Usually, if I had to pick one spirits category to throw shade at, it would be Bourbon. It just so happens that bourbon is also one of the --- if not the most --- popular spirits in the US right now, no thanks to cult bottlings that I won’t name here. (Maybe that’s why it’s so fun to pick on; it’s no longer an underdog.) It’s the cool kid at school right now, overvalued yet underrated, as collectors drive up prices, yet rarely stop to consider what’s in the bottle, where it came from and the people who made it. If I’d walked up to bourbon in the lunchroom a few weeks ago, I’d have said, “whiskey, ya basic.”
But then I went to Louisville to get a look behind the curtain, and found myself warming back up to the spirit like a Kentucky hug. It’s the drink of bootleggers and grandparents. Nothing fancy about it really. The base is simple: corn, rye, barley, sometimes wheat. The charred American oak, imparting its rich color and flavor. Legally, the minute that juice hits the inside of the barrel it can be called bourbon. That means a good producer must have integrity. Whiskey takes time and patience, heat and cold. Standing in a rickhouse, hundreds of barrels aging above your head, the whole things starts to feel more complex. And then of course you have the people who make it.
The charming thing about the folks who are involved in the whiskey business in Kentucky is that they’re proud of what they do, even a simple task like hand labeling a bottle. They also have stories, like any good Southerner. Some of it’s American history, the good and the bad. A haunted building, stones held together with mud and horsehair, supposedly haunted by a long dead colonel. The people who ferried barrels down the Ohio river, connecting with the Mississippi, onward to New Orleans to deliver rye whiskey that would later create the Sazerac cocktail. They left their families for two years, lives always in danger from pirates and marauders.
And Freddy, our tour guide at Buffalo Trace, whose father also worked at the distillery his whole life. Freddy’s dad rolled out a very special milestone barrel of Pappy Van Winkle (I had to say it eventually) the day he retired, shared a bottle with his son and taught him the importance of living in the moment. His dad passed away shortly after. Freddy wanted to pass that message along: to not save things, but to enjoy them in the moment. These are the little stories that made me warm back up to bourbon; the history and the people, every bit --- if not more --- important than the liquid in the glass.
By Nat Harry, Sprits Buyer