done, toys were put away, and the kitchen was reset to zero.  We had time for each other.  All of the day’s events we found worthy or necessary to share, instead of becoming a mental backlog (because finding out what happens to John Bates is clearly more important right now), were brought out into the open to be processed.  We connected and were able to go to bed unstressed.  And, to top it off, we didn’t spend an additional hour in bed on our iPods playing more games or just perusing the internet (me refreshing my favorite whiskey blogs to see if, just maybe, the author posted in the last five minutes).  We actually got a good night’s sleep.

As the benefits of our media fast were piling up, and there were no downsides in sight, I began to wonder if returning to our previous lifestyle at week’s end was even in question.  Maybe we should just leave the TV shut off for good.

We didn’t, of course.  Downton Abbey resumed, Good Eats taught us more about barley, and Facebook was just as disinteresting and addictive as ever.

But as Lent approached and the subject of fasting and “giving up” various vices and white addictions (you know, like white lies; they don’t seem so bad) arose, we began to wonder if we should reinstate that temporary boundary and fast from media again.

Forty days is a long time to go without something you’re used to (in my case, desserts).  We weren’t convinced that was the best course of action.  But we knew that a boundary had to be set up or we would allow media to consume our family and we were firmly set against that.  We don’t think TV is evil or that Facebook will rot your brain (though it does plenty with your personal information).  We just didn’t want to look back in fifty years and think, “My gosh, why did we waste all that time?”  Because no one on their death bed says, “I really should’ve spent more time on Facebook,” or watching TV, or you  name it.

So, after determining our need for this media boundary once again, we decided that for one week (Monday through Sunday) every month for the rest of the year, and perhaps for a very long time after that, we were going to do what we’re calling our Media Blackout.  

This is that week.

Before we logged off of Facebook for the week we changed our banners to something my very talented wife designed.  It was an image of an unplugged electrical cord and text letting our “friends” know, in brief terms, that we were off for the week.  We also changed our profile pictures to match the theme.

The other thing we did before we logged off, which I will do with you now, was to encourage our friends and family to join us for the week.  So here it is:

I encourage you to put down the forms of media that you spend most of your time with.  Movies.  TV.  Social media.  Texting even.  You know yours best.  But don’t simply put them down for the week.  In their place, pick up things that are important that perhaps you’ve forgotten or neglected.  Spend some quality time with your significant other, your friends, your family, even your pets (but mostly other humans, please).  Just be together.  Talk.  Play a board game.  Go for a walk.  You decide.  The ultimate guiding principal to this exercise is to remove the distractions for a week of relationship building and self reflection.  One week.  You can do it.

If you do, I’d like to know how it went and what you learned about yourself.

Maturation

Drink:  Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (2002: barreled 4/18/02, barrel #1028, bottled 11/13/12)

My wife and I are expecting a baby in July.  Among the many gifts we look forward to from friends and family will be a couple from ourselves.

Most presents for children are designed to be utilized and enjoyed in the here and now.  Onesies that will be outgrown within weeks.  Newborn car seats useless after not even a single year.  Toys that will break or become so drool covered that they may as well be broken.  Stuffed animals that will be mutilated and disfigured by affection.  And then they’re gone.  Done.  Put away to be handed down, thrown out, or forgotten.

These things are all certainly worth having.  Most of them help with development in one form or another.  Colors, sounds, numbers.  How to take something out and then how to put it back in.  The latter seems to take much too long to master.  For their short span of usefulness they will be appreciated and loved by parent and child alike as they teach and learn together.  (If you’re not learning from your child at the same time that you’re teaching, you’re probably not paying enough attention.)

But the gifts that we plan on giving are intended to teach over the long term.

Oh, you mean like a daddy’s instruction and mommy’s love?  Not that they can’t be given in the converse as well…

Yes, but no.  The first gift is money set aside in an account where it can grow until our son or daughter is faced with a choice on their 18th birthday.  They can either take it out and use it toward college or leave it alone for another four or more years to grow even more.  At this point they will have seen it, Lord willing, grow beyond its original amount as it has responded to the environment it has been sitting in.  The bank or firm that has handled it, the rise and fall of the economy, national and global events.  And they’ll know this because we will check on it every year for at least 18 years.  Patience is practiced and learned.  And if we’ve waited this long for it, and it’s grown as it has, would it be best to delay gratification for four more years or utilize it immediately?  The answer will have to wait until then.  And it will depend on who our child has listened to, the rise and fall of our family’s budget, national and global events.  I look forward to the life lesson myself.

The second gift will be a bottle (or case) of wine, likely Port (I’m not a wine guy so feel free to suggest something else).  It would be good to open it and enjoy it now (not for baby), but in 21 years it will be even better.  We’ll walk down into the basement every year on their birthday, observe the bottle on the shelf and marvel at the slow changes happening inside that are, over the years, transforming this from a good wine into a great wine.  The two, our child and the wine, will mature together.  On a financial note, we could let the winery, distributor, or store bottle mature it for us, but we would be paying a significant rental fee to take up one bottle of space on their shelf instead of ours.  So we’ll pay less now and reap the reward of patiently aging it in-house later.

I’m a whiskey guy and while I could do this with a bottle of scotch or bourbon, the end result of leaving the bottle undisturbed for 21 years won’t be the same.  While bottle maturation is known and understood with wine, it’s a debated topic in the whiskey world.  Most people are skeptical about it at best, myself included.  But, regardless, the object lesson still exists for bottles purchased later.

What begins as a young, often harsh spirit is placed in a barrel to mature for as long as it takes for the Master Distiller to call it ready.  Through varying temperatures and seasons, the alcohol is pushed and pulled in and out of the staves enveloping it where it takes on some of the oak’s character, picking up aromas and flavors like vanilla, maple syrup, and baking spices.  Sometimes the Master Distiller will determine that a barrel must be moved to another location in the warehouse where it can mature slower or faster.  Sometimes the alcohol is moved from one type of barrel to another to impart more complex flavors.  The time spent in the oak softens a single minded, self centered whiskey and helps to balance it.  Where it once betrayed an obvious youth it now displays the character of a well matured spirit.

I look forward with anticipation to the conditions that our children will mature in.  The comfortable climate of a loving home, a supportive community, endless childhood summers, drives through Christmas lit neighborhoods, cherished relationships.  The heat of life’s trials, broken hearts, loss, the sting of the death of someone close, grieving inevitable changes.  Perhaps they’ll be moved from one type of barrel into another to gain a more complex character.  Maybe they’ll be moved to a place of more extreme change where they’ll mature faster.  I’ll have to trust the Master Distiller to make those determinations.

Whatever the future may bring, I look forward to the day I can share a drink with my children and talk about the conditions we’ve all matured in together.

My “Brief” History With Bourbon: Part 1

Music:  Randy Newman – My Old Kentucky Home

Drink:  Jack Daniels

My brief history with bourbon began a few years ago.  I attended a conference in Louisville (pronounced LOO-uh-vuhl, and slur those vowels together as much as possible – so much so that the “uh” is nearly nonexistent) with my friends Jake, Jerri and Ryan.

When my friends and I travel, we’ll be damned if we’re going to eat at a chain restaurant we can easily dine at almost anywhere.  I can get Burger King or McDonald’s any time (though I never do…gross).  Instead, we seek out the local color.  What do these people eat?  What do these people drink?  That is, the ones that don’t go to Burger King or McDonald’s.  Being from suburban Connecticut, I’m spoiled when it comes to food.  I have access to nearly every type of food there is with at least three restaurant options for each.  So chain restaurants have no appeal to me anywhere.  Local color is where it’s at.

That being said, it is not always easy to find “local”.  There are places in this country where you have to scour and dig deep to find it.  For example, while staying in eastern Virginia for a wedding, I was in the mood for pizza.  I asked a cashier at a grocery store I had stopped in where to find local pizza, to which I received the response, “Well…there’s Pizza Hut and Dominoes.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t mean near here, I mean only here.”
“Little Caesars?”

I politely ended the conversation.

I ended up hearing about a local place with a few stores in various places nearby so I gave them a try.  I may as well have gone to Little Caesar’s.  Maybe I shouldn’t have asked a teenager in the first place because even where I’m from they’re all about the fast food but I was tired and he was right there.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case in Louisville.  There, finding local was very easy especially with the help of the plethora of minds and conversations I can tap into on the internet instead of just one teenager at Kroger.

The crowning achievement in our endeavor to find the best local place to eat was Hammerheads.  I cannot describe to you properly how fantastic this place was.  We’re pub people, in general, and this has become a standard for me of a proper pub.  The beer selection was great with plenty of local options and the food was fantastic (served on wood planks, no less).  If you’re ever in Louisville and you enjoy excellent pub fare, go find Hammerheads.  And I do mean find it.  It’s literally in the basement of a house in a neighborhood adjacent to what seemed like a light industrial zone.  We actually thought we had gotten lost on one of those GPS ghost trips (where you put in the given address and end up nowhere).  But when we saw the full-size Hammerhead shark mounted to the exterior of the house (on or above the porch if I remember correctly), we figured we were there.

It’s hard for me to encourage you to go there because I become torn when recommending really good to exceptional things to people.  I want people to share in the experience but I also want to keep it to myself.  For example, I’m an introvert.  I like to be with friends but I need a quiet place to recharge whenever I travel to a conference.  I find myself an out-of-the-way spot that I can visit without interruption when I need to.  I don’t tell anyone where it is (save my wife who can interrupt me whenever she wants; just not right now I’m blogging).  I especially need this when traveling with Jake who can be so boisterous that I can hear a ringing in my ears if I’ve spent a significant amount of time with him.  In fairness to Jake, he has mellowed out over the years but I still get that ringing from time to time.

My places of retreat and respite survive when people don’t know about them.  But places like Hammerheads survive because people do know about them.  My trouble is when too many people know.  When your favorite restaurant’s line gets longer and longer.  When your favorite bourbon’s prices skyrocket, or when you can’t even find them anymore.  Admittedly though, I’m sure that I’ve contributed to this scenario for other people who discovered bourbon long before I did.  So I’ll put up with the lines, the difficulty of finding my favorites and the increasing prices.  They are keeping my favorite things alive and, in the case of bourbon, adding more enjoyable bottles to the shelf (and less enjoyable bottles as well; it’s tough to navigate sometimes).

As I mentioned, we’re typically pub people.  At the time we would have sought out local beers.  However, given that we were in bourbon country we decided to use our free day before the conference to go discover bourbon for ourselves.  It seemed only right to delve into Kentucky’s famous brown juice.  At the time, that’s all I knew about bourbon; it’s brown.  Jerri, who knew much more about it than the rest of us, suggested a few distilleries we could visit.  Four Roses, Woodford Reserve and I forget the third.  Jim Beam, maybe?  Based on the names alone, Four Roses sounded pleasant and expensive and Woodford Reserve sounded upscale and expensive.  Since we weren’t concerned with buying any, merely experiencing it at its origins, when we found out that Woodford is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, we headed there.

For a suburbanite, Woodford’s facility feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, which was great.  It’s in Versailles which gets its name, like many other counties and towns in Kentucky, from a French origin.  There’s a history to it but I don’t remember.  What I do know is that unlike in France, where it’s pronounced vair-SIGH, in Kentucky it’s pronounced ver-SALES (complete with a Kentucky accent, of course).

The distillery is surrounded by rolling hillsides peppered with barns, horses and farmhouses, each surrounded by miles of wood pasture fence that’s even more charming when it’s painted white (and most of it is).

The visitor’s center sits at the top of the hill coming up from a small river feeding into Glenns Creek.  The stairs leading down to the distilling house and the aging warehouses are Limestone, as is the external construction of the warehouses themselves.  Limestone plays an important role as the water used to make the bourbon here, and other distilleries in Kentucky, is filtered through it in the earth before it’s pumped up from a well.  It is also, therefore, very plentiful here.

We decided to take the tour of the facility (paid, of course).  Our guide, Keith if I remember, did an excellent job explaining distillation, mashbill, what each piece of equipment is used for, the history of this particular distillery, etc.  We made an impression on him as we always enjoy full participation in these types of things with plenty of mirth (maybe he had that ringing in his ears when we left).  It was a great experience and I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for this drink that I had previously passed by on shelves without a glance.

What I didn’t know then was that this distillery is atypical of what your average commercial Kentucky distillery is like.  Woodford is the only distillery that ages its bourbon exclusively in Limestome rick houses.  It’s also significantly smaller than other distilleries (particularly when compared with someone like Jim Beam which has facilities in two different locations, though they are across the street from each other).

Beyond the copper pot stills imported from Scotland, the Limestone rick houses, the history of the distillery, the distillation techniques and everything else we learned on the tour was the catalyst that propelled me into my bourbon enthusiasm.  When we walked into the aging warehouse, we saw barrels stored to the ceiling.  It was impressive for someone who’s never seen it before.  Each barrel housing over one hundred bottles worth of bourbon taking its time to mature through the passing seasons.

And it was there that my nose was engaged.

I smelled what is, in any barrel aging setting, called the angel’s share.  The alcohol, and whatever water was used to lower it to the desired barrel entry proof, soaking through the wood and evaporating into the air (where the angels enjoy it).  It was soft and gentle.  Oak and the distilled spirit within unified beautifully.  It wasn’t merely wet wood, it was sweet.  I didn’t understand it at the time, all I knew was that I wanted to stand there and smell it for hours.

The tour ended with a tasting of their standard offering of “Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select” (which, up until then, was their only offering; seems like a long name for the only thing you make) and the new permanent expression of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  Before this day, and that amazing scent of whiskey maturing in Oak, I would have put a glass of bourbon to my nose and thought, “Smells like rubbing alcohol.  No thanks.”  But on this day I understood.  What I was smelling here in my plastic souvenir shot glass was the sweetness of the flavors of the whiskey (72% corn, 10% malted barley, 18% rye in Woodford’s case) combined with the flavors imparted by the Oak.

Eureka!

That moment of understanding is when I started to love bourbon.  And my enthusiasm has only grown.

As a side note, I ended up purchasing a bottle of the Double Oaked (which I preferred over the DIstiller’s Select) because it was a fresh expression, unavailable at home.  I ended up with a bottle signed and dated by Chris Morris, Woodford’s Master Distiller.  All of the employees received one and, at the checkout in the gift shop, I somehow received what I believe was supposed to be Keith’s bottle (I didn’t even know I had it until we got home).  Keith, if you ever read this and remember, I’m sorry.  I’m even more sorry because I opened it and drank it all (I was new to bourbon; I just wanted to sit and relive that moment of understanding).  I’m not sorry I drank it, of course, but I wonder if it would have been worth something some day if it had remained unopened.  Regardless, I’m sorry to Keith.

After departing the distillery with my newfound understanding and appreciation, we stopped at a local liquor store (Liquor Barn, I believe) to peruse the bourbon selection.  We were only interested in anything we wanted to try immediately, now that we knew what it was, or bottles that we couldn’t get back in Connecticut.  Looking back, I would have made very different selections.  Most of what we were told wasn’t available at home (we didn’t know; we never looked) actually was.  And most of the stuff we skipped by I have since discovered to be unavailable here and delicious.

We did come home with some great bottles to try and enjoy.  Even if they were available here, the bottles we had were, in a sense, Kentucky local.  And that counts for something.

I’ll continue with my home bourbon adventures with Jake in Part 2.

If you ever have a chance to tour a distillery, I do recommend Woodford Reserve.  Even if not there, take the opportunity to stand in an aging warehouse and just smell.  Then pick up a glass of bourbon, remember, and understand.