Thomas Jefferson hated what he referred to as “the poison of whiskey” and remarked “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
It should be noted that Jefferson was always kind of a supercilious jerk. If you check in with the original Founding Father, George Washington, you get a different story. By the year he died, Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon was producing 11,000 gallons of American whiskey (rye, to be exact), earning him a profit of $7,500 — roughly 130,000 modern dollars.
Ironically, it was whiskey magnate Washington’s crackdown on the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 that drove Scotch-Irish rebels west into the new state of Kentucky where they began to make the corn-based whiskey so distinctive to the United States. Pioneered in Bourbon County, the drink took on the name we give it today.
Fast forward 215 years, and move from the rebel stills of Kentucky to the loading dock of Zipp’s Liquors in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. Bottles of bourbon cover a card table, intermixed with a couple bottles of water for dilution of the cask-strength stuff and refreshment of the palate. They range from bottom-of-the-shelf to vintage to single barrel warehouse samples.
Seated at the table are Craig Drehmel (right), wine rep and Gastro Non Grata co-founder, and Tyler Anderson (top), beer and liquor manager at Zipp’s.
NORTON: Thanks for having me here. Two initial questions that you can tackle however you want. First: Why this particular spread of bottles? What are you expecting we’ll learn by the end of this tasting?
Secondly: What’s the appeal of bourbon…? Why do people get so excited about it as opposed to, say, single malt Scotch?
DREHMEL: Whiskey is one of those spirits that can be familiar and disconcerting at the same time. I don’t fancy myself a whiskey expert, per se, but I do know that I really like to drink it and I’ve done a little studying on the subject. What attracts me most is the value that whiskey presents, even the cheap stuff must spend at least three years in new oak and corn must be used for at least 51% of any blend, with the rest of the blend being made up of rye or wheat.
We’ve assembled these bottles to show you the wide, never-ending world of bourbon, from a decent quality, inexpensive bourbon like Old Charter 8 year to the rarefied air of George T. Stagg and Parker’s Heritage Collection. What I’m hoping you learn from this tasting, James, is that bourbon can blow your mind.
As for the appeal of bourbon, I think it does attract a certain crowd, but then again so does cognac, rum, beer, and cupcakes. With the advent of the interweb, everyone’s an expert until Wikipedia says different.
What I really like about bourbon is the history, backwood stills, white lightning, and the birth of stock car racing. The legends of bourbon history range from past presidents to guys who spent a lot of time behind bars. It’s something for the everyman and the overbearing knucklehead alike.
It’s just too bad that the spirits industry has turned into a few gigantic corporate liquor concerns that own hundreds of various national brand names. Amongst your flavor of the month rapped-about brand, these liquor holding companies also own a few recognizable bourbon brands that once had pedigree and a story to tell and now they’re just slapping labels on bottles or are being slickly marketed with pomegranate-blueberry flavoring and / or a correlating energy-drink / wine cooler line to cross-promote.
NORTON: What’s remarkable about it from my perspective — beyond the American pedigree — is how subtle a spirit it can actually be. I don’t think it gets its due in terms of the complexity and flavor that lives within even a typical decent bottle of the stuff.
Take this Michter’s small batch, for example. I’m getting rose… plum… some kind of funky florals, maybe chrysanthemum… and a butterscotch finish. I didn’t catch the butterscotch on my first taste, but you say it, and, wow. It’s there.
My own experience with bourbon has been really limited — Maker’s Mark on the rocks (a great go-to drink — almost impossible to screw up) and in mint juleps, and Bulleit for around-the-house casual drinking.
Tell me about some of the more unusual bottles we’ve got here — the Ancient Ancient Age 10 Star, for example. Or this Parker’s Heritage Collection cask strength, which is almost red wine-y — oaky and fruity.
DREHMEL: Well, the Ancient Ancient Age 10 star (45.5%) is one of my favorites, if only because of the name. Once isn’t enough; it was so nice they named it twice as old. Regular Ancient Age is not-much-to-write-home-about swill juice, but with Ancient Age Squared, you get some quality. There’s a lot of vanilla extract in the nose, but the sweetness runs out in the middle and makes the finish strong and hard. This would be OK to mix with, but drinking it straight isn’t very pleasurable.
We’ll get to the Parker Heritage later, but I want to talk about this bottle of I.W. Harper 130 month (43%) Barrel Decanter bottle I liberated from a little hole in the wall dirt store a while back. This I’m excited for. I’ve read you can’t find this bourbon outside of Japan these days and hasn’t been available in the US since about 1994. This stuff just tastes right, rich, medium-toasty nose that leads into a fruity mid-palate and a back end that opens up and finishes fine.
NORTON: You scratch the surface of bourbon and a lot of good stuff comes to light. Or interesting stuff, at any rate. So, we’ve got these three little bottles of Buffalo Trace sitting here. Each one of these is exactly the same bourbon, right…? Except that each is from a different part of the warehouse? What kind of difference can that make on a final product?
Because I got to say, tasting these, none is quite like the next. They’re definitely unique flavor profiles. Personally, I’m digging this one from barrel #48 — kind of piney taste, plus brownies. There’s a campfire in there somewhere, too.
DREHMEL: On the final product, it’s not going to make much difference since Buffalo Trace has master blenders who work with hundreds of barrels of whiskey to create a continuous flagship flavor profile year in and year out. Luckily, Buffalo Trace and a few other distillers allow retailers like Zipp’s to buy a single barrel of whiskey, unblended and totally unique.
Yet they were made with the exact same recipe and stored in the same warehouse. They all follow a thread of some minor things in common, but each has a distinctive nose, character, and expression of its own, something to do with humidity levels in the warehouse, air pressure, and hobo magic…
Buffalo Trace #48 — I’m getting a lot of cloves and cinnamon in the nose of this one. Bright, earthy fruits, reminiscent of spice cake. The finish is bright and herbal with a nice linger.
Buffalo Trace #43 — More of a darker, fruitcake aroma in the nose, a much broader mid-palate with an easier, down-home finish. This one is a great example of power and finesse.
NORTON: That one had a sour punch to it, as I taste it — probably the “fruitcake” note that you’re getting.
DREHMEL: Buffalo Trace #45 – The nose here is the least impressive of the three, more of a medium, earthy tone and dirty in a bad way in the finish. Blah, that should just go in the blend.
Luckily, Tyler at Zipp’s made the same decision as us and bought the barrel of Buffalo Trace #43 and should get about 30 cases of it in stock in the coming months.
Next up is my favorite dessert in a bottle, the Old Charter 13. They stopped making it over a decade ago, and I may just dedicate my alcoholic life to finding random bottles all across the country and then finally, the world.
NORTON: That seems like a worthwhile quest. This stuff is really gorgeous — it’s got a sense of balance that may be the best of anything we’ve tasted… a bit of spice and dryness to it. It would go beautifully both with dessert and as dessert. Its pending extinction is a real shame.
DREHMEL: It is extinct; there are just a few bottles laying around the country that don’t know it yet. I drink waaayy to much of this stuff. Let’s move on to to these other tipples.
This Parker’s Heritage (63.7%) was barreled in 1996 and has a great, big, dirty snoutful of Copenhagen snuff that runs up the nose and down the throat. This is a power bourbon if there ever was one. Rich, dark, overwhelming, Parker takes you right over the top of everything else. Or so I thought until this bottle of George T. Stagg (72.4%) ambled out of the bottle and into my tumbler. This stuff is regarded as one of the best bourbons available and for good reason. Leather and spice are within the nose, but there’s a subtleness there that hides the copious amount of alcohol hidden within. There’s a brightness that tickles the top of your mouth, followed by a slow, dangerous, numbing quality that paralyzes half of the esophagus. Now I know how surgery was performed before anesthesia.
NORTON: Any preconceived notions — and I had a few — about bourbon being one-note have been forever dispelled by this. The difference just among the Buffalo Trace barrel samples was staggering, to say nothing of the brand-to-brand variances we picked up.
DREHMEL: Bourbon is a beautiful thing. It’s a pretty simple recipe, just grain, wood, and hopefully lots of time before bottling. One thing to remember is that lots of these specialty bottlings came from barrels whose first destiny was to be a fairly inexpensive whiskey. There was just something the blenders found in them that really made them stand out from all the others. And rather than try to figure out why, I just like to drink ’em and leave the rest up to alchemy and magic. If it gets too technical, I just get confused. Next time you’re in Kentucky, hug a master blender.
If anyone out there wants to hear a real bourbon dork spew crazy booze facts, just head on over to Zipp’s on Franklin and ask for Tyler. He can unload so much knowledge on you in 15 minutes, you’ll wonder why you ever bought Jack Daniels before.
NORTON: Thanks to you and Tyler for taking me (and, less directly, Heavy Table readers) on this tour. I’m off to Pizza Luce. On foot.