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).
The code strives "to ensure responsible, tasteful, and dignified advertising"--the last two of which, at least, don't seem to weigh heavily on the beer industry's conscience. Not only does the code go so far as to forbid advertising which contains the name or depiction of Santa Claus, but ads cannot suggest that liquor consumption lends itself to "social, professional, educational, or athletic success," nor can it "depict sexual prowess."
Naturally, any students of advertising might ask, what, then, is left? Well, the heritage pitch--George Washington distilled whiskey--and junkets such as this, which connect bourbon, the most American of spirits (95 percent of bourbons are made in Kentucky) to the very fabric of our society. As I sit at the bar of the elegant Seelbach hotel in Louisville--one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's favorite hotels, until he got thrown out for "inebriated and inappropriate behavior"--I ask Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council one cynical question before completely sacrificing my editorial independence: "C'mon, isn't it in your industry's interest to pitch the product to people of all ages so that consumption increases?"
Coleman, who used to serve as spokesman for former senator Al D'Amato, vigorously shakes his head in disagreement. "If people drink better, rather than drinking more," he says, "we'll make our money anyway." As Frank turns me on to Kentucky Spirit, perhaps Wild Turkey's finest premium product, I resolve to drink better, and more.
Not to give the wrong impression. The entire trip didn't consist of drinking bourbon. We ate bourbon as well. In Bardstown's "Bourbon Bar" at the Old Talbott Tavern, a real live Kentucky colonel offered us his patented chocolate "bourbon balls." As he did so, I made sport of his title, which indicates that he is little more than a Mason without the funny hat or Satanic undertones (Whoopi Goldberg, Carol Channing, and my dad are also certified Kentucky colonels--and my dad's never even been to Kentucky).
At the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, a docent hooks us up with bourbon fudge made by monks at a Kentucky monastery, a fact that would obviously displease Carrie Nation, whose menacing visage adorns the museum wall (her display informs that she not only detested whiskey, but also politics, government, tobacco, and sex).
Of course, we didn't let the eating get in the way of our drinking. As we made our way to distillery after distillery, we picked up all sorts of invaluable information that managed to be interesting, even if it did interfere with our tastings. At the Jim Beam distillery, I had occasion to chat with Booker Noe, a master distiller emeritus, and Jim Beam's grandson. As we sat next to an unlighted fireplace in the T. Jeremiah Beam Home, I nursed a $200-a-bottle Distillers Masterpiece, while Noe stuck with his 125-proof Booker's, a small-batch bourbon he likes so much, he named it after himself.
Even as a 72-year-old Type 2-diabetic, he likes to "have a few poppers a day--it's good for you." Noe defines "a few poppers" as about a pint of Booker's. As he says this, he slugs down the rest of what he's drinking, and calls for his assistant to fill him up with more from the half-empty bottle on the mantle. "This time, put ice in it," he says, though there is none in the vicinity. "Now beer or something like that," he continues, "it's got carbohydrates. But you ferment your grains out, it stimulates you. Therefore, it's the same as exercise, you're heart rate picks up, that's what exercise does. I've been exercising without having to go through the sweat." Alas, the bourbon diet--look out Dr. Atkins.
Over at the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, which is a national historic landmark with its rolling greens and covered bridge, Dave Pickerell, the vice president of production, explains the allure of the destination that requires no explanation. "We're off the beaten path, you don't come here by accident. You've got to decide you're giving a half day of your life to us. But people do. This is Mecca. People come here to see where their whiskey is made--it's a pilgrimage."
At the distillery's tasting, where we sample everything from White Dog (Maker's just off the still, before it has a chance to age in new, charred white-oak barrels--which lends bourbon its color and most of its flavor) to a nine-year-old Maker's that's not even for sale, we are given plastic spit cups to deposit the goods that we are sampling. Pickerell explains why Maker's has such a distinctive taste. It is a softer, sweeter bourbon, the most popular in Kentucky, which results from using winter wheat instead of rye in its mash. Then he tells us that "the last sample can always go the wrong way." But permission, at this point, is unnecessary. My samples had been going the wrong way all along. I return my spitcup to Dave, unused.
We walk around the distillery, watching bottling workers who are required to pass flexibility tests ("We don't want any Lucy Ricardo's on the line," says Pickerell), past the stills, and around the fermentation tanks which contain the Maker's mash that bubbles like a lunar landscape. Afterward, we are treated to a country-ham dinner with Maker's president Bill Samuels Jr.
Samuels is perhaps the foremost character among the bourbon barons. A seventh-generation distiller, he started out as a rocket scientist, a profession he was driven from after one of his experimental rockets crashed through the roof of a building. Known for throwing king-hell Kentucky Derby parties every year at which he is always costumed (this year's theme was Disco Inferno), Samuels possesses an unshakable good cheer, which shows no signs of abatement even after I walk up to the bar--stocked with nothing but Maker's--and ask for a Dewars on the rocks. "Smartass," he cracks.
The single-malt Scotch explosion, which in years past has plagued every yuppie bar in America, hasn't ruffled Samuels. "They are dead," he says wishfully of Scotch distillers. "They are boring. My father always said, 'You can never bore people into buying your product.' And I said, 'Like the single-malt Scotches?' And he said, 'Precisely.' At the time, they looked exactly like the model of seriousity that we should've followed."
Samuels is nothing if un-serious when it comes to peddling his own product. His latest billboard, which he calls a "fiasco," played off the Arthur Andersen/Enron scandal. Appearing ever so briefly in Times Square, the billboard depicted an empty bottle of Maker's Mark, with the slugline: "Disappears faster than a Big Five accounting firm."
"The phone rang off the wall," Samuels says, wincing. "My hair's still singed. I got calls from three of the five CEOs of Big Five accounting firms. I wouldn't say they laughed. Each of them knew of my, well, lack of common sense would be a polite way to put it. But we have a lot of customers in these accounting firms, I didn't think about that."
One thing Samuels has given a great amount of thought to is his mint julep recipe. Juleps, as any Kentuckian knows, are a Derby Day tourist's drink. All that mint and simple syrup gets in the way of the bourbon. Still, every bourbon baron seems to have his own intricate recipe. And Samuels's is rather complicated.
The most important ingredient is a T-shirt for the mint juice extraction. "Do not use a cheesecloth, because it's too porous," instructs Samuels. "You need to wash a T-shirt, but don't use a new one." The first thing you do is get a bowl, and pour some Maker's Mark in it. After gathering fresh-cut spearmint leaves, with stalks removed, marinate them in the bowl, then place the leaves in the T-shirt, and just "wring hell out of them," says Samuels. It is better to use mint extract, instead of putting the mint in your julep, in order to "eliminate solid particles because it will continue to marinate and throw the drink out of balance." Then take 3 1/2 parts Maker's Mark to one part simple syrup (one part granulated sugar, one part water) and add the mint extract to taste.
Over at the Wild Turkey distillery in Bourbon County, master distiller Jimmy Russell has an entirely different take on the "perfect mint julep." Russell has been making bourbon since 1954, and on the industry's scale of respectability, he is revered somewhere between God and Jesus. Under a white tent pitched in a pasture on the Wild Turkey distillery grounds, Russell imparts his secret mint julep recipe after we've tasted all his products.
"To make the perfect mint julep," Russell intones, "You have to have a sterling silver mint julep cup, and 200 milliliters of Wild Turkey 101 proof. You got to shave the ice in that mint julep cup--you don't want to put it in crushed. Then you go down to the spring where the fresh mint's growing, and early that morning, you take eight to ten leaves of the fresh mint. You put it in, you mash it up to get the juice, then you take about a teaspoon of powdered sugar and enough water to dissolve it. Let it sit for about ten minutes, so you get the sweetness of the mint flavor. Then you strain it into your shaved ice. You take a sprig of mint, with all the leaves, and stick it down into the cup, ice and all."
At this point, all of us journalists are writing scrupulously, eager to impress our friends at our next Kentucky Derby party, which even the non-horse-racing enthusiasts among us are now planning on throwing. "At that point," Russell continues, "you walk to the back of your porch, throw it all away, and drink the 101 Wild Turkey straight," he says, as we all stop scribbling. "Did you get all that down?"
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.