Four Roses Barrel Pick Part 3 – A Gaggle of Whiskey Pigs Drinking at Harrison Smith House

We’d finished our tour at Willett and headed back into Bardstown, making our final assemblage in the tiny back parking spaces behind the Harrison Smith House, three cars loaded down like a holler-n-still Bedouin caravan, trunks brimming with bottles that ranged from ultra-old Brown and Foreman employee only gifts, to 1960’s Old Taylor decanters, to Willett’s first aged distillate.  Aaron and John, the bourbon prophets from the Northland joined our party, towing a full complement of boxes and bottles in the back of the car that would be the envy of most bars and taverns in Kentuckiana. Aaron had driven down here through the Alberta Clipper that was pounding Chicago, and its chilled breezes followed him right across the rolling plains of northern Kentucky.  The afternoon was cold, gray and it rained lightly on and off, a cool mist; the kind of sky you notice in old photographs of your grandparent’s house from winters long ago. Faded, darkened at the edges.  The pours started immediately, and heavy.  The aroma of duck fat simmering like a sacrifice to the God’s of Kentucky was wafting out of the kitchen windows.  We huddled together around an old barrel, its top serving as our table, the Bar du Saint.  Try this, try that, this is it.  Lifesavers. Caramel char. Vanilla toffee. Cherry and anise.  Papaw’s tobacco barn.  I stood behind the barrel, hammering a recently released Willett 4 year old, barrel 69.  Realizing we were consuming mass quantities of rare alcohol on a sidewalk in Kentucky on a Sunday, within blind sight of the county courthouse, I asked Sean if we were risking getting cited, or worse, arrested. In a heavy drawl that was only party slurred by the gulp he’d just choked down, he replied, “Man, we are in Bardstown. We would probably get arrested if we weren’t doing this.”

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We carried on this way for an hour, getting louder and more rowdy.  At some point Jamie walked up off the street with a box of liquid treasure to share.  I did the math and we had roughly enough bourbon for every member of our party to drink 7 bottles before dinner.  I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough.

A door cracked open from behind the historic Federal-style building of the Harrison Smith House.  A wild-eyed bearded fellow says “Hey, are you guys, are you guys ok?”

We told him who we were.  He said, “I’m Newman, I’m feeding you.  You look like you need some water, I’ll bring some out.”  He wasn’t far off; I’m fairly certain John had jaundice at that point.

We decided to move our party up off the street to the side patio of the house.  Boxes filled with open bottles were arranged on the black iron table, filled to the breaking point with every Four Roses limited edition single barrel, small batch and ultra-aged gift shop release.  The Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon Women fall release was a particular favorite in the chilly parking lot.  There were wax top Willetts.  Gift shop Willetts.  Wheaters.  A stellar line-up of Smooth Amblers. An old Old Overholt. Various private barrels of Russell’s Reserve. Knob Creek private picks.  On and on and on.  We drank glass after glass, having a better time with each sip, and the proceedings continued up until the point it started to rain.  We would have been happy as it was, but Newman told us to go on in.

Standing and holding the door open for us, he said “Just head up there and set your boxes down.”

We followed Aaron, unquestioningly, up the stairs, arms loaded with bottles, and suddenly realized that our inebriated navigator had just led us into Newman’s private residence, with wife and kids staring back at us.  It’s like the story of the driver who plows his car into a lake because his Garmin didn’t say “Turn.”  We waved stupidly, and walked backwards down the stairs.  I was actually sweating from embarrassment.  Newman seemed unconcerned.

We re-arranged the bottles that still contained bourbon on a table in the dining room, then set out to drain them.

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We all needed to eat. Newman laid out manna from heaven for us, both in the form of boudin filled egg rolls (which could be the greatest marriage of two foods in history) and an 11 year old bottle from Willett, known as The 2015 Whiskey Pig.  The glencairns started appearing from left and right, with the ferocity of heavyweight boxers.  I don’t think the server behind the bar was prepared for the ferocity with which we would attack the bar to be the first to get a pour of the Pig.  Everyone wanted a pour, or a double.  The Whiskey Pig was flowing.  It was so perfect.  I mean really.  It was so sweet and powerful.  It had a supreme burn, with perfect balance of oak and sugar.  I felt special getting to sip and enjoy such a famous pour.  (It deserves it’s own review, and it will get one soon.)

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Newman brought our football helmet sized bowls overflowing with steak tartare, and little toasts to spread it on that tasted something like sweet cornbread.

Sean said, “Damn son, that’s a big ass bowl of tartare”, which he pronounced Tower Tower.

We drank and ate for eternity.  I slammed a C22D wheater.  God, I love Willett.  The banter between new and old friends, an online fraternity who have been acquainted for no longer than an internet eternity.  We talked shop, bourbon, favorites, picks, secret shelves, bunkers, etc.  It was fantastic and frenetic.  More pours.  I grabbed a deep glass of 2010 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, my first foray with that edition.  I dubbed it the “Better Than Anthing” pour.

Then the staff started bringing out plate after plate of food.  Aged, smoked duck over a ring of grits, filled in the center with greens, slathered in a sauce so special that when I asked Newman to divulge the recipe, nee the ingredients, he looked at me inquisitively and said, “No idea, I just whisked together what tasted awesome.  It’s great, right?”  Uh, yeah.  Great is an understatement.  The chef and cooks at the Harrison Smith House would proceed to feed me what stands out as one of the top three meals I have ever eaten.  A four year old aged pork belly and arugula salad over a grilled biscuit.  A chorizo meatball over hominy and gravy, covered with a quail egg.

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Just then a white wax Willett, a Dugz and Willyz 17yr old bottle, made it’s way around.  I want to say I loved it, but I didn’t.  It was pretty tobacco heavy, and I love tobacco,  But it had this weird, acrid aftertaste that was just not good.  On the heels of the barrel 826 and the Whiskey Pig, the Dugz never stood a chance.  Over by the bar, Greg was ham fisting both Whiskey Pig and some bottle of old wine he had brought, nosing one after the other.  I opened up my bottle of Lincoln Road Knob Creek dubbed “Sweetness”, which everyone liked.  I ended up leaving that bottle for Newman to enjoy, seeing as how he took his night off to host our bourbon soiree.

Newman’s staff continued to bring out more courses.  I really wish I could remember everything that we ate.  It was all so choice.  (Perhaps my compatriots can chime in here.)  But I had consumed so much bourbon, my memory got a little cloudy.  I remember looking over at Jamie at one point, eating a flourless chocolate tort covered in ooey gooey chocolate ganache, and grinning “Can you believe we get to do this?”

Another pour or two of Whiskey Pig.  A glass of wine.  Another 2010 Four Roses.  Hell, I drank the 17yr white wax Willett from the bottle.  Then, as the clock struck 2AM, Jamie killed the Pig.  That was the ceremonial end to the evening.

I was wiped out, having consumed bourbon for a better part of the day, with more to come in a scant few hours.  It was time for a curtain closing.

The last thing I remember saying was “Tomorrow, the pick.”

Next up: “Part 4 – We Pick the Barrel We Weren’t Supposed To Pick”

Kentucy Owl Batch 6 – Yeah, it’s that good…

FYI – this is a quick take review primarily because I wanted to get something out there right now. But I’ll give you my immediate thought:  Kentucky Owl Batch 6 is so good, I’m going to give it two reviews.

For background…wait, I don’t need to go into the history of the marque. If you are reading this and you are interested, you already know the cool backstory.  What’s important here is the bourbon.

I’ve read a couple of other reviews, and my feelings and notes are very similar, which lends credence to my review.

Bourbon Buddy mentioned in his review the color, and I noticed this immediately too. I had to look at it in some different lighting in various rooms in my house just to make sure my eye weren’t playing tricks. The barrels that Dixon blended into Batch 6 are around a decade old on average, and then batched for a few more. But this one has the appearance of a bourbon that’s been aging away for 20 or 21 years.  It is SO dark.

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The nose emanated with a wonderful smoky char, and gobs of strong honey, mixed with breakfast spices. There is also a fresh component, almost like an evergreen.  It was comparable to an early morning hike through the mountains along a rushing stream, dew dripping on the deciduous trees surrounding you.  The entirety of the nose put me in mind of the way grandma’s kitchen used to smell on cold winter mornings, when you knew she had been up early, stoking the wood stove, wood caramelizing, getting the griddles good and hot and slathering them with butter, slinging a thick slice of bread that had been dredged through cinnamon and spice to make French toast.

It’s the mouthfeel of this one that really caught me, and this is the standout component. It’s hard to come up with the right superlative, so I’ll just say “spectacular”.  It’s thick and viscous, akin to the consistency of Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake syrup.  Oily is a great operative word.  Yes, the love child of olive oil and bourbon.  It reminded me a lot of Bernheim-era Weller that I’ve tried.

As soon as I tasted it, I knew it was special.

The flavor profile isn’t cloyingly sweet, but it has a specific kind of richness, almost like a perfect bowl of cinnamon and brown sugar oatmeal. Or the perfect batch of caramel corn at the County Fair.  There is a level of spiciness, a biting oak that lets you know there is power behind the 55% alcohol, but it’s more of a dessert spiciness.  That fresh woodiness is in the profile as well.

The finish is such a great sizzle. It’s got major legs on the finish, and it goes on and on, hitting all areas of my mouth and back of the tongue.

I love the new Kentucky Owl. You will too, if you can get it.

It’s early, and the fall releases haven’t been sent out yet, but it’s really hard to see anything else topping this one for my selection as Epic Bourbon’s Bourbon of the Year.

Yeah, it’s that good…..

Four Roses Barrel Pick Part 2 – “Drinks in a Stranger’s Basement”

Part 2 of the journey to Bardstown to pick a barrel of Four Roses.

The car was cruising along, south of Louisville, past the airport, past the tips of the spires at Churchill Downs. I was on my way to meet an epic rabble of bourbophytes.  “Step on it!” I said, only half joking. I was disappointed to find that the house at the exit off the interstate had taken down its banner that said “Bourbon ruins lives and property.”  The sign was long gone, as were the rusting, gutted wrecks of Detroit steel that had served as lawn decorations.  The man who made the sign obviously did not live at that property anymore, so maybe what he said was prophetic.

As the car blasted through the angels share of billowy steam rising from the hills and valleys around the gargantuan Beam facilities in Clermont, I realized I would have a little time to kill.  I suggested a stop at Heaven Hill, and with some minutes to spare and I ambled into the Bourbon Heritage Center.  I was still wearing the beat up Old Grand-Dad shirt that I planned on changing before dinner, but I figured what the hell, there is time.  I walked in the door, still smelling like 100 proof butterscotch.  The lady working the front desk could see me coming from a mile away, and probably smelled me too, most likely assuming it was my breath rather than my garments.  She greeted me in a nice enough fashion, showcasing the manners she was undoubtedly raised with.  But then her face went somewhat cold, one eye did full a slow blink as her lips pursed and she stated flatly, but with a slight chuckle, “We don’t have anything you are looking for, sir.”  An awkward moment of silence ensued, leaving me to reply with a silent nod of consideration.

At that moment my phone buzzed.  It was Travis.

On the other end of the line I heard a voice, “Dude, where are you?! We are in Bardstown.  We have a pour of Willett 826 waiting on you!”  I broke into my best impression of a clumsy Usain Bolt and sprinted for the car.  I goaded myself, “Run faster, you fool! That bottle won’t last long with their kind!”  He said they were all at a friend’s place nearby, a bourbon safe house, and I should come too.  They had just popped a bottle of Willett barrel 826 (aka God’s Special Reserve) and were watching the Masters.  Before departure, I popped the trunk lid and dug another sample out of my bag.  Being in this proximity to Heaven Hill dictated that I drink a little WHH 144; Oh Lord! 144 proof syrup that Zeus puts on his pancakes! I didn’t spill a drop.  Only minutes away, I said to the driver “Gun it”.  He looked at me quizzically in the mirror.  I backed it up with, “I said to.”

A text pinged in, saying “Come in through the back gate, we are downstairs.” The car pulled into the driveway, the driver noticed he was blocking some cars and backed out, stopping along the street.  I decided to change my shirt.  I whipped out a nicer looking polo, and just as I was in that vulnerable position of having my arms over my head, doing that belly jiggle shimmy to tug the new shirt on, a lady walking a dog passed by, peering in at me.  I couldn’t tell if she was interested or scared.  I noticed I had a rather large lint ball hanging precariously from the rim of my belly button, and out of habit nipped it out as she was watching.  Deep breath, sigh.  Regroup dude.  I sauntered across the driveway humming Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”.

As I opened the gate and walked into the backyard, I had a moment of panic hoping that I’d gotten the address right, or that Travis hadn’t given me the wrong one, or pulled a prank on me.  He wouldn’t do that, or would he?  I kept listening for sirens and played out 1000 scenarios in my head of what to say to the Bardstown PD while cuffed in the back of their squad car for breaking and entering.  “I swear to God officer, this is not my fault.  It must be a prank.  I was just here to kill a little time, watch golf and get drunk as shit before going on a distillery tour.  That’s it.”  I stepped towards the door, away from the door, towards the door, away from the door.  I was kind of a buzzed ballet.  I’m sure the neighbors, if they didn’t think I looked creepy and suspicious before, were in full on panic now.  A sheepish knock.  The door cracked open, there was Travis, that glorious bastard.

A glass of WFE 826 was already poured and airing out.  He handed it to me, gladly.  I sipped, smiled.  Sweetest thing ever.  Fucking peanut butter cups.  Walking through the basement, my eyes had to adjust to the darkness, and there I met some of my partners in this adventure.   Sean was at least three times my height and was pure Kentucky.  He got up and gave me a mountain bear hug, which to him probably seemed like a handshake though I felt my ribs pop and strain under the pressure.   He sat back down, literally across two recliners.  Greg looked like an elder statesman, swirling his glass, though the beads of sweat forming on his head and the half empty bowl of pimento cheese in his lap belied his hangover.  They had already been at the drink for days and I was late to the party.  Travis was in the corner shot-gunning a plastic bottle of Pedialyte, and I swear for a moment I thought I spied him nosing its aroma……

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After consuming more of the 826 and a few crackers loaded with good southern pimento cheese, Travis who at this point was actually laying in the floor in front of the screen, rallied a little bit and in a brief moment of clear-headedness suggested we’d waited long enough and should try to get to Willett, as we had reserved the last tour of the day.  Though he was operating within the cranial fog of a man who had been consuming bourbon since the sun came up, he made a convincing argument.  We all got up, made a game plan and started walking towards the door.  I stuffed a handful of crackers in my pocket.  Greg said something  that I absolutely didn’t understand.”  Sean translated “He needs to go to the hotel.”  I opened the door which happened to be right next to the basement bar that was stocked with all manner of bourbon.   Ten minutes later we were still standing at the bar drinking a new release OBSV from Four Roses, talking shop.  I smacked myself in the face and did that Scooby Doo head waggle from side to side when he sees a 6 foot tall sandwich, ah diddy yah diddy yah diddy yah..  We had to get serious; I had made a pact with myself that we could not be late for the tour.  I pulled on my jacket.  We said some obligatory “see you in a few”, and shook hands.  Then Sean brought out some Four Roses from the 1950’s.  I pulled off my jacket, had to have it.  Everyone had a pour and unfortunately we were all underwhelmed, which was the impetus for getting us out of the neighborhood.  It was like a 60 year old liquid abort button.  (Note: I was informed my scribblings were wrong. The bottle was Brown and Foreman!) The fellas were taking Greg back to his hotel.  I was on my own, but I said I’d delay the tour guide.  It was 3:26.  The tour was at 3:30.  Willett was 10 minutes away; Once again I tell the driver to step it up.

Getting to Willett is nothing short of a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard.  I’ve made this drive a few times.  You blast through the round-about that rings the Bardstown courthouse, down a road that goes from nicely paved to chock hole central before petering out in a creek bottom.  You have to smash the gas going up the next hill, and as you reach the plateau you will be stunned to find yourself actually at the top of Heaven Hill, surrounded by cavernous white aging warehouses, coated with an ever growing 5’oclock shadow of mold, a byproduct of the aging process.  Down the other side of Heaven Hill is the entrance to Willett, though it’s easily missed.  Its gravel, all the way up another long grade, a hard left hander past ancient sheds and spring houses.  I got a good look at Warehouse C, the place where drams of dreams live.  The car made a hard hand brake turn into the parking spot, gravel dust flying into the air and rocks peppering the corrugated tin of an derelict shed trumpeting our arrival.  Throwing the door open and jumping out the hatch I quickly realize my seat belt is still buckled and the force pulling me back down into the seat.  I was too pissed on aged corn mash to worry or be embarrassed.

I needed to regroup, again.  I grabbed the samples and dug through them.  I needed some Willett, pulled out a couple of solid samples of B49C and C4D, and hammered them.  Man, I love Willett.  I hopped out of the car and headed towards the gift shop.

Next up: “A Gaggle of Whiskey Pigs Drinking at Harrison Smith House”

The Four Roses Barrel Pick – Part 1 “Drinks on the Flight”

Back in April, I had the opportunity to meet up with a group of bourbon devotees who were flying in from around the country to select a private barrel of Four Roses. For this trip, I only had 24 hours to spare.  What follows is my account of the event.  I call it Fear and Loathing in Bardstown…..AKA The Time I Drank Bourbon for 20 of 24 Hours.  It’s long, so I broke it up into parts.  Journey with me, won’t you?

Part 1 – Drinks on the Flight:

The purpose of this trip was clear and simple. The invite had come weeks prior.  I had been asked to tag along on a private barrel selection at Four Roses distillery.  I was more than excited, because for all the bourbon I imbibe, this would be my first attempt at actually providing input on juice that other people would enjoy.   In addition to that, we would be having a private dinner on the eve of the pick at the center of “all things culinary” happening in the Midwest, the Harrison Smith House, to meet, greet and otherwise drink with other well respected bourbon aficionados.  I was absolutely not turning that down.  I’d also been asked to drop into Michter’s distillery in Louisville (another story soon to be told).  Impossible would be the operative word in describing how I could have anticipated the course of events that followed, and how I would pack it all into a scant 24 hours.

Last minute trips are not at all what you call inexpensive. In truth, the invite wasn’t last minute, but my decision about going was.  It also took a while to sell my triathlon bike in order to finance the First Class airfare.

My trip into the beating heart of bourbon began like most of my trips, meaning 15 minutes after I should have realistically left for the airport, I was still at home, setting up my DVR. I hustled a change of clothes into a bag still filled with crumpled receipts, mismatched socks, a flip flop, cellphone chargers for phones I haven’t owned since 2003, three pairs of busted ear buds, and various other contraband all of which was coated in a fine powdery sheen of pink that had once been the contents of a bottle of Pepto pills, crushed by time and airline baggage crews.  I left all of my toiletries with the intention of stimulating the local economy by buying new ones at the drug store, and ran out the door.  That’s right, I forgot them.  However I did not forget the clear 1-gallon plastic bag, filled beyond capacity with 2oz sample bottles containing all manner and example of great drinking bourbons, from vintage National Distillers to Parker’s Heritage releases, Willett wheaters to Van Winkles, barrel proofers and syrupy high rye recipes.  Amid the chaos of my ‘go to hell’ bag, I cuddled and caressed the ziploc before stuffing it down into the duffle with all the care I could muster.  After that it was off to the races, and I had to get to the church on time.

I breezed through security, which is always nice. Once in the air, I broke out the sample bag.  I was like an artist laying out his pallet, arranging the bottles by color and recipe.  I selected a 2oz sample bottle of 1984 Old Grand-Dad.  Ah, that butterscotchy darling.  It was an hour long flight, time to relax and think about the events to come, make a game plan, set a pace that I’d run my race.  I was still nosing the OGD when we hit a huge pocket of turbulence mid-sip, a 30,000 foot, 600mph shuck and jive that cause me to jostle and spill a bit of the National Distillers nectar on my shirt. I looked down for a few brief moments, assessed the damage and sprang into action. Twisting the fabric as hard as I could, simultaneously kicking my head back in the seat, letting the spillage drip into my mouth.  I got a stare of feigned disgust from the older couple sitting next to me, though I detected a tinge of grudging envy in the man’s eyes.  Yes, I’m drinking on a flight.  Yes, I brought my own.  Yes, it’s in a medicine bottle.  Yes, I did a lot of sniffing, sipping, ooing and ahhing.  Yes, I just drank brown liquid out of my shirt.  It’s not my first time wearing a barrel.  I broke out two more small bottles of other bourbon, and when they looked at me crosswise and the older man questioned what I was drinking, in my best Hulk impersonation I growled “Goykh Smash!!!” and slammed my fist down on the armrest, hiding a wince of pain.  When I got to the end of all three bottles I combined the dribbly contents into a mile high vat, shaking it hard in the air with fury then slurped it down.  Returning tray and seat backs to an upright position would be no trouble.  It was my own posture and poise I was worried about.  Man, was that ever a smooth landing.  Smyooooth.  I sandwiched up at the airport Quizno’s kiosk on my way out of the terminal, guzzled a bottle of sparkling water, jogged in place briskly singing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” a little too loudly, and reset, waiting for my transportation.  It’s been a long time, indeed……

Up Next: Part 2 – Drinks In a Stranger’s Basement

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Quick Takes: 2014 Lincoln Road OBSK

I’ve had this bottle for a while, and it’s always been a go-to for me. I keep thinking I’ll write something about the Lincoln Road OBSK, but it always gets bumped for a “sexier” label. That shouldn’t happen. Jamie Farris and his wife Misty have picked some of the all-time best private barrels of Four Roses.

But this one is even better.

I poured a glass last night and yelled upstairs, “Honey!?!”
“Yeah babe, what’s up?”
“This is the best pour in my cabinet!!”

A long moment of silence, then, “That’s great.”

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The bottle is almost depleted, and it’s worth writing about. There is probably a pour or two remaining, and it has mellowed perfectly. The nectar at the bottle of the bottle is the best of the best, the final splendid drops that pack all of the flavor. It’s akin to the way I ate cereal as a kid, when I loaded the bowl down with heaping helpings of white granulated sugar. When all the cereal was gone I would drink the milk out of the bowl. Eventually the only thing that was left was a syrupy slurry of simple sugar, oozing out of the bowl sap-like, condensed with all the other flavors of whatever the cereal had been……

Nose: The nose is truly magnificent. Overloaded with caramel and syrup. Burnt oak, but not musty. It gets an Academy Award for the depth of sugar. A hint of berry, but not anything like other OBSK’s I enjoy. This one is way heavier on the sugar and caramelized char, and less of the spicy dryness. The berry is still present, but there is less of the sweet pie filling and way more of a smoky campfire, griddle slung precariously over the top, frying up buttermilk pancakes, with gobs of gooey, buttery syrup slathered all over them. A handful of wild berry cast over the top, for an added punch.

Flavor: Mouthfuls of the caramel and sweetness. A gush of vanilla. The berry components are balanced with the oak and sugar. The spiciness that once existed has turned creamier. It’s almost reminiscent of a Rootbeer float. It’s so smooth, zero astringency. It really puts me in a Fall sort of mood. Jacket weather. Brisk mornings fishing. Earlier sunsets.  Cooler evenings. Outdoor fires with friends gathered around, telling stories. Drown me in this, please.

Finish: It’s not nuclear. And though it was probably a lot hotter a while back, it’s opened up significantly, shedding the fissile material around the edges and leaving nothing but the ultra-pleasant intensity of superb bourbon, right at the top of my tongue. The burn is a mellow heat wave in the summer sun. Southern humidity. August in the Carolinas. Ever present.

If Jamie could dig one out of a private collection at Lincoln Road, I’d be on the Interstate right now to come get it.

I will weep when this one is gone…….

New Release: Parker’s Heritage 10, 24yr BIB

I’m a sucker for high age statements, shelf treasure and the high quality of bonded bourbon. We all are.  Because of this, the new Parker’s Heritage 10, 24yr 100 proof bonded bourbon is immediately special. In fact this is the most exciting release to hit the shelves that I can think of for some time. Being that we are living in times of shortage and allocation, when age statements are disappearing left and right, Parker’s Heritage Collection and Heaven Hill are holding up the torch, waving it high in the air, beckoning us all to the place where real life and bourbon dreams collide….. I have no idea what it will cost, nor do I care.  I absolutely can not wait to try it. I’m already anticipating a classic oak and caramel bomb. Thank you, Heaven Hill. *Slow clap to fade out*

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2010 William Larue Weller and the 145th British Open

I’m sitting here now, watching the 145th Open Championship…..the British Open. Phil Mickelson has just teed off, and I am settling in for what I hope will be a fantastic round of couch golf, sidled up next to a pour of another champion, that of a 2010 William Larue Weller. I find it a fitting pour. Also, yes I drink bourbon at 9:35AM on a Sunday. Don’t you?

I love golf. I’m so passionate about it. I play whenever I can, which used to be three times a week before the kiddos came, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine swinging a club, let alone watching someone else do it on TV. Nothing, in my mind, could be more boring or mundane. I didn’t understand the amazing subtleties of the game. Outside of Tiger, I was unaware of the amazing personalities in the sport. I didn’t recognize the extreme finesse it took to put just the right amount of English on a ball to get it to make a hook at 13’ to putt in for birdie. I had no idea that there was a perfect club for each shot, carefully selected, resulting in art when executed properly. Honestly, I wouldn’t have known a word I just said. I was completely uneducated on the game. But one day, I think it was a Saturday morning, early, sun just peeking through the window, I opened my eyes and had an immediate thought.

“I need to play golf,” I said, “right now.”

In fact I believe I said it out loud. That set off an obsession that is unquenchable. I began to read and study everything I could about golf. Book after book about the greats; Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus. I subscribed to magazines, pouring through them for information, studying techniques and theories. I wore out a copy of Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons.” I studied the legendary courses; St. Andrews, Pinehurst #2, Pebble Beach, Augusta, Cyprus Point, and the men who created them.

I wish golf loved me as much as I love it.

Bourbon was much the same way. I became enamored with it immediately. I couldn’t just drink it though, I had to study it, understand its complexities, its history. I am obsessed with it, in a way that is similarly unquenchable. I spend countless hours studying, in pursuit of knowledge. The distilleries. The master distillers.

Drinking bourbon has come to me much more naturally than teeing off and sculpting the perfect draw with lots of people watching. But sipping the perfect pour gives an amount of satisfaction and heart flutter similar to draining a Sports Center-worthy 30 foot putt, birdying a par three with a sweet backspin off the rear banking or seeing the beer cart come rolling back past us for the 6th time of the round. (Perhaps you know the fifth man in our group, Ulysses S. Grant?)

I query myself multiple times, “Should I be drinking scotch during the British Open?” Maybe? But I’m not. I never do, defying my good Scottish roots. Oh well.

So about this pour, the 2010 William Larue Weller. God, where do I start? It’s a 12 year old mega wheater of 126.6 proof.

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The nose is a sweet sugar bomb of alcohol and summertime breakfast at the farm. Woody and oaky. A log cabin, old hewn log walls and floors. Buckwheat pancakes cooking in the kitchen, on a cast iron griddle. Thick, sweet maple syrup drizzled over a melting pat of butter. The spicy sweetness of dark, juicy tobacco hanging long from the rafters of an old painted barn next to a cornfield sweating in the late morning sun, the haze of humidity keeping the smell low, and thick. But to me, it’s proper. Much like the staid confines of the Royal British links I’m sitting here watching. All manners and tradition. That’s fitting, since the name William Larue Weller is akin to Old Tom Morris.

Flavor, palate, etc….neither term does this pour justice. It’s more like a “main course”. If someone asked me to describe the 2010 WLW in two words, they would be “superbly mannered.” It’s hot, but it’s also sweet. Not cloyingly sweet, but shares a similarity with buttery candy. The creaminess of a Werthers, with the explosive bite of 63% alcohol. That goes doubly for the mouthfeel. The bourbon is rich and bursting with flavors; more maple syrup, and an element of fruit; a dried fruit. Not in the vein of fruitiness you’d find in a Four Roses OB recipe, which is more forward with the reds, but there is something fruity happening. To me it tastes like dried blueberries. So, blueberry pancakes. Oh, and more of that sweet oak, the inside of the barrel exuding its charred, caramelized soul. There was a tail off of vanilla towards the end that was almost like an afterthought. The flavor plumed up through my olfactory in a practically visual way. Fantastic. I was able to get an extra blast of flavor by exhaling through my nose after the sip. I did this a few times, with pleasure.

The finish gallops out of the gate like a race horse on an easy morning workout, reaching stride quickly and effortlessly, and presents itself as if the juice in the barrel was formulated specifically with the finish in mind, rather than the luck of the process. It hits all over my mid-palate and the sides of my tongue with a pizzazz and sizzle. A long burn, soft around the edges, but coursing with sweet flavors down the middle.

The post nose was all about buttery oak and baked bread with a hint of tobacco. What a great, great pour. An absolute A.

As I finish this, Henrik Stenson has just putted in and I am in awe of the round of golf I’ve just seen. I applaud the screen and ring up the local clubhouse to check for an open tee time, inspired.

Cheers.

60 Minutes of Epic Tasting – Part 2 “The Trio of Willetts”

Adam and I had just finished our pours of 1985 Van Winkle Family Estate Rye. A quick splash of water in the glencairn, 13 swirls, slosh and gulp the water, shake out the glass, and on to the next pour.

Willett Family Estate – 16yr Bonili “The Lord of Dankness”

“OK, see what you think of this one” he said, handing me another Boston round. I held up the bottle and read the label.  It hit all the right trait markers for something I would enjoy.  A 16yr Bonili, barrel 470.  64.75%!

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The Bonili picks of higher age are spoken about in hushed tones now, the same way people whisper about celebrities they see sitting next to them at a restaurant. “Look over there, that’s Jennifer Aniston.  Don’t look!!”  You tell everyone for days that you had dinner with Jennifer.

I poured out the Willett and inhaled deeply. “This stuff is DANK.” I exclaimed.  “If Astor C12A was the Darkness, this one should be the Dankness.  The Lord of Dankness.”  The nose was deep with oaks, vanilla and honey nuttiness.  But underpinning everything was the pungent aroma of a variety I’d never smelled in a bourbon before.  Yet it was familiar.  I nosed it for a while and said, “It’s like I’m in the rickhouse, and the barrel is rotten and leaking.  It’s covered with that thick, pillowy, muddy and musty mold.  It’s eking through the staves and sucking into the liquid.”  It was ultra earthy.  No, that doesn’t even describe it.  Let me be completely honest: I had a couple of indoor cats for 12 years, and my initial thought was the nose of this bourbon had a component that was similar to the mustiness of a litter box two days past its prime.  There I said it.

God, I actually felt guilty saying that. As if the 16yr Bonili deserved better, or that the odd scent was my fault, or that I should overlook it. I was picking apart a vaunted private selection of one of my all-time favorite labels.

But here is the amazing thing: After a moment, it worked.  I don’t know why it worked, but it did.  The longer I nosed it, the more it made sense.  The more I realized I was smelling something special that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but it was classic in the way that vinyl sounds better than digital.

Adam summed it up perfectly, laughing “I’m not sure what it is.  Maybe funky corks. Maybe just the right cat pissed on the barrel in just the right spot.  Who knows?”

“Yeah right, probably Noah. Grinning like the Cheshire.” I exclaimed, thinking of the fat tom cat that plods around the property.

“Whatever it is, it’s pefect.” was Adam’s final summation.  Always trust the chef.

Dankness.  It was almost a quality that you find in wine that has been casked in a cave forever; you can taste the age and history.  The age of the ground.  The age of the room and musk of the huge log structure that cradled the barrel lovingly for 16 years.  Monstrously damp and dank. Adam’s belief that the cork was probably moldy seemed like strong hypothesis.  (Note to self: When my 4 year old eventually forgets to tell me he has a science project due until 5 minutes before the bus arrives, whip out the moldy cork hypothesis, and pictures of dad passed out in the living room floor, performing the lab work.)  I couldn’t venture a guess, so I just took his word for it.

Now that I’d come to an understanding with the nose, I had to go straight into the sip. The intensity of the flavors made me immediately happy.  It was just so powerful and expressive, but tender too.  I picked up sweet, candy plums.  Thick molasses, boiling in a copper pot over an open flame.  The logs in the fire are freshly cut, still damp, cracking, popping, fizzing, whistling, smoking.  Juicy pipe tobacco brings in a pointed element of spice, a punch right in your mouth that’s equally sweet.  Willett is just such great bourbon. It really is.

The finish was explosive. I let it ride on the back of my palate, and damn if it didn’t bring me to tears.  Literally tears.  I tried to speak, but I’d taken the finish too far back and was completely choked up.  I let the thought pass.  Minutes were slipping by, and there was more to drink.

“Oh Lord of Dankness,” I said with a guttural cough, head shaking and one eye squinted, “that is the essence of epic bourbon.”

Willett Family Estate – 12yr Barrel 743

Now we were going from the 16yr Bonili to the 12yr barrel 743. It was the “Chocolate Atom Bomb”.

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Immediately out of the bottle, this bourbon billowed forth with copious amounts of cocoa. A special, chocolatey goodness.  Bakery aromas.  The oak in the profile was refined, giving off a scent of aging walnut shells.  Nutty.  I was reminded of the way I felt the first time I tried WFE 826, how you just knew it was a special pour in comparison to the numerous others you’ve had.  Literally I closed my eyes and I was transported to the Toll House, where some sweet old lady was baking up batch after batch of delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies.  There is a soft oak log fire crackling in the hearth across the room, and you can smell the logs charring up and caramelizing under the heat.  There is a snaggle toof kid in the corner, grinning ear to ear, tearing the cookie in half, the chocolate chips exploding from the sugary fissure, stringing apart in gobs of hot stickiness.  Warm, soft, ooey gooey deliciousness.

The flavor gushed with vanilla and more of the cocoa. God, that oak flavor drives me crazy.  It was so chocolate forward, but at the same time very balanced.  It also gave up broad hints of syrupy caramel, what I always equate to flat cola.  But more than anything, it was a cocoa show.

I stared at the glass for a long time, nosing, tasting, nosing, tasting. Adam impressed me with his analysis of this bottle.  He really went into the ins and outs, his opinions about the source of the juice.  He expounded on the differences and nuances between Wild Turkey distillate versus Brown and Forman, talking in detail about the classic, easily detectable notes of each brand.  It was fascinating to listen to him, because while I’d respected his knowledge about bourbon, it was so much greater than I’d realized.  I was a student.

After listening to him, I felt like I was reverting back into the bourbon blogger version of the Chris Farley show on Saturday Night Live. “Hey.  Do you, do you, you, um… Do you remember that time that we, um….that, um, we…we drank that scot, um whisk…no, bourbon.  God, I’m so stupid!  It’s bourbon!  C’mon!  I’m sorry.  We drank that bourbon from Willett.  Do you remember that?  Sha, that was awesome!”

The finish was long, and really bit me on the mid palate, gaining strength as it rounded the back. What a delightful burn, with a mild kiss of molasses tailing off.

So yeah. Barrel 743.  It’s special.  It’s a nutty, cocoa, chocolate chip cookie bomb of flavor.

On to the final pour…….

Willett 25yr Barrel 2876

This would be the last bourbon we would taste, and in fact the oldest I have ever tasted.  At 25 years, this old man had stories to tell.  I was ready to listen.

The Boston round was that standard dark brown translucent color, but when I poured the bourbon out, you’d have thought the Boston round was clear. The juice was that dark.  “Man, that is seriously dark!” I said, and at the same time Adam also says, “Can you believe how dark this is?”

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I really settled back into the chair for this one, though the three glasses of bourbon I’d just consumed also deflated my posture. Both Adam and I were swirling the liquid in the glencairns, marveling at how thick and viscous it was.  Adam piped up “Look at this.  This bourbon has serious legs.”  With every swirl, the bourbon would round the bulb of the glass and rise, leaving a thick coating that slinked and slurried back to the bottom when you stopped the motion, similar to fresh Valvoline 10W40, save for the fact it was the same opaque color as Brent Crude.

The nose was toasty and woody. The smell of Paul Bunyun’s axe after a day of gnashing away at tall oaks, the friction of the steel and wood burnishing the blade with scents and scars.  Campfire.  I’m pretty sensitive to over-oaked bourbon.  With certain exceptions (almost any near-quarter century Willett, for example), once it gets ultra-aged, there is just too much mulch in the water for me to fully enjoy.  But sometimes, it’s just right.

I found the flavor to be more spicy than sweet.  Mild anise, mixed with a seasoned wood spiciness that came off hot, like ghost pepper.  The age was evident.  I used to have a jogging route in Chicago that took me past a leather processing facility on Ashland Avenue.  The place was ancient and decrepit, a crooked, cracked old brick structure built on rotting pilings driven into the mud of the Chicago River.  The windows were always hanging wide open, and peering in, it was easy to see stacks of fresh leather awaiting the curing process.  On a humid August night, when there was no breeze, you could taste the leather in the air a mile away.  I picked up this same component in the 2876.  Leathery.  I have a feeling they dumped it at the very last second, any longer and it would have gone off the rails.

The finish is exactly how you expect a 25yr old, 127.2 proof bottle to be. A stick of dynamite.

This was not my favorite Willett I’d ever had, nor my favorite of the three we tried.  But I did enjoy it a lot.

So that was that. Time was up, Adam had places to go and so did I.  The best part about the tasting was the time spent with a kindred, sharing stories, talking about life over exquisite bourbon.

Cheers!

60 Minutes of Epic Tasting – Part 1 “1985 Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye”

I got the text towards the afternoon, “I’m in town, can you meet up? I brought a few things you have to try.”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “Good stuff?”

“Does a certain rye from 1985 sound like good stuff?” was the response.

In the 80’s this would have been a person to person call, and the only sound my buddy Adam would have heard on the other end would be that of a plastic phone hitting the floor, then a dragging sound as the coiled cord tugged the phone back across the linoleum.

I just responded, “I’ll bring glencairns.” Dot. Dot. Dot.

Adam only had an hour to spare in his busy schedule, and frankly I was happy just to get to that little bit of hang time. 60 short minutes, which I assumed (correctly), would be filled to the brim with all the most fantastic distilled and aged liquid my heart could flutter over.

We sat down, exchanged pleasantries, etc. while I simultaneously pulled out two clean glencairns without breaking eye contact or interrupting the conversation. As time was short, we wasted none of it, and got right down to the business at hand; drinking epic bourbon…and rye. Specifically rye, actually.

The first pour out was one I was sure to be smitten with, the “1985” Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. If you recall from past blogs, I’m not a rye guy, but I sure do love/crave the VWFRR. The 2015 edition was my first foray into the world of Van Winkle rye, and I gave it high praise.

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But the 1985 was a completely different animal. Made at the request of French client, this is the 100 proof, non-chill filtered juice that is the stuff you dream about. There is some bit of argument about whether this is a 13 year, or a 14 year. Technically all VWFRR up until last year came out of the same tank, and recent releases have been labeled “13 Years Old”, therefore this should be 13 too. But others say, since this was released in 1999, it’s a 14 year. Yet Julian Van Winkle himself says the 1985 was 15 years old. 13, 14, or 15, I find that fascinating. I’d give anything to sit with Julian Van Winkle and discuss the in’s, out’s and majestic magic of his various bottlings, and listen to his words without so much as cutting in with a question. But until that happens, all I can do it stick to profiling the flavors of the bottles I try.

Adam had diced his bottle into 4oz Boston rounds, exclaiming that he feared the bottle going stale. He tossed me the little brown bottle and said “Pour it out”. I did. Heavenly aroma filled the immediate vicinity of my nose.

I can only describe the color in the glass as “Bruce Brown Sunset”. It reminded me the final scene of one of my favorite movies, On Any Sunday, (made by Bruce Brown). Steve McQueen, Mert Lawill and Malcolm Smith are blasting their XR 750’s up and down a lonely southern California beach at sunset, and you can only make out their silhouettes in the golden wash as the sun sinks slowly into the Pacific.

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“Dear Lord,” I said as I nosed the leggy beast in the glass, “this smells fantastic.” The nose is so creamy and rich. It was the biggest bear hug of vanilla. Mixed into the wash was a component of cinnamon spice, and a faint, sugary fruitiness. The glass was like a miniature confectionary, turning out the loveliest baked sweets. It was really complex, and I sat for a long time deciphering the flavors. I turned to my friend and said, “I can’t get them all, I’m trying but I can’t. There is so much going on here.” He laughed and agreed, ‘Good, right?”

I said, “This is literally liquid luxury.”

The flavor is scrumptious, and classy. Extremely developed, given the moderate proof, but a testament to the maturation. More of the vanilla, mixed with a breath of oak and spice of the classic rye variety. Ah, that oak. A fine, thin layer of cocoa dusted over the top of the pile. There is nothing astringent, pungent or over-alcoholic. But just to remind you of the refined nature of this juice, there is pepper present that keeps the sweets in check. It’s just so composed. This really has more in common with the well-mannered releases of the era; extra smooth, the flavor and proof working together instead of independently. None of the flavor components step on each other, rather they build on each other, like a layered spice cake with butter cream frosting. I commented that there would have been no reason to fill Boston rounds in my house, for the simple reason that this bottle would not have lasted long. The mouthfeel is just so incredible, very syrupy.

The journey from flavor to finish was the whiskey equivalent of the grand symphony build at the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life”. So much flavor and mouthfeel to enjoy, building, building, building. Then BOOM, that sharp tonal smash on the piano keys delivers a moment of finality, which holds and rings out. In this case the “ring out” is the finish, revealing its purpose with a great, warmhearted burn. Nowhere near the atomic, tear inducing explosion I usually enjoy. It hit all points throughout my entire palate, complimenting and amplifying the lingering flavors, dissipating slowly. The sun sets behind the pacific. The light dies. End of scene.

The post nose gives up all that heady rye and sweet old oakiness, choco-yumminess and soft spice. I sat for many minutes, huffing them empty glass. I caught Adam looking at his watch, and I snapped out of my Van Winkle induced brain fog, remembering that the moments were fleeting, and there were more bottles to sample.

I said before that I believed this rye would be one I was smitten with. I was. I am still. In fact, I am ruined by it. I’m not a rye guy, but I am now a 1985 VWFRR, 100 proof non-chill-filtered guy. The most telling part of the tasting was this: I didn’t stop smiling the entire time I was sipping the 1985 VWFRR. I was actually aware of that. This rye just made me….happy.

Wash the glencairn. Swig some water. On to the next pour.

Part 2: Willett Bonili 16 year, Barrel 470 “Lord of Dankness”.

Dreaming About Old Crow Distillery and the Magic in That Dusty Old Bourbon

So I actually wrote this piece over the course of weeks, and not all in succession. I’d write some, leave it, come back to it….write some, leave it, and come back to it. Always sipping a little Old Grand-Dad along the way, leaving the world with a little less delicious bourbon… It’s not a piece based upon absolutes, and not every word is rooted in fact. I can’t offer any facts. Unfortunately when it comes to facts and Old Crow Distillery, there is simply little to be had. We can find the bottles of bourbon, taste and cherish them. We can scour the internet and regional historical societies for photos and stories, and come up with nothing. It’s quite similar to the situation an archaeologist would find his or herself in while studying the lives and traditions of the ancient Egyptians or Mayans. There are a few things written down, and artifacts to be studied, but when it comes down to figuring out how the hell they moved those 500 ton blocks into pyramids located in perfect relation to modern latitudes and longitudes as they related to the earth and stars; no idea.

What I offer you here is a stream of conscious writing, thinking, and dreaming about Old Crow Distillery. These are my opinions and thoughts, the ideas that flitter around my mind while sipping. Nothing more, nothing less. Just me trying to understand the magic in that dusty old bourbon. I used a few fictional characters for the purpose of setting scenes. Maybe you get something out of it, maybe not. Be forewarned, it’s a long piece…

I’m sitting here now, sipping one last pour of a magical Old Grand-Dad 100 proof Bonded bourbon by National Distillers at Old Crow Distillery, age stated 8 years old, bottled in 1987. I just shared some of this amazing bourbon with a friend who lives up the street, a guy who isn’t as familiar with the ins-n-outs and history of bourbon as I am (I don’t even claim to know a tenth as much as some, but I’m in constant pursuit of knowledge). Nor does he probably care, looking at the fat little glass filled with brown liquid, watching as I get overly excited and nearly philosophical about the OGD, pontificating what it means, why it’s important, and why exactly it can never happen again. I preach. I extol. In my mind’s eye I am weaving an enraptured tapestry of virtue about a distillery that will never again pump white corn mash through its tail box. “Sip up” I say, “This is pure liquid treasure.” We talk for a while, dragging out the pour. After a bit my buddy heads home, I’m certain wondering how on earth someone can be that obsessive over a product that in 45 minutes will be making its final descent to the Water Treatment Plant before taking a fun filled journey down the Mississippi, waving as it passes Jackson Square in New Orleans, plunging headlong into the Gulf of Mexico.

The house is quiet, other than the warm squeak of oak on oak that comes from the gentle sway of the rocking chair next to my bourbon crypt and the wood floor. I pour myself one more glass. I need to think about this Old Grand-Dad a little longer. Experience it one more time. I look at the glass the way Good Will Hunting looks at a seemingly unsolvable math equation on the chalk board at MIT. I dissect the flavors. The heady, powerful butterscotch that dominates the nose and palate. The finish that is so smooth, it’s the bourbon equivalent of satin. Swish and slosh around my tongue. The mouth-feel, dear Lord. It actually has a temperature, and I say this every time I drink OGD BIB; it’s cool to the touch and taste. I swirl the juice in the glass, inhaling its body. I gaze through the honeyish, golden liquid; soft lights beaming radiantly through the glass. I taste the pour and let it filter through me. The soft oaken caramel, dense with syrupy, sugary sweetness and a breath of antiquity. You can taste the summer humidity from the fields of sweet yellow corn that rose from the ground decades ago. The finish is mellow and fleeting, a solid 100 proof burn doing the subtle pirouettes on my mid-palate. To me, it’s perfection.

But how did this come to be? There is just so much to consider in the question “what makes this juice so special?” I am a self-professed disciple of all things single barrel and high proof. So how could I possibly be so smitten with this batched 100 proof liquid dream? I keep saying to myself, “There is nothing else like this in the world.” And really that’s true. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever had.

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I got to see Old Crow up close recently, on my yearly springtime pilgrimage up to southern Indiana. Kentuckiana. Traveling through the heart of Kentucky bourbon country is always one of the highlights of the trip for me. Typically we stop at one of the distilleries to let the kids stretch their limbs before the final 100 mile push into Indiana. When my wife asked where I wanted to stop this time, I said I’d like to do something a little different, and maybe look for the remains of the National Distillers facilities, specifically Old Crow, and by extension Old Taylor, since it’s only a stone’s throw away. If you have never seen it, I highly recommend the drive. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Rat shacks with busted siding revealing hewn logs underneath, derelict fishing boats, the odd goat, piles of scrap metal and wild flowers dot the banks alongside Glenn’s Creek as you meander up and down the carved hills of the river valley. The road is so narrow, literally a one lane road marked for two. My initial thought was “How the hell did they ever manage to drive two lanes of big rigs loaded down with corn or bottles of whiskey on this road?” As you crest a hill, the smoke stack pokes up just over the tree line, like an elderly relative, oh so happy to see you, but too old and feeble to get up. “That’s OK pop. You stay there, I’ll come to you.” It’s surrounded by rusty, broken chain link fencing that blends into the scrubby brush and overgrowth, almost unnoticed. Halfway over the hill, before you get to the actual employee entrance, you can poke through the fence and get a good look at the grand old fellow. The ancient, cavernous confines of Old Crow. It sits empty and derelict now, a 5-star aviary resort for pigeons and crows basking in the rays of dull sunshine that burn through frosted glass. Still proud and fighting against collapse, though wearing the time ravaged, sun bleached, rain soaked, snow covered, weather beaten wrinkles and scars of age. To my eyes, even in this state of decrepit decay it couldn’t be any more stunning. It has a kind of masculine grace, like one of the great old cathedrals of Europe that is slowly rotting away. I just stood looking at it for a long time, trying to re-imagine it in better days, bustling with activity, barrels rolling in and out. Employees running out the door when the dinner whistle sounded to choke down chicken salad sandwiches, then running back in as they wiped the remnants on their sleeves. I snapped a couple photos and then nodded in knowing recognition, out of pure respect. It was an awesome moment.
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Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal – Abandoned http://www.abandonedonline.net

As I sip this bourbon that was distilled when I was four years old, I mentally juxtaposition the differences between NOW and THEN. In today’s distilleries that employ multi-degreed chemists and engineers in the front line trenches of the taste wars, and outfit their labs with machinery that can break-down and deduce the exact chemical make-up of any whiskey in the world, why can these flavors not be duplicated? This bourbon is damn near perfection, why wouldn’t a master distiller or whiskey producer recognize this and at least try to recreate the past?

My only answer is they can’t. It’s just not possible, because the magic that was captured so many years ago cannot be extruded out of complex computer codes and proprietary yeast strains. No chemist can coax or conjure that heady butterscotch out of the barrel any more than Gargamel could throw Smurfs into water and stir them briskly until they turned into gold nuggets.

Perhaps I just want it to be that good? No, there has to be more.

So how did National Distillers do it? By accident?

There are eras when they got the formula perfect. I have friends that will swear by and only drink the stuff made before the 1960’s facility expansion. After that there was a period when the distillation process was off, and according to many the juice lost a bit of its magic, and the brand took a hit. Apparently there was a known problem with the mash process, but production could not be stopped. It’s reminiscent of Harley Davidson motorcycles manufactured after the AMF buyout. Not all of them were garbage, you still see them on the road, and there is nothing as cool as a chopped down shovelhead. But as the company line goes, “there are some that Harley wishes they had kept on the line a little longer.” Then Harley got the name back, and fixed the problems. Same with ND. As far as the era’s, I’ve tasted a few of them, and for me personally, I like the late 1980’s. The butterscotch is just SO pronounced, the bourbon so sweet and rich, thick and oily. I have a bottle from 1975, and while there is a distinct difference, and the flavor of that one can best be described as “sharper” than the 1987 version, with less butterscotchy aura, I still enjoy it. It’s still classic.

In my opinion, the rich quality and immense flavor of this bourbon lies in a confluence of factors:

Equipment, Technology and Craftsmanship: Take into account the old manufacturing line. By 1979, the distillery had already done generations upon generations of living. Even when Old Crow was middle aged in human years, young men got their first jobs there, got married and supported families there, retired from there and died. And still the old boilers kicked and pinged and boiled and chortled. Old Crow Distillery as it stands today started operation around 1872, and was put together well before the movement of tolerances and standards that took grip after WWII, almost 60 years later. There were no cookie cutter designs, no off-the-shelf turn-key systems. All engineering happened on site and was completely customized to owner preferences. Craftsmanship abounded. Men with true skills, who spent their career formative years not in college, but in apprenticeship, cut, bent and soldered by hand every pipe and plate of copper in the facility. Every copper rivet. Every flared joint. Every bevel weld. Every beaded solder joint. Every calibration. Nothing was done by robot or micrometer. This would have been the case even when the distillery was refurbished nearly 100 years later. The distillery got an upgrade in the 1960’s, and though I’ve done my best to research, converse, pick and decipher any information and lead I could find, there just isn’t any information to be had. I can’t tell you if the original still was kept in production, if they just added a second line, or if they got a bigger still altogether. There are no pictures I can find. No blueprints. No documentation. No engineering schematics or markups stamped “As Built”. Nada. Zip. Zilch. And in my opinion that speaks volumes about how the bourbon was produced. These were the days before ISO standards. When records and important numbers were filed in Lee Roy’s head and a wadded piece of note paper in the front pocket of his mash smattered coveralls. When Charlie and Putt, doing everything by hand and eyeball, were the Quality Control and Measurement apparatus.

Every piece of equipment had a personality and could never adhere to modern tolerances or standards. Maybe a pipe fitting that had a tiny pinhole that allowed some of the distillate to take on a micro-breathe of air. Just a little bubble in the mix every now and again that caused a minutia oxidation. Maybe over time those air bubbles added up, the sum of which was the equivalent of a dry line in corrosion, leaving a kind of aged aftertaste in the juice. Everything stretches with time, and copper lines would be no different. Think about, over the course of 50 or 100 years, a copper line that is supposed to be a flat 8 feet starts to sag just a little. Decades of water hammer and steam hammer, deforming and contorting the lines. The run is longer, and it starts to creep ever closer to a nearby heat source. How does that impact the distillate? I’ve read lots of theory and conjecture from a technical side. I’ve been told that the equipment has nothing to do with it. So confident must Beam have been that the process could be replicated anywhere after the purchase of the Old Crow facility that they trashed the equipment, leaving it to the circling vultures of the salvage trade. (Old Taylor suffered the same fate.) Maybe they just didn’t care, as the bourbon aficionado didn’t really exist at the time, outside of a small number of people, and they probably weren’t looking at OGD like it was rare Bordeaux. Either way, every bit of copper was turned into pennies of profit. And the recipe? Gone. The yeast strain? Gone. Supposedly it’s made in the spirit of the original, but I would be the worst riverboat gambler if I tried to bluff you and say that I get the same kind of heart fluttering elation drinking Old Grand-Dad distilled in Clermont as I do the Frankfort variety. By recipe, I’m talking about more than just the ratio of corn to rye in the mash, but rather everything that went into the batch, from the selection of raw materials to the influence exerted by the quirks and character of the distilling equipment. Antiquated dials that weren’t as accurate as they could have been. Settings that were just slightly off but close enough. You get the picture.

And what about the production line? The men that produced this bourbon cared about their craft and were dedicated to the product. Think about the way men used to be. Every man was Mickey Mantle. A hard ass, hard living sum’bitch. A sun-up to sun-down time clocker. Serious as can be about work and life and drinking and family in that order. Men like my grandpa who woke up every day stretching his broken body, filling a thermos with percolated roofing pitch and confidently snarling, “Let’s do some God damn good work, God damnit.” That was his way of saying “good morning”. To add to that, the men that worked there became intimately familiar with the equipment they were running. Some might spend 30 years doing the same tasks, day after day, year after year. No thoughts of envy or delusions of promotion. Only the job that needed to be done. They knew their machines, how they were operating, and if something was wrong, they fixed it themselves. A job to be done and men paid to do it right. There was only QUALITY and PRIDE. Production was not stopped. Every man was a highly-skilled self-taught maintenance technician, capable of keeping his station operating to its peak potential. Or close to it. I mean, some things can be fixed with baling twine, duct tape, gum or leaning on them.

In my mind, the corn dust that hung thick in the air must have been absolutely tremendous, pushed and pulled through a first edition HVAC system that counted open windows as air conditioners. The dust would have gathered in a dense, soot-like blanket over everything in the building, even the bottling line. Distilleries now are so clean you can eat off of nearly any surface. But Old Crow was a production facility in the vein of every other factory at that time. The big boilers used coal, burning it bright and hot, like parking massive Union Pacific mogul locomotives in your living room, puffing and chuffing. The idea of clean rooms and hermetic sealing was still years into the future. Don’t believe me? Thumb through NASA photos from the mid 1950’s and look for guys in white coats that were smoking while assembling mock-ups of the Project Mercury capsule. Even the boys in the Mission Control were lighting up cigarettes in the control room during the Gemini and Apollo flights. That was the cutting edge of technology in those days as far as the world was concerned. It’s doubtful any distillery in Kentucky was adhering to such stringent guidelines. When the mash was bubbling and rolling over itself in the tanks, and Bud took a stroll up the catwalk to check its progress, how much of that vintage corn dust did he kick up? Did he accidentally bump his shoulder into the railing above the tank, sending a dusty plume billowing towards the open tank like a reverse mushroom cloud? How would that impact the flavor?

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Photo courtesy of Sherman Cahal – Abandoned http://www.abandonedonline.net

The aging warehouses themselves are still in use, some anyway. Beam had the good foresight to keep any and all storage on hand. They are huge, brick structures, sunk deep into the valley. If you look at the aging barns at Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Willett and Beam, they are pretty much all out there in the open. Especially Heaven Hill, whose rick houses are literally on a hill. Maker’s Mark has theirs all over the countryside. But all of them are heavily sun exposed, no shade. I’m a firm believer that different warehouses are magical, and that bourbon aged in one warehouse is simply better than bourbon aged in others. It’s another situation where I’m told it makes no difference, the product is consistent from barn to barn, but my taste buds know different. Those old brick monsters are tucked deep into the nape of the valley, and it seems to me they would only get 3/4 the sun exposure of all other brands as the sun dove behind the hill. What I also noticed was how cool and moisture-saturated the area was. It just seemed like I was in shade everywhere. It was hot and sunny outside, but the road was damp. The grass was damp. The leaves were damp. It was as if Old Crow was built in the center of a dense rain forest, a steamy sauna of the earth’s breath, saving for the fact that the air temperature felt cool. I imagine the interior of those big brick barns was chilly, to say the least. In the winter, would the valley shield and cradle the rickhouses against the Alberta Clippers that come screaming out of Canada, over Lake Michigan, across the frozen desert of northern Indiana and down the I-65 corridor? The barrels, tucked into that warm mist, soaking in the flavors of the landscape, expressing themselves into the whiskey. Cooking down for 8 years. It’s the same process every distiller uses, but with a distinctive, unequaled result.

So how did they do it? At the end of the day, and the end of this pour, I don’t know. Maybe no one does.

And maybe, the mystery of it all and how it sparks our imagination is the secret ingredient…..the real magic in that dusty bourbon.