Not Your Father’s Bourbon (How America’s Only Native Alcohol Beat the Recession By Getting a Little Fruity)
When you visit Kentucky, you better come prepared to drink.
I’m sitting at a packed table at Jonathan’s, a posh restaurant in downtown Lexington, surrounded by enough bourbon to cause permanent liver damage. Every possible variation seems to be represented. There are Manhattans and Sidecars and Kentucky Blizzards and bourbon served “neat” or with just a splash of water. All around me are local Kentuckians, displaying that legendary Southern hospitality, which tonight apparently means getting a couple of tourists so drunk that they pee blood.
I’m not sure how our quiet dinner transformed into a full-on party. My wife and I came here at the invitation of Eric Gregory, the president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. But people keep wandering over to our table, seemingly from nowhere, as if they’d been waiting in the wings for their cue. They squeeze next to us and order new and more elaborate bourbon drinks. Before long, we’re drinking with Lexington’s vice mayor and almost a half dozen city employees. They’re all dressed formally, they’re painfully polite, and without exception they have an alcohol tolerance that’s almost superhuman.
Gregory orders a round of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, the legendary 23-year-old bourbon that rated 99 out of 100 by the World’s Spirits Championships. It’s one of the best bourbons you can put in your mouth, and at $270 a bottle, it’s also one of the most expensive. I take healthy swigs, feeling like a pimp who can afford booze in the triple digits. But Gregory takes his time, breathing in the bourbon’s aroma like it’s the neck of a lover he’s trying to seduce.
“What do you get from it?” He asks me.
I’m not sure exactly what he means. It’s bourbon. It’s making me blind drunk. What more am I supposed to “get” from it?
“It’s good stuff,” I tell him. “Makes my insides tingle.”
The bouquet, he tells me, has hints of caramel, tobacco and almond. “It’s very smooth,” he says. “Very oaky.” He orders a glass of the 20-year Pappy, by way of comparison. “The nose is sweeter on this one,” he says, his eyebrows arched in deep concentration. “They have a different finish. Isn’t it amazing? Two identical bourbons with the same recipe, but you put them in a barrel for a different amount of time and you get a completely different experience.”
I nod, trying to share his enthusiasm. I guess it is amazing, but I’m more stunned that anybody would use a word like “oaky” to describe bourbon. When I think of America’s whiskey—which can only technically be called bourbon if it’s made in the good ol’ U.S. of A.—I think of tough guys and cowboys. In a western, if a gunslinger orders a shot of bourbon, it means he’s about to commit first degree murder. Bourbon isn’t something I associate with intellectualism and a deep appreciation of subtle flavors. 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. Bourbon isn’t something you drink when you’re happy. It’s something you drink when you’re deeply, inescapably depressed and on the verge of doing something really, really horrible.
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.
“Our art isn’t something you gaze at,” Gregory tells me, his face beaming with pride and the reddish glow of too much bourbon. “It’s something you sip.”
The rebirth of bourbon officially began in 1999, with the creation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which features eight distilleries between Louisville and Lexington, including Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey. It was basically an attempt to rebrand bourbon using the same marketing strategy of California’s Sonoma/Napa Valley wine country. Tourists are encouraged to take tasting tours of the region, sampling the area’s bourbon during a scenic road trip experience. In other words: come to our state and get snookered while pretending to be cultured and genteel.
The Bourbon Trail is only the beginning of the liquor’s image overhaul. Over the last few years, there’s been a push to bring bourbon back into the popular consciousness. In 2007, September was declared a national holiday—by Congress, no less—as Bourbon Heritage Month, which I suppose means the entire month is a free-for-all of unapologetic drunkenness. The long-running Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which also takes place in September, has seen its attendance jump by almost 20,000% (seriously) since its inception in the 90s. And then there’s the Bourbon Chase, a 200-mile relay that debuted last October, with almost 2000 runners making a day-long dash between distilleries and somehow not drinking to excess. Teams gave themselves names like “Drunk and Inappropriate,” “Wasted But Happy” and the big winners of the day, “The Whiskey Dicks,” who wore t-shirts with an illustration of Nixon (ostensibly so nobody thought they were named after penises) and lighting up cigars as they crossed the finish line.
All the aggressive marketing appears to be working. Bourbon production is up by more than 75% since 1999, and sales have increased by 5% in the last year alone, making it one of the few liquor industries to show a profit in the recession. America, it would seem, has fallen in love with bourbon again. Either that or the bourbon industry has realized how easy it is to increase profits by embracing the American consumer’s inner snob.
It isn’t a new phenomenon. It happened with wine. Remember when 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.
“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 retard 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—as Gregory describes it, “Give me a hit before you saw off my foot with that dirty axe”—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.
Bourbon has historically been used to separate the men from the boys. So what does it mean that bourbon is being transformed into a high-end beverage that’s both pretentious and cosmopolitan? Is bourbon just taking its rightful place as the newest culinary distraction for the cultural elite? Or are a new generation of bourbon drinkers being encouraged to embrace their inner pussy?
One of the great things about alcohol is that it’s a great equalizer. The more I drink with my new Kentucky friends, the less they talk about the “big, complex flavors” of bourbon, and they begin telling stories that are probably not meant for outsiders. Everybody at our table has some tale about how their parents first introduced them to bourbon, usually by rubbing it on their gums when they were babies or feeding it to them as children to help them sleep. “It’s used for everything,” a woman named Patti tells me, as she sways in her chair like a Caribbean cruise passenger during a storm. After enough drinks, they also confide their disdain for the fruity cocktails that’ve become increasingly popular in recent years.
“When are mint juleps acceptable?” Gregory asks the group.
“The Deeerby!” They shout back in unison.
“Do you dream about mint juleps on any other day?” He asks.
“Noooo!” They declare. And then a lone voice, almost timidly… “Except at a funeral.”
Getting smashed on bourbon is a unique experience. It’s not like abusing any other alcohol, where you turn into an asshole or lose control of your bodily functions. I’ve had enough bourbon that I should be a complete mess, but weirdly I’m not even slurring. I am, however, feeling the effects. Trying to function while under the influence of bourbon is like trying to carry on a conversation underwater. I know I’m talking, but I have little or no control over what’s coming out of my mouth. Even so, I feel cool and confident. There’s a certain George Clooney bravado that comes with getting drunk on bourbon, which may be part of its appeal.
Somewhere around 2am, we’re still drinking heavily, and discussing the best bourbons to drink when you’ve already had too many. The waiter recommends Basil Hayden’s on the rocks, and several Kentuckians cheer in agreement. We’re served a round by a very friendly and patient bartender, who teaches us how to stir it correctly, to “let the bourbon mellow.” This strikes me as hilarious, but I try to do as I’m told, despite being far too loaded to do anything in a circular motion.
“This is really surprising,” my wife says, her nose sinking into her glass of Hayden’s like she’s one of those bobbing bird toys. “I’m picking up some citrusy notes.”
I honestly don’t know if she’s kidding, or just too fucked up to know any better.
* * *
It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’m driving on a remote back road somewhere in the middle of Kentucky. I’m stuck behind a tractor, which means I’m not able to go faster than 10 miles an hour. This is actually a good thing, as I’m also a little buzzed. Which is weird, because to the best of my knowledge, I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since last night.
“Jesus Christ, I can’t be this drunk anymore,” my wife groans, cradling herself as she stares out the window. “Why are we going this slow? Where the fuck are we?”
“Just be cool, be cool,” I murmur back at her, clutching the steering wheel with white knuckles and somehow managing to stay on the road.
When you’ve made plans to take a distillery tour of central Kentucky, it’s probably best not to get shitcanned the night before. Also, try to avoid eating or drinking anything the following morning. I mean at all. They don’t really tell you this at the tourist centers, but pretty much everything in Kentucky contains at least some bourbon. The coffee, for instance. As we learned too late, bourbon is sometimes added for flavoring, which sounds an awful lot like the morning ritual of a functional alcoholic. And the donuts, at least the donuts we found at a nearby gas station, were coated with a bourbon glaze that was surprisingly potent. In fact, anything you put in your mouth to sober up might, if you’re not careful, contain some traces of Kentucky’s favorite beverage.
“My legs feel like rubber,” my wife tells me. “Is that something I should be concerned about? Oh god, how the hell did this happen?”
I honestly don’t know what to tell her. When we woke up, I had no memory of how we got back to our hotel room last night. Not even the vaguest notion. My wife, bless her, must’ve dragged my drunk ass to bed and taken off my pants, but I don’t recall any of it. I wasn’t especially hung over the next morning—it’s one of the wonderful things about bourbon; it’s a magical elixir that impairs your judgment without punishing you the next day for your bad decisions—but at the same time, I wouldn’t describe my physical state as 100% sober.
Our first stop on the Bourbon Trail is the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto. We’re given a private 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 told more fun facts about charred oak barrels than my brain is capable of remembering. And, a Maker’s Mark exclusive, we’re 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.
Herb, and every subsequent person we meet today, carefully explains the rules of Kentucky bourbon to us. These rules are rigid and inflexible. By law, bourbon must be made of at least 51% but no more than 79% corn (which sets it apart from Irish whisky, typically made with malted barley.) It must be aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels, and distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume). Nothing can be added to enhance a bourbon’s flavor, and its primary ingredient should be Kentucky’s limestone-rich water, which provides its distinctive flavor. While bourbon can be produced anywhere in the U.S., only distillers in the state of Kentucky can legally put the name “bourbon” on their labels. If these stipulations aren’t followed to the letter, then you will go to bourbon jail.
Actually, no, that last part isn’t true. But spend enough time in the company of people who make their living in bourbon, and you just might start to think these strict guidelines are the only thing protecting our national bourbon identify from being overtaken by the French.
Herb leads us into a barn, with rickety stairs that threaten to collapse under us and a pungent odor that smells like pure gasoline. We walk upstairs into an attic, and my first thought is, “Well obviously, he’s going to kill us and then dump our bodies in the fermenting vats.” But instead, he points towards several tables with an array of bourbons.
Our first glass is something called “White Dog”, which is essentially just moonshine straight from the still. This 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 and become something that non-redneck people can sip at parties and not feel like characters from The Dukes of Hazard.
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 balls-deep in his glass of Maker’s. “You’ll also get a little vanilla and fruit smell on the tail end.”
I nod thoughtfully, like I’m serious contemplating the odorous complexities of this award-winning bourbon. But honestly, all I can think about is the White Dog. That nasty but beautiful swill—the black sheep of the Maker’s Mark family—is everything I ever imagined bourbon could be. Just one sip is enough to make my testicles crawl up inside my body.
When I ask why White Dog isn’t sold to the public, Herb just smiles.
“People ask me that all the time,” he says, as if that somehow qualifies as an answer.
Kevin Smith, the 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 the image that Maker’s Mark, and the bourbon industry in general, is trying to project anymore. Instead, he says, he’d prefer to market towards 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’re greeted by Eddie Russell, the associate distiller and the fourth generation of his family to work in the bourbon business. He invites us into the stockroom, where we sit on boxes filled with t-shirts (featuring semi-clever slogans like “Quality Tail”) and talk about bourbon—curiously, without offering us even a single drop. (“We’re just not equipped for a tasting,” Russell explains, which is kinda ironic given that he’s sitting just a few feet away from a large stockpile of his family’s signature hooch.)
Eddie’s father, Jimmy Russell, is a legend in the bourbon industry. From what others have told me, he’s a cliché of the Southern gentleman, the kind of guy who wears white suits and says things like “I do declare!” Eddie, however, looks like a guy who runs the Cinnabon at his local suburban mall. And he has no problem with that.
“A lot of people in my generation, they didn’t want to do anything that their dads did,” he 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 us a thumbs-up—”‘Mmm, that’s good stuff.’”
By way of example, he tells us all about his latest 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 “if you don’t drink this, the terrorists win.” It’s the kind of beverage that your grandmother might enjoy while playing Bingo with her friends at a Wednesday night church social.
Russell insists that the main consumers of American Honey aren’t just senior citizens and people beset with sore throats. He tells us about a recent 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.’”
I can’t possibly refute him, but if his story is in any way true, it breaks my heart. Because it signifies a sea-change in our national temperament. We’re a country that was founded by outlaws and outcasts. We’re supposed to be the bad boy underdogs of the world. Okay, fine, that hasn’t been in any way true in well over a century, but it still signifies something when even the fringes of our society go soft. How did we become the nation that can’t handle its hard liquor anymore? When did we go from being the land of John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway to the land where bikers crinkle their nose at a glass of bourbon and mutter, “It needs more sugar?”
By the time we get to Woodford Reserve, our last distillery of the day, I’m feeling a little jaded. And everything about Woodford just feeds into my cynicism. The place is like a country club, surrounded by thoroughbred horse farms and populated almost solely by white guys in blazers. You half-expect to see a sign near the entrance warning “No Negros or Jews.” 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. It’s like those soup kitchens that make you listen to a sermon before handing out the food.
“We think hand-crafted Woodford Reserve Kentucky bourbon is the ultimate expression of the distiller’s art,” the film’s narrator insists. My wife and I nod furiously, just in case we’re being watched from the dark. After almost 24 hours of constant bourbon consumption—including a lunch of barbeque pork sandwiches that our waitress failed to mention was more bourbon than pork—we’re like junkies starting to lose their high. We’re willing to do just about anything to get another taste.
Dave Scheurich, the General Manager at Woodford, gives us the full distillery tour experience. To his credit, he’s knowledgeable and outgoing and generally very pleasant. But my buzz is fading fast, and my brain just can’t contain any more bourbon fun-facts. I vaguely recall him saying something about the origins of the sour mash process, and how Woodford’s demographic is “what I lovingly call the premium man,” and why I should be impressed that Joe Bonsall from the Oak Ridge Boys is a big bourbon drinker. He introduces us to Ouita Michel, Woodford’s chef-in-residence, who tells us about her new recipe for bourbon vinaigrette, and how bourbon goes surprisingly well with tapenade and scallops. I feel like I have a form of alcoholic Tourette’s; it takes everything in me not to start screaming at them, “Pussies! You’re all a bunch of pussies!”
Scheurich 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.
“Wow, that’s fucking insane,” I mutter, not intending to say it out loud.
“That’s what I thought at first,” laughs Scheurich. “When we started doing this, I thought, ‘The common person isn’t going to be able to come in here and pick out the nuances.’ But it’s amazing. Barrels have such different personalities.”
I smile back at him, like that’s exactly what I was thinking too. Yes, of course, the untrained palate of the amateur bourbon drinker. That’s what’s crazy about it.
Our tour ends with a barrel tasting. I’m barely listening as Scheurich explains what we’re about to sample; how this particular uncut and unfiltered bourbon has 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.”
My gaze drifts up. For the first time, he has my undivided attention. 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. Scheurich 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 Scheurich gives me a few 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 hack 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’s 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.”
Scheurich takes my glass and asks if I want another. I know that’s 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.