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Friday, September 14, 2007

Kentucky Bourbon Fest: a tasting and a distillery tour


I had a great time with Chris Morris at Brown-Forman. I got in about half an hour late, but got right in the rental car (who knew Corrollas were such cheap pieces of crap, after all the gushing Consumer Reports has done about them?) and headed over to B-F corporate on Dixie Highway. Chris met me at the door, and took me into the bar (yeah, really: is that bourbon country, er what? A beautiful bar right behind the receptionist's desk), and sat me down to taste six glasses of whiskey. I'd missed the massed tasting might of Chuck "Bourbon County Reader" Cowdery (folks say we were separated at birth; I say not separated nearly enough), Mike "Mr. Bourbon History" Veach, and the notables of the local press (Chris actually said a couple of them...weren't bourbon drinkers. Gawd); they'd been in before lunch. Me, I had no lunch, but I tied right into the bourbon.

We had the standard 86 proof Old Forester: nice, not sappy, straight up stuff. Then the 100 proof Old Forester Signature: notably more mature and sophisticated. Then a solid hit of this year's newly released Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. Very nice stuff, with a big minty/spearminty nose with some light fruit notes, followed by mint that stays up in the mouth, then glides into spice and oak, with cinnamon forward, and then sweetening in the finish -- Chris said blackberry, but I think he was 'dog-whistling' me. It was awful good.

The next three were the candidates for next year's Birthday Bourbon. Chris told me that the others had already voted and decided on one, and he agreed, but he didn't tell me which one it was. All three were heavily overproof, 10 and 12 years old and the angels had been sucking the water out of them; Chris had carefully watered them to 100 proof. The first wasn't much on the nose, something Chris said the others had noted, but there was a big, really interesting undertow of anise in the mouth; never tasted that much in a bourbon. but one-trick pony time, and if I want anise, I'll drink anisette. The second was good, with oak and spice notes, classically dry in the Old Forester tradition...but you know, so's Old Forester Signature, and I don't see any reason to pay three times as much for it just cuz it's in a neat bottle. The third one, though, a neat nose with carob and dark nibby chocolate notes, and then an extremely lively feel in the mouth, ringing all the bells, a real wowser. This one, I said to Chris, and sure enough, that was the one folks picked by about 3 to 1. I'm looking forward to next year...not that this year's wasn't excellent.

Then he took me on a tour of the big Old Forester/Early Times distillery down in Shively. We did the whole tour, from grain delivery (there was a truckload of corn being dumped and tested when we started the tour) to milling to mashing to fermentation, into the room with the two big column stills, thumpers down below, into the yeast mashing and propagation rooms, and into the cistern room, where everything goes after dumping to get set down to proper proof and tanked to the bottling house up the road. We ran into Brett Pontoni, the whiskey man at Binny's of Chicago and good friend (who's going to be getting in here to the Parkview shortly, and then we'll be drinking...just relaxing with a Poon IPA right now -- thanks, Whole Foods of Louisville!), who had a group of employees and customers going through on a tour.

Then we went over to one of the big brick "cycling" warehouses. Brown-Forman doesn't age their bourbon like most everyone else, at least, not Old Forester, Early Times (and yeah, there is Early Times Bourbon, it turns out, for the export market), and Woodford Reserve. Instead of just letting the bourbon sit in the cold over the winter, resting, they cycle the warehouse temperatures. Chris explained. There are temperature probes in some of the barrels, scattered through the warehouse. Say the temp outside goes down to 20. When the temp in the barrels hits, maybe, 60 (Chris was careful to couch all of this in general hypothetical terms), the heat goes on, and it stays on, until the whiskey gets up to, say, 80, maybe a week, and then the heat goes off until the whiskey gets down to 60 again. Once winter's over, they stop cycling and let nature do its thing. Which, Chris explained, is why with Old Forester and Woodford, they don't talk about the whiskey's age, but about its maturity.

Good stuff! I thanked him, and said good-bye, and headed across the Ohio to the New Albanian Brewing Company, the desmesnes of Rodger Baylor, another old friend. Unfortunately, he wasn't in, at a long meeting elsewhere, and I just et one of his real good pizzas and had a Community Dark (a dark mild, and kind of overdone on the dark malts, IMO), and a Happy Helmut (a nice lightly smoked rye beer that went well with the pizza). Some great beers on tap: three Schlenkerlas, Mahr's Hell (what is it, Franconia Month?), and others I can't remember in my increasing glow.

But then I had a real bad experience. Kind of reminded me of all the bad things that I was trying to forget while being in Kentucky. I went to Proof on Main, a beautiful place where I'd stayed back in June when Brown-Forman flew me out to taste the new Master's Collection Woodfore Reserve. I'd had a Sazerac cocktail that was absolutely one of the best drinks I've ever had, I'd been daydreaming about it ever since, and I wanted another. So I got off I-65 in the middle of Louisville and made my way over, parked and went in, and said, "A Sazerac, please." And the sweet, very pretty bartender told me she didn't think they had any Sazerac right now. Oh, dear. Sure enough, when I told her it was a cocktail, she got out the cocktail book and looked it up. I asked to see it: all wrong, beginning with calling for bourbon, not rye.

Oh, no, this isn't right, I said, and tried to explain. Well, wait, she said, the other bartender will be back in a few minutes, he can make you one. Great, I said, thinking and hoping it would be Chris Lamb, the fellow who'd made the one in June. Well, no. It was some guy with a 1/8" buzzcut and a fakey cowboy shirt, who breezed in and said, no problem, I'll make one. I watched him, and moaned. He took Michter's Rye -- a good start -- and dumped it in a shaker of ice, poured in sour mix (probably house-made, to be fair) and what looked like simple syrup, and shook it. He put a lemon peel garnish on a frosted martini glass, and strained the drink into it: essentially, a rye sour. No Pernod anywhere. Even the recipe in the book was better, if you put rye in instead of the bourbon they ignorantly called for. I'll quote the next bit, because it, it didn't enrage me, it left me limp and disappointed and despairing: "I learned to make them at Harry's Bar in Paris. That's where they were invented." Oh, son of a bitch. A frosted martini glass. No Pernod. And then, just to add insult to injury, it was a dollar more than I'd been charged in June.

Did I say anything? No. Because I just didn't feel like making a scene. Because I was beat down. Because now I knew that if I wanted a Sazerac, almost anywhere, I'd always either be in a game of cocktail roulette, or going to the same tiny number of places where they know shit from Shinola.

Thank God for the absolutely beautiful, wonderful, and restorative drive down Bardstown Road, or I'd still be pissed off.


Deuane said...

Surrounded by quality spirits and brews (New Albanian, Blue Grass Brewing and Cumberland Brews) and Lew still finds the time to piss and moan about not getting the proper cocktail!! If we all had such dilemmas!!...;-)

Have a wonderful time in Bardstown and please check out the brand spankin' new Maker's Mark visitors center would ya? Something like 2.2 million they spent!

Anonymous said...

"Oh, son of a bitch. A frosted martini glass." Sorry your Sazerac experience wasn't what you had hoped, but the story is priceless! I nearly spewed Eagle Rare all over my computer screen! Looking forward to reading about the rest of your weekend here. Are you renting a tux for the occasion? If so, we want pictures!

Unknown said...

Tell me about it. I ordered Shinola at Proof on Main a couple of weeks ago and, well, you can imagine my disappointment.

Lew Bryson said...

Hey, my job is pissing and moaning: the hard part is doing it in an entertaining manner!

I did get to the Maker's visitor center: wow. It's like the Bat Cave of Bourbon. More to come on that, and the rest of the trip.

Lew Bryson said...

I'm glad you retained your mouthful. And...I did rent a tux, but I didn't get a picture. I had other things on my mind...

Anonymous said...

Great writeup as always. Any insight as to other makers using hops in their stuff? I've read that Maker's Mark does. Any others?