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Among the Bourbon Barons

Drinking Kentucky's best is hard, rewarding work. And so is making it.

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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MAKE NO MISTAKE, I have nothing against wine. When I visit my wife's relatives in Tuscany, I drink their Brunello with an urgency that could be better addressed by an intravenous drip bag. Likewise, I have no quarrel with beer. These six-pack abs didn't build themselves. They're imported--from Milwaukee.

But there is only one drink for which I'll wax purple: bourbon. It is the ideal spirit--1.5 ounces of perfection distilled in an amber elixir (1.5 being Health and Human Service's definition of "one drink"--though in my house, HHS obviously isn't doing the pouring). Bourbon isn't as eager to please as rum, nor is it as buttoned-up as Scotch. Vodka is schizophrenic--by its very definition, it's colorless and odorless, so it takes on all the properties of whatever touched it last. And gin is so, well, ginny.

What that leaves as king of the mountain, in my book, is what Jim Beam's master distiller emeritus Booker Noe calls "Kentucky tea." A good bourbon is the ideal slow-and-steady pick-me-up. First, it bites you with its sweet burn. Then you learn to like it, when your tongue picks off the oaky vanillas and caramels, or perhaps the more subjective flavors of "cedars of Lebanon" or "new-mown grass," at which point, you know you're drunk. Bourbon is the spirit most likely to put you in an easy sipping rhythm with all its attendant benefits: the relaxation and conviviality, the brief waylay in that magically lucid state that resides somewhere between stone-cold sobriety and intoxication.

Walker Percy was a seminal bourbon fan for whom drinking Scotch was akin to "looking at a picture of Noel Coward," a whiskey he said assaulted the senses "with all the excitement of paregoric." Thus he advocated bourbon's analgesic benefits to help Joe Suburbia cope with existential questions such as, "Is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?"

Lest one think Percy was an unrepentant lush, he added: "If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C(2)H(2)OH on the cortex, but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime--aesthetic considerations to which the effect of alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary."

Mark Twain, who harbored no such animus against Scotch (he liked his drinks one way: strong), took a simpler view of bourbon: "Too much is barely enough." So in that Twainian tradition, I jumped at the chance recently to join a Distilled Spirits Council all-expenses paid junket on a bourbon tour of Kentucky. Other, more principled journalists insisted on paying their own way. But after years of racking up Maker's Mark tabs, I believed it was time for the liquor lobby to start giving something back.

In addition to fighting network television discrimination against running distilled spirits ads (there are no restrictions against beer and wine), the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States performs all sorts of invaluable services. They fight against ungodly excise taxes (half of the cost of every bottle of booze purchased is due to taxes). They help us fit in our bikinis with "summer slim-down" suggestions (example: instead of ordering a vodka and cranberry, how about vodka with just a splash of cranberry?). And perhaps most important, through programs such as their "Bourbon Trail" junket, they send thirsty reporters home with lots of keepsakes: bottles of Knob Creek and Russell's Reserve, specially hand-dipped wax bottles of Maker's (featuring red, white, and blue seals, instead of just the traditional red), stainless steel Wild Turkey pocket-flasks--ideal for taking the edge off of football games, horse races, or lengthy editorial meetings.

Though it will disappoint detractors, it should be noted that the Distilled Spirits Council does not promote alcoholism. In fact, they are so insistent about preaching the gospel of drinking responsibly, that they have even teamed up with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And if one delves into their self-imposed "Code of Good Practice For Distilled Spirits Advertising and Marketing," you would likely get the giggles when considering that some regard them as merchants of death (at the risk of my sounding bought and paid for, the medical literature does suggest that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce the chances of getting heart disease and some forms of diabetes).