The Art of Bourbon…(Bottles)

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             (painting by Claudia Hammer; claudiahammer.blogspot.com)

We all know there is a beautiful yet scientific process to making bourbon.  It is an art form really. The artist, or the master distiller in our case, must have a clear idea of the finished work before he or she begins. They must achieve the desired product from the medium and palate of their trade. The different grain combinations that make up the mash bill, the perfect yeast strain for fermentation, whether to pot still or not to pot still, the char level of the barrels and of course the length of the aging process are all aspects in the design that must be considered in order to create their finest work of art. We know this and, of course, we get to imbibe the fruits of their labor with each beautifully crafted bottle.

But what about that bottle? Not what’s inside the bottle, but the actual bottle. It’s the first thing you see on the shelf, right? It’s what captivates your sense of sight well before the contents inside can quench your thirst. For many, the process of selecting a bourbon (unless you are drawn specifically to the taste of your preferences) starts with the packaging. It’s advertisement in it’s basic form. For the Bourboneer, the more the bottle looks like old west canteen, flask or flagon, promising some medicinal value the better. In my anomalous mind, I rationalize such curative comparisons as being healthy and something that’s “healthy for you.” I mean if it’s in a medicine bottle there has to be a therapeutic benefit…right? Of course, there does! (see my past article: “What Bourbon Can’t Cure, There is No Cure For”). The art of the bottle, whether you realize it or not, has a lot to do with, subconsciously for some, the process of selecting a bourbon. The creativity in the packaging is sometimes lost on offerings from larger distilleries. There is less of a need for the wow factor because their product is a house hold name and has stood the test of time. But some of the smaller and even boutique distilleries have done their homework in conceptual design to get their product noticed. Their bottles hook the consumer and the bourbon either reals them in or releases them back into the market. In this age of bourbon growth and enlightenment, distilleries often just need to get their foot in the door (or bourbon in the mouth) to make their place in the glorious world of brown water.

Here are some perfect examples of how the packaging, the bottle itself, recalls an age of a simple, more independent, yet lawless time in ‘Merica!

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American Barrels Bourbon

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Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon

cooperstown bourbon

Cooperstown Bourbon

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Tin Cup American Whiskey

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Lusty Claw Bourbon

 

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Bulleit Frontier Whiskey

 

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Angel’s Envy Bourbon

 

Obviously there are numerous others and the thrust of the matter is clearly subjective. But no matter how creative and unique the design of the bottle, we all know it’s what’s inside that truly counts. The looks can only carry entire package so far, then substance, both literally and figuratively, must sustain the rest. Which is why, for the Bourboneer, there is nothing more aesthetically and delectably pleasing than my personal favorite, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon. I mean just take at a look at her exquisite beauty. So incredibly smart, seductive, chic, can carry the conversation and tastefully refined to boot! Man I am thirsty!

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So the next time you’re in a liquor store or spirit shop, take a moment to look down the bourbon aisle as if you were at a gallery. Wonder at the many artistic renderings. Gaze at the nuances of the label, the embossed or etched glass, the unusual shapes and sizes. Pay respect to accoutrement and the regalia of each offering. Where does it take you? Then once you find out, snap out of it already and buy the stinkin’ bottle! What’s wrong with you!?! Its a just a glass bottle filled with bourbon. Take it home and drink it!

-The Bourboneer

 

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Blanton’s Original Single Barrel Bourbon KSBW, 46.5% ABV or 93 proof (NAS), Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfurt, Ky.

Bourbon…It’s What’s with Dinner.

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With summer fast approaching, less than a month away actually (June 21), it’s the perfect time to discuss your menu and what food you should be pairing while sipping your favorite bourbon. Summer fare presents such a delicious diversity when it comes to enhancing your bourbon drinking experience. Savory, smoky meats, creamy appetizers and indulgent desserts make summer gatherings such a target-rich environment for all types of bourbon.

For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the classic summer outing…the cookout (or the backyard barbecue). The cookout truly defines what is delicious and All-American about our summers. Hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, chicken, fish, corn on the cob, all sorts of salads, chips and dip (salsa), pies, and of course ice cream. The list is endless depending on your preferences. But what about accentuating those wonderful foods while imbibing on some scrumptious brown water? Sure beer, wine, soda and lemonade are time-honored and popular summer staples, but they do very little to intensify your summer nosh. You need to add bourbon to your summer spread. That’s right…bourbon! And I don’t want to hear how you think bourbon stands in stark contrast to what you consider appetizing, refreshing and delicious to what you’re used to drinking. First off, stop thinking! Secondly, and more importantly, bring your attitude way down, your curiosity and “All-American can do spirit” way up and pay attention.

There is nothing more appropriate or patriotic for your cookouts than bourbon. It’s produced from indigenous grains, distilled by U.S companies and aged in american oak barrels. It’s protected by law and is our country’s native spirit. So you can wrap Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day even Flag Day and every day in between in your summer cookout festivities and bourbon has you covered. Here’s how.

Typically, there are three categories of bourbon: traditional, high-rye and wheated. Each possess a different mash bill to create their specific flavor profile. Traditional bourbons are generally distilled from an average of about 70-75% corn, 10-15% rye, 10-15% barley. These bourbons include labels such as Jim Beam (white label), Evan Williams (black label), Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Traditional bourbons are smooth and can compliment both spicy and sweet foods. High-rye bourbons obviously have an increased rye content, about 25-35% on average. They have a spicier palate than the traditional and wheated bourbons. These labels include Bulleit, Basil Hayden and Four Roses Single Barrel. Because of their spice notes, high-rye bourbons offset heavier, rich or sweeter foods. Lastly, we have the wheated bourbons. These bourbons, which include Makers Mark, Weller and Larceny average anywhere from 16-20% wheat and no rye what so ever. With the absence of rye and a higher wheat content the palate is generally smoother and sweeter, working well with spicier fare. Oh, the alcohol content or proof also plays an important role in the pairing process as well. Lower proof bourbons pair better with lighter fare and higher proof selections pair better with heavier, fattier and sweeter foods.

So then what type of bourbon goes best with what type of cookout food?

Traditional 80-90 proof bourbons aged 4+ years: Jim Beam (white label), Evan Williams (black label), Wild Turkey 81, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig Small Batch. Ancient Age, Blanton’s, Benchmark 8, Four Roses Yellow Label.

  • White meat chicken, fish (salmon, rockfish, cod)  shellfish (crab, lobster, clams, oysters, mussels), nuts (pecans, walnuts), creamy appetizers (cheese dips and guacamole) and fruits (apples, watermelon) vegetables (corn on the cob), desserts (chocolate, cheesecake, apple pie and ice cream).

The Bourboneer’s choice: Blantons (although Blantons has a slightly higher proof it pairs well with everything!)

High-Rye 86+ proof bourbons aged 5+ years: Bulleit, Four Roses Small Batch, Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden (although this bourbon is only 80 proof).

  • Ham, pork loin, pork BBQ ribs, pork hot dogs, dark meat chicken, duck, mild sweet chili and cornbread.

The Bourboneer’s choice: Bulleit

Wheated 90-100 proof bourbons aged 5+ years: Makers Mark, Makers Mark 46, Weller, Larceny, Van Winkle (all), Old Fitzgerald, Parker’s Heritage Collection.

  • Hamburgers, BBQ brisket, steak, cheese burgers, spicy foods (jambalaya, chili, brats, chorizo, kielbasa, Italian suasage), cured meats (salami), savory meats (bacon, beef BBQ, beef hot dogs), dried fruits (dates, apricots), aged cheeses (Gouda, cheddar).

The Bourboneer’s choice: Larceny

When pairing your bourbon with your cookout selection its important to drink it neat, with a few drops of fresh water or with an ice cube. From personal experience, I find using ice actually works better. As the ice melts, it cuts the alcohol burn and opens up the flavor profile of your bourbon. Not to mention, an ice cold drink on a summer’s day is much more refreshing. Bourbon cocktails and mixed drinks are always delicious but they don’t pair as well with food. I am  not saying not to enjoy them, by all means, but if you desire to accentuate your cookout eating/drinking experience try your bourbon neat or with ice. Use the pairing suggestions above to help navigate your way. Understand that these recommendations are from what I have learned over my many years of drinking bourbon and that your personal preferences may be different. Don’t let that distract you from expanding your pairing experiences. Ultimately, if bourbon is your drink of choice, no matter what you enjoy eating, then you’re on the right path.

Enjoy your bourbon summer and, of course, enjoy your Memorial Day. Never forget those who sacrificed everything so we can enjoy the freedom we have today.

-The Bourboneer

 

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Evan Williams – American Hero Edition, 43% ABV or 86 proof, NAS, Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY.

References: The Gentlemanual: “Eat This: Bourbon and Food Pairings” (on-line) Becca Stonebreaker.

 

The Battle of Little Big Corn

Over the last several months I have acquired two new bourbon labels. My brother gifted me a 375 ml bottle of Reservoir Bourbon as a Christmas present and rather recently a good friend of mine surprised me with a 375 ml bottle of V5 bourbon left on my doorstep when I returned from work. Both were very thoughtful and unexpected offerings and both were rather new labels to my modest knowledge of bourbon. New but not completely unfamiliar.  I actually sampled Reservoir at a bourbon and beer festival in Fredericksburg, Va., back in 2016 (see my past article Commence au Festival) however, never enjoyed a dram. As far as Smoky Quartz Distillery’s V5 bourbon, I had only recently read about it’s arrival on the bourbon scene. So, like any inquisitive Bourboneer, I went to school on the matter. I needed more information. I needed some history and of course I needed a private tasting to see what each had to offer.

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After a little research, I realized that both Reservoir and V5 bourbons were perfect candidates for a taste comparison. Not just any comparison, more like a North vs. South, blue vs. gray, good old fashion American “mine is better than yours” taste comparison. I’ll explain why momentarily, but what made this observation categorically perfect was that both bourbons were produced from the same exact mash bill: 100% corn. The similarities didn’t end there. Both bourbons are considered to be “small batch”, both are aged for only 12-24 months in small 5-15 gallon charred oak barrels as opposed to the standard 53 gallon barrels and both were produced from locally sourced corn. This was setting up to be a heavy weight test of labels. One for the ages. Ok, that was a bit dramatic, but the similarities were prime for an epic battle. The differences, however, were what made this taste comparison a war of home town pride and territorial dominance. Still too dramatic?

Here is the battlefield review (fight card):

  • Representing the blue corner (North): Smoky Quartz Distillery’s V5 Bourbon Whiskey
  • Tale of the Tape: Seabrook, New Hampshire Bourbon Whiskey, 45% ABV or 90 proof, Aged 14 months, Year – 2017, Batch – 7, Bottle – 1230. “Veteran Owned and Operated”, 2016 New York International Spirits Gold Medal winner, 2017 Distillery of the Year.
  •  Nose: Vanilla, heavy corn (obviously), candy corn, honey, definite grassy notes.
  •  Taste: Tons of corn, vanilla, cherry cola, grass or grain and oak. Quick hot finish.
  • Representing the gray corner (South): Reservoir Distillery’s Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey
  • Tale of the Tape: Richmond, Virginia Bourbon Whiskey, 50% ABV or 100 proof, Aged 24 months (a straight bourbon whiskey), Year – 2017, Batch – 5, Bottle 126, “The Capitol of the South”, 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Double Gold Medal winner, 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Silver Medal winner, 2016 New York Wine and Spirits Gold Medal winner, 2016 New York International Spirits Silver Medal winner.
  • Nose: Corn (of course), vanilla, cinnamon toast, slight gingerbread notes.
  • Taste: Candy apple, candy corn, some cherry highlights, buttery. Long hot finish.

Decision: This was clearly a split decision based solely on my flavor profiles. We all know that heavy corn bourbons will be sweet to the tongue. Reservoir and V5 are no exceptions. Such offerings are generally much sweeter than traditional, wheat and especially rye heavy bourbons. However, both labels were quite delicious, not cloyingly sweet and certainly worth drinking over and over (special thanks to my brother and good friend). So it boils down to a personal taste preference. I think the grassy notes in the V5 bourbon were the difference. It’s a new taste and nose for me. Not one I am accustomed to. I think if I had experienced a longer history with such notes the outcome may have been different. The Reservoir edges past the V5 in the final review but it was incredibly close. If I had to use a Civil War battle to best describe the taste comparison between Reservoir and V5 it would have to be Antietam:  All out, close in and bloody campaign, numerous casualties (empty shot glasses). Considered a northern (blue) victory (by the numbers) yet southern forces (gray) showed toughness and were ready and willing to fight again.

No matter my preference, I’d definitely recommend both of these smaller distillery, corn bourbons for your bar. If you have the opportunity to get your hand on either of these bourbons I’d strongly encourage you to grab one. If you can get a hold of both, perform your own taste test and let me know your results. Enjoy.

-The Bourboneer

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article:V5 Bourbon Whiskey, 45% ABV or 90 proof, Aged 14 months. Smoky Quartz Distillery, Seabrook, NH.

‘Red Liquor’

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In 17th century colonial America, rum was the dominant distilled spirit. It was rather easily produced from molasses which came from an abundant Caribbean sugarcane supply. Boston, was the first city in the colonies to distill rum and it was extremely popular. Rum was America’s original distilled spirit one could easily argue. That’s right, despite knowing that bourbon being the federally protected and distinctive American spirit in the 20th century, It wasn’t always that way. Rum was technically first to be produced and consumed in our country. And as The Bourboneer, I have no problem with that. Brandy, which is distilled from fermented fruit, was also very popular. Peach and pumpkin specifically were the most consumed. Pumpkin!?! Ew! Now I do have a problem with that. In no form does that sound appetizing at all.

It wasn’t until the influx of Scottish and the Irish immigrants, in the late 17th century, that whiskey began to take hold in America. There were issues however. Our soil wasn’t very hospitable for the growing of whiskey’s main ingredient, barely. There just wasn’t much of it around. Corn, on the other hand, was everywhere. There was so much corn that once it was harvested the colonists couldn’t consume or sell all of it. Unfortunately much of the crop was susceptible to decomposition and couldn’t be used. Possessing the knowledge of making whiskey, the colonist found it much more beneficial to distill the unused supply of corn instead of watching rot. Ingenious! The corn whiskey could be stored almost indefinitely and of course became a very lucrative endeavor.

As America’s population continued to increase, thirst for the new corn whiskey naturally followed suit. In order to keep up with demand, methods for storing and transporting the whiskey became a priority. Barrels hewn from the bountiful supply of American oak became the custom of choice used to ship the whiskey. Now using barrels was not a new method of storage, not at all, but it was new for the purpose of storing and transporting whiskey. Barrels that held other products like fish or salted meat were often reused to save money. Why spend the money to make new barrels when you could reuse old barrels once used to store other things. However, before the whiskey could be poured into the barrel, the barrel had to be cleaned and free of potential contaminants. Burning or charring the inside of the barrels was the cheapest and most effective method of sterilization. Clearly, there was not a huge demand for a ‘fishy’  palate in the new whiskey. Can’t say I blame them. Now a pork belly (bacon) aftertaste in a whiskey, specifically bourbon…mercy! I might as well have died and crossed over to glory. But I am getting ahead of myself. My apologies.

What soon became very noticeable to whiskey drinking Americans was that their favorite booze, after being removed from the charred barrel, now had color. It was no longer clear. In the barrel, the once colorless corn whiskey absorbed the characteristics from the charred wood and took on a light brown or red color. The properties of the whiskey also became more purified and possessed less bite and less of a sour or acrid taste. This new ‘red liquor’ understandably became a sensation and laid the groundwork from which bourbon got it’s start. The story behind how bourbon got its name, however, is one of lore and for another time. I promise I will write about it soon.

It’s no coincidence today that bourbon color profiles are commonly described as a gradient of the color red. Look at any bourbon review and you will see tone descriptors such as russet, mahogany, burnt umber, amber, chestnut, auburn, tawny and red gold. Red is a powerful color commonly associated with emotion, power, desire, pioneering spirit, ambition and leadership. Sounds perfectly American if you ask me. It’s no wonder why we love our bourbon so much even if on sometimes subconscious levels not commonly realized. Bourbon has redeeming qualities such as character, bourbon can stand alone without mixing, it’s sweet, it’s spicy, it’s full-bodied and is as ‘red’ blooded American as guns, pick-up trucks and BBQ. Can’t say that about vodka. Can’t say anything about vodka really, well nothing positive anyway.

So the next time you pour yourself a glass of bourbon, hold it up to the light and remember the ingenuity, albeit by happenstance, that made our early whiskey blush enough to become what we now refer to as our distinctive American spirit.

-The Bourboneer

 

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Belle Meade SBW, 45.2% ABV or 90.4 proof, Aged 5.5 – 7.5 years. Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, TN.

References: Whiskey A Very Peculiar History: “Meanwhile in America…” Fiona McDonald. Salariya Book Co., Ltd 2011.

A Resolution

If you’re like me, you love to walk into a new liquor store and gaze wide-eyed down the aisles stocked full of glistening bottles (of bourbon particularly). It’s a rush for the senses. All those choices. The anticipation. What’s new? What’s marked down? What will entice my palate today? Is this a day for multiple purchases or merely a reconnaissance mission for future visits? Clearly, it’s more than an errand for me. It’s an event!

With joy abounding what could pull the plug on my excitement and drain the hopes of such an anticipated shopping experience?…Bullet-proof, plexi-glass vault style enclosures! That’s right these…

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Look, I completely understand why these obnoxious partitions are in place. I get it…they serve the purpose of safety, security and the protection of merchandise. However, they are, in my opinion, an eyesore and a bit ridiculous. Granted, I’ve not seen such an array (above) in any of the liquor stores near me but I did have the unfortunate experience of patronizing a store, locally, that had all of their spirits behind the counter and, yes, behind bullet-proof glass. The wine and mixers were out in the open for all to peruse, but the good stuff was behind the intimidating plexi-glass wall of doom.  Dumbfounded and taken aback I pondered “Where am I?…What is going on around here?” I actually became obstinate. “How dare they?”  Don’t they know that I can’t shop in such an environment. It’s unfortunate that even in semi-rural Maryland such precautions need to be in place.

You see, I can’t just gaze at my bourbon through a hazy plastic wall. Much like a bibliophile needs to hold a book in his hands, feel the thickness of each page, I need to hold the bottle, feel it’s weight, pore over the label. By no means do I want to continually request the clerk to hand me a different bottle every five minutes because I can’t make up my mind. Most of the time there is a language barrier and, to no fault of their own, they have no clue on how to be helpful in answering any of my questions, should I have any. Frankly the whole process is annoying and I am not the only one who thinks so.

In 2017, a Philadelphia councilwoman introduced a bill requiring the complete removal of the bullet-proof glass partitions from beer-liquor-deli establishments in the city. The councilwoman cited “we want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through a plexi-glass only in certain neighborhoods.” Good for her! I agree totally. And her use of the word indignity is spot on. That’s how I felt. However, her bill has been met with much backlash…and I see why. As I mentioned before, those partitions are there for a purpose. Those stores provide a service to their communities and the partitions provide a continuance of the stores ability to serve their communities. But it doesn’t mean that I have to like it or support it.

So, my resolution is to simply not patronize the establishments that armor up with these bullet proof partitions. Honestly, this is not a referendum on the stores in particular, it’s more of a preference for my sake moving forward. I am The Bourboneer and I clearly have a problem (more of a specific taste) when it comes to buying bourbon. But I’d be willing to believe that most of you who love bourbon as I do, would care to only visit those establishments who don’t segregate their spirits from their consumers. Am I wrong?

Anyway, happy new year and may you partake in your favorite spirit (as long as its bourbon) from any establishment you’d like. I am just here to offer my beliefs and recommendations as The Bourboneer. God bless!

-The Bourboneer

Bourbon enjoyed while writing this article: Jim Beam Distiller’s Cut, 50% ABV or 100 proof, Aged 5-6 years. James Beam Distilling Co., Clermont, KY.

References: Daily Wire:“Philadelphia City Council Votes In Favor Of Looking Into Banning Bullet-Proof Barriers From ‘Beer Deli’ Stores in Dangerous Neighborhoods.” Frank Camp, , December 15, 2017.