Being the season of the witch, I decided to get into the spirit and bring you tales of ghosts, apparitions, and of course one perfect expression of fine vintage bourbon.
To start with, as far back as I can remember I was fascinated by ghosts. Not just ghost stories that kids sit around a camp fire retelling, each time less scary, but the real deal. The full specter apparition.
For example: a few years ago my wife and I were strolling through New Orleans, past the rows of decaying pastel shotguns, through the oaks that stroke the ground in the Congo Square. Our destination: St Louis Cemetery #1, the City of the Dead. A fantastic venue to find potential names for our soon-to-be first born baby.
St Louis #1 is a magnificent site, reputed to be the permanent home of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. For happy souls it’s the final monument of record that details their centuries of life and death. For the restless, wayward soul, it’s less of a cemetery than a hotel. Some inhabitants leave, some stay. Surrounding St Louis #1 is a high wall, 8 feet of white stucco stone, though it’s debatable whether the wall is meant to keep “them” in, or us out. Either way, there is but one entrance. As we made our way along Basin Street we walked behind an older couple, all of us enjoying a warm June day in New Orleans, in no hurry at all. We were a half block or so from the gated entrance of the cemetery, an imposing wrought iron affair, dripping with tears of rusty grime and patina. Silently I hoped it would be open, as I had not checked the hours of entry beforehand. The older couple now just 60 feet or so ahead paused at the gate and then proceeded in. This immediately made me happy; No awkward excuses explaining why I didn’t perform my due diligence. My wife commented that we were looking into the future, that perhaps someday we would be that old couple, strolling hand in hand. As we got to the gate, my eyes, I thought, had to be deceiving me. The big old wrought iron gate stood closed, a physical barrier spanning the stone pillars like a battle hardened sentinel, married to the wall by a massive iron padlock clasping together two ends of thick logging chain, fulfilling its promise to keep the gate closed to all. But, wait. How? Um…. Did I? Did I actually just see that? Did the old couple just walk through a 200 year old wrought iron gate? I stood there, amazed, mystified, and in awe of things I can’t explain. I reached out, took one of the big iron bars in my hand and tugged it as hard as I could. Nothing, not even a creak. I turned to my wife, she being the ultimate skeptic, “Did you see that? I mean, you saw what I just saw, right?” She stayed quiet and I started to repeat the question again when her hand went up and her response, paused and pointed, “Yes, I did. I do not care to discuss this again.”
That’s New Orleans. At that point I demanded that we spend time in pursuit of things a little less paranormal, retreating for dozens of oysters on the half shell and multiple drams of George T Stagg at the Bourbon House.
I sit here typing away with a smile, reliving that moment of spectral shock, the distance between here and hereafter a shorter path than I care to walk.
Now, allow me to wind into this specific story one of the most epic bourbons you could ever hope to sip, a 1987 Old Grand-Dad 8yr Bottled in Bond 100 proof. It’s a National Distillers product, and to me the best of the best from that label. The OGD is also somewhat a ghost of bourbon. It had once existed, been plentiful on the shelf during the days of the glut, and it sat year after dusty year, until one day it had all vanished. Now it makes intermittent appearances, aficionado’s spinning tales about the old distillery and bottle sightings in decrepit old stores, thick with layers of dust and history. Making appearances. Vanishing. Ghosts.
It’s known by various names and memes, and the one you hear so often like other National Distillers offerings is “Butterscotch Bomb”. Well, that’s not far off the mark, and a perfectly acceptable description. But there is so much more to it. The color is golden, my mind’s image of treasure…Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamen’s tomb with a candle, it’s light vanquishing the cursed darkness and reflecting off the decadence, him replying “Wonderful things!” when asked what he saw.
The nose is a pillow of silky, sugary wind. It rises, like a sweet apparition right out of the glencairn into my nose. It’s so gentle and elegant. Butterscotch, yes, so obvious. Soft brown sugars and mild barrel char. And, age. Bourbon is just not made like this anymore. Not that there isn’t amazing bourbon now, there obviously is. There is just nothing like this. Breathing deep, I experience that rush of nostalgia, of being a kid trying to unwrap pieces of Halloween booty. The old lady up the hill that gave out butterscotch discs she had pilfered from some restaurant candy dish. The sugars starting to break down and meld with the wrapper, the way it smelled; sweet nitroglycerin. It’s not complex, but simple in its magnificence. It’s straight forward and hits all the perfect notes. Breathe as hard as you want, because even at 100 proof the alcohol never stings the nose. Ugh, I could smell this for hours. But it beckons me, leads me directly into the sip.
The Old Grand-Dad’s flavor is everything you want bourbon to be. This is the syrup you dream about. This is the flavor that stands up to the nose. It possesses a huge, orbicular, rich mouthfeel. Almost akin to the perfect cup of coffee cut with real cream, and the sweet flavor of butterscotchy caramel drizzled over the top. It’s literally the “every man’s” bourbon. If a mad scientist could process every good bourbon flavor profile and desire into 2oz of brown liquid splendor, it would drip out of the burnt beakers and coiled tubes into his glass in the form of this astonishingly good Old Grand-Dad BiB. Dr. Frankenstein would sip it and throw his hand in the air, screaming “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”
The finish is simply a tidal wash of; you guessed it, butterscotch, with a mild 100 proof sizzle, a gunpowder fuse. It doesn’t linger on and on. It passes silently like a hooded figure, floating legless into the night. Its Halloween candy and I cannot resist the temptation for just one more pour.
If you happen to find a bottle, stashed away in the cupboard of that dilapidated old house on the hill that you were always told was haunted, hang on to it tight, because it will disappear quickly, like that old couple through the gates of the cemetery.