Bourbon is more popular than ever. But the new stuff is sugary-sweet, and touted as “not your father’s bourbon.” Is that a good thing?
I’m in a barn in Loretto, Kentucky, drinking something called “White Dog.” It’s essentially just moonshine straight from the still. Seems as good a way as any to celebrate the holidays.
My wife and I are taking our first journey down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which features eight distilleries between Louisville and Lexington, including Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey. We’re not just window-shopping; we’re looking for the perfect bourbon for our upcoming New Year’s Eve celebration.
Our first stop is Maker’s Mark. We’re given a tour of the grounds by a affable senior named Herb, who cheerfully tells us all sorts of minutiae about the history of bourbon. (Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s family sold their home for ten barrels of bourbon and $20 cash? I totally didn’t care either!) We’re encouraged to dip our fingers into the fermenting vats and taste the unsweetened mash. We’re led into the barrel warehouse and instructed to submerge our custom bottles of bourbon into hot wax, experiencing what it’s like to be an actual bourbon factory employee, but without the minimum wage paycheck. And then we try the moonshine.
This, we’re told, is what bourbon looks like before it becomes bourbon; the clear liquid that has yet to be put into oak barrels and stored in warehouses to age. We’re only encouraged to sample White Dog as a comparison to the more sophisticated, fully-matured Maker’s Mark.
After spitting out the moonshine (full disclosure: I didn’t), we move on to the good stuff, which coincidentally is available for purchase in the gift shop.
“If you swirl this around, you should pick up a caramel-type smell,” Herb tell us, his nose submerged in his glass of Maker’s. “You’ll also get a little vanilla and fruit smell on the tail end.”
I nod, trying to share his enthusiasm. It feels weird that anybody would use words like “vanilla” and “caramel” to describe bourbon. I don’t associate America’s whiskey—which can only technically be called bourbon if it’s made in the good ol’ U.S. of A.—with a deep appreciation of subtle flavors. When I think of bourbon, I think of tough guys and cowboys. It’s what guys like Don Draper and Rick Blaine drink when they’re sitting in shadowy rooms and contemplating how things went so terribly wrong. It’s what Jack Nicholson drank in The Shining—by the bottle, no less—when he was going insane and talking to ghosts. It’s what Nicolas Cage drank in Leaving Las Vegas when he was trying to commit suicide. In a western, if a gunslinger orders a shot of bourbon, it means he’s about to commit first degree murder.
But the makers (or at least the marketers) of bourbon are trying to change that image. Today’s bourbon is being peddled as something sophisticated and refined, which can be described and discussed with the same language used to talk about premium wines. It should be appreciated for its body, nose, and finish, not just its ability to drown your pain and prepare you for imminent conflict. It’s not enough anymore that bourbon come out of a barrel and be able to melt your face. A real bourbon is a “small batch” or a “single barrel” or a “top shelf,” and features the word “reserve” in the title.
This isn’t a new marketing phenomenon. It happened with wine. Not so long ago, American wine was just another type of booze and didn’t require a sommelier to help you tell the difference. It happened with cigars. Thank you, Cigar Aficionado, for making mouth and throat cancer look like a badge of affluence. It even happened with coffee, a once no-nonsense beverage that only became truly profitable after Starbuck’s introduced us to foo-foo drinks like the Espresso Con Panna and the Venti Soy Latte.
Now bourbon has joined the rebranding movement, and you can’t argue with results.
According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, Kentucky distilleries filled 1.2 million barrels of bourbon in 2013, the most since 1970. Production is up more than 150 percent since 1999. Even the New York Times is impressed. “What is happening now in the market for high-quality bourbon is basically the opposite of what is happening with oil,” the Gray Lady speculated this past November.
“I think the resurgence, particularly in the metropolitan areas, is because of the cocktail culture,” explains Mary Quinn Ramer, the vice president of Lexington’s tourism marketing. “This isn’t your dad’s or granddad’s whiskey anymore. This is really sophisticated stuff.”
That’s a sentence you’ll hear a lot if you talk to people with a vested interest in the future of bourbon. “This is not your father’s bourbon,” they’ll tell you repeatedly, as if your father was some sort of alcoholic moron who didn’t know any better. But this isn’t necessarily a diss to your dad. It might even be a compliment. When people talk about the old-school image of bourbon, it’s not usually intended as pleasant imagery. But that’s kinda what made it special. At one time, there was an implied social contract in drinking bourbon: If you could keep it down, you’d demonstrated to the world that you were somebody with an unwavering fortitude, and quite possibly a dangerous lunatic who wouldn’t think twice about bashing in a few skulls with little or no provocation.
Kevin Smith, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, tells me that the classic image of bourbon—the “blow-your-ears-off whiskey,” as he calls it—isn’t an image that the bourbon industry is trying to project anymore. Instead, he says, they’re marketing toward a modern bourbon drinker with slightly more sophisticated tastes.
“What people are discovering is that (bourbon) can be as complex and unique as wine,” he tells me. “It’s not just something that’s in a bottle or a brown paper sack that you see the bums drinking. Bourbons are fantastic and there’s a lot of different flavors there. I’m seeing a transformation in this industry.”
If there’s any doubt by what he means by “transformation,” it becomes very clear at the next distillery on our tour, Wild Turkey. We sit down with Eddie Russell, the associate distiller and the fourth generation of his family to work in the bourbon business. Eddie’s father, Jimmy Russell, is a legend in the bourbon industry. From what others have told me, Jimmy is a cliché of the Southern gentleman, the kind of guy who wears white suits and says things like “I do declare!”
“A lot of people in my generation, they didn’t want to do anything that their dads did,” Eddie tells us. “We think of our dads or our granddads down in the basement, drinking bourbon with that face”—he shudders like somebody who’s just gargled with castor oil—” ‘Mmm, that’s good stuff.’ Instead, I want that picture to be”— he smiles and sighs deeply, flashing a thumbs-up—” ‘Mmm, that’s good stuff.’ ”
By way of example, he tells us all about his brainchild, American Honey. The name pretty much tells you everything you need to know. It’s bourbon combined with sweet, syrupy honey, and then christened with the loaded adjective “American,” as if to imply that if you don’t drink this, the terrorists win.
Do hardcore bourbon drinkers really want more honey in their cocktails? Russell tells us about a trip to Pennsylvania, where he visited a biker bar and was approached by one of the regulars—a big, burly dude with tattoos and dressed from head to toe in leather. “He came up to me and said, ‘Would you sign an empty bottle for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure, which one?’ And he said, ‘Oh, American Honey. That’s the one we drink all the time.’ ”
Our last stop of the day is Woodford Reserve. It feels like a country club, surrounded by thoroughbred horse farms and populated almost solely by white guys in blazers. Moments after we arrive, we’re escorted into a small theater, where we nibble on chocolate truffles filled with bourbon cream and watch a film about the history of Kentucky bourbon.
Dave, the friendly general manager, leads us into a warehouse, filled with copper pot stills that seem to be humming, and tells us about Woodford’s super-elite Personal Selection, where bourbon connoisseurs can make their very own customized whiskey for just $10,000. After tasting and critiquing bourbon from eight different barrels, they pick their favorites and create a blend that eventually ends up in 180 one-liter bottles with a personalized label. It’s just like owning and operating your own distillery, with you as the sole customer.
Our tour ends with a barrel tasting. Dave explains that what we’re about to sample is uncut and unfiltered bourbon that’s been aging for seven years and contains a considerably higher proof than the bottled bourbon sold to the general public. “It’s going to be around 125 proof,” he warns us. “So it’ll have a bite to it.”
He punctures the barrel like an overeager Crip in a knife fight, and bourbon pours onto the floor, filling the room with an aroma that’s dizzying. He holds a glass under the hemorrhaging barrel for a few seconds and then hands it to me.
I’ll be honest, I’m a little frightened. I slowly bring the amber glass to my lips as I’m given last-minute safety instructions. “Don’t swallow it right away,” he says, his face a stern mask of concern. “Keep it in the front of your mouth and roll it around your tongue.”
But it’s too late. I gulp it down, and the effects are immediate. It’s like somebody is covering my mouth with a rag soaked in chloroform while simultaneously punching me as hard as they can in the throat. I can’t catch my breath, and every muscle in my face feels like it’s on fire; not uncomfortably warm, literally on fire.
I expected it to taste like White Dog, but this stuff makes raw moonshine seem like a wine cooler. Everything around me looks distorted and cartoonish, like an LSD trip in a Hollywood movie. My eyes are watering, my tongue feels like I’m trying to gargle a mitten, and somewhere in the back of my head, I swear I can hear the bass riff from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
My wife looks at me like she’s not sure if I’m having a stroke or an orgasm. “What does it taste like?” she whispers.
It tastes like patriotism. It tastes like America. Drinking bourbon straight from the barrel is like drinking the Pledge of Allegiance. Actually, it’s like listening to the blues—the real blues, not the window-dressed crap that’s been Pygmalioned for the masses. Imagine that you’re some Midwestern kid who’s listened to nothing but John Mayer records, and then one day you stumble into a smoky blues club in the bad part of town, where the musicians have facial scars and everybody in the audience is armed. It’s that forehead-slapping moment of, “Oh, I get it! John Mayer is just a pretty boy who sells records. This is blues music.”
Dave takes my glass and asks if I want another. I know that drinking more of this stuff if probably a terrible idea. My blood alcohol level is already dangerously high. One more sip and I’m liable to do something foolish. I might take off my shirt, or take a swing at one of the warehouse workers, or run outside and chase down one of those horses grazing nearby. There’s no way this day of drinking can end without me doing or saying something I’ll regret tomorrow.
But I say yes anyway, because I’m an American, dammit, and I’m thirsty.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)