I am a student of Hemingway. Not in an academic sense, but rather in a way that I allow myself to be moved by his words, and in that, my fascination with the man and his writing and style has grown over time. Seemingly diminutive sentences somehow managed to burst forth with colors, sounds, flavors, scenery and emotions. Some of my earliest interest in bourbon was actually piqued by the way Ernest talked about drinking whiskey with his friends under the buzzing neon glow of the Select, or any number of zinc bars that dotted the grand boulevards or post war Paris. Imagine the pre-prohibition era bourbon he drank back then; It must have been fantastic!!
Of them all, my favorite Hemingway passage comes from his timeless novel, The Sun Also Rises. If you are at all interested in wanton adventure, epic road trips, drinking until your faculties are gone, partying for weeks without pause, living like its your last day on earth and finding the ultimate inner peace with nature, this is the book for you. In particular there is a section having to do with Ernest (Jake in the book) traveling with his buddies high into the Pyrenees mountains of Burguete, in Spain, to fish for trout on the Irati river. I’ve read it so many times it’s as real to me as a personal experience, and even now I can feel the cold mountain stream as I wade in, coming up over my wading gear, the cold water stiffening my joints as I bait the hook with a real worm rather than a lure (leaving me more able to concentrate on tasting bourbon than fishing.) The cold of the water is in direct contrast with the heat of the Spanish sun on my face. I can smell the beautiful fragrance from the myriad of lush mountain flowers in heavy bloom that sway in the constant breeze. I can taste the wild berries that grow in thick bushes along the river bank, plump and juicy, gushing with sugars, waiting to be snacked on, the juice running over the edge of my chin.
By Hemingway’s description (this is my favorite part) there is a mountain spring near the stream, where icy water comes out of a steel pipe into a basin, covered by a couple of old boards. He sinks two bottles of juicy red wine into the basin, and puts the boards back in place. When it’s time for lunch, he goes to retrieve the wine, and says when he plunges his hand in, the water is so cold it goes numb. The day is hot and the wine is icy, the combination of which causes the wine bottles to sweat with heavy drops of cold perspiration. The wine is only average quality, nothing special, but it is cold and cools them off. He and his buddy sit under a large shady tree, talking about their fish, drinking the wine. That’s about as relaxed as I could possibly imagine being. Just spending time with good friends, over a drink that one of them brought along.
And that brings me around to the Four Roses Single Barrel “Captain’s Pick”. I will make a bold statement and say that if Ernest had possessed two bottles of the “Captain’s Pick” rather than the table wine the innkeeper sold them with their lunch, that’s what he would have been drinking. I’ll start off by professing that this is one of the finest OESO’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping. At 10 years, 9 months the age is perfect for me. Another component that speaks to its quality is that numerous palates I know and trust picked and verified this barrel, unanimously.
But it’s even more than that. I don’t drink bourbon just to drink bourbon. I want it to tell me a story, take me on an adventure, move me into quiet relaxing contemplation, similar to the way a Hemingway novel does. The “Captain’s Pick”, to me, is the bourbon embodiment of the fishing tale in The Sun Also Rises.
The nose is crisp and sweet, like biting into a honeycrisp apple on a November morning, and brings to mind the dinner Hemingway had at the inn the night before walking into the mountains. Every facet of flavor I could detect in the five pours I tried were the absolute embodiment of the description of their dining experience. The cold night air penetrating the dining room, such that they could see their breath. The oak panels on the walls, dark and smoky. The wooden bowl full of sweet, ripe wild strawberries. The smoke emanating from the charred woodburning stove in the cook’s kitchen, mixing with the juicy table wine. The nose of the Four Roses is all of this. Its a liquid cold wind, juicy red berries surging, surging, surging. Fresh, fragrant wild flowers filling the room. The aroma of an old oak table sitting close to an open hearth, heating and drying in caramelized decay. I get all of that. I even find a tantalizing component of sweet beech-nut, fresh tobacco.
A quick swirl of the glass to regenerate the juice, and my anticipation of the flavors that will fill my mouth build, like the moment you can see the riffle in the stream swirl and churn, boiling up, knowing a big fish is about to take the bait. Swirl the glass; tug the line. Admire the color; eye the line in the water. Raise the glass to your lips, letting your senses take in the sweet aromatics; feeling the feedback through the line, something taking the bait, you set the hook and fight the big fish in. Bang.
The flavor is just so…confident, and aware of itself (similar to Hemingway’s provacatrix, Lady Brett Ashley). The knockout punch I described before. It’s the absolute forwardness of the berries and wild flowers that have spent their life soaking in the sunshine on top of a mountain, drinking in the clear, crisp water through the soil, which only days before had been locked in a snowy, frozen embrace with the top of the summit. I get a scent of nectar, and imagine it wafting through the air drawing big butterflies and honey bees in to feed. My God, the berries and flowers are so strong and evident. They drown out any trace of the typical “corn”, which can get stale in some bourbons. The sweetness is also a primary color in this painting. A mild hint of cinnamon, mild spice. A touch of honey. More beech-nut as the flavor arc starts over the back side into the finish.
The finish is the shade of the copse of trees near the stream, delivering coolness in the summer. A great place to relax with your friends watching the water roll by as the sun rolls over. It’s still hot, but comfortable, with a minty element that surprised me, cooling itself off, like flavor-shade. There is a hidden semi-sweet toffee component, a little more sweet and spicy tobacco. It transitions seamlessly out of the flavor, burns constant like a match, and peters out with delicious smoke.
Yes, Hemingway would have loved this bourbon. He would have shared it with his friends, in times of happiness and celebration. They would have passed the bottle around a big circle of people, nudging everyone to take a pull, amid cheering and laughter, the clinking of glasses and revelry setting the mood.
Bourbon like this is meant to be shared with good friends and good people, and that was precisely why this one was picked.