Even though my blog is named Bourbon Tales, I have never written a blog about bourbon, until now. I have in recent years become a bourbon aficionado, or as some might say a bourbon snob. After a long military career where I lived in the north, south, east and west I settled down at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and reconnected with my family and Kentucky heritage. I decided to embrace my native state and everything Kentuckian, and soon was traversing across central Kentucky visiting our world-famous distilleries via the Bourbon trail, and learning about the artisan craft of making fine bourbon.
But my relationship with whiskey started much earlier, at the tender age of 15. After my Freshmen year in high school I was invited to an overnight camp out party and in typical rural Kentucky high school fashion the alcohol was flowing. One friend had acquired a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, (which is not bourbon), and we decided to mix it with red cool-aid, because when you were 15 that sounded like a good idea.
That was the first of several poor decisions. Today, as an official bourbon connoisseur, I find the thought of mixing a fine whiskey with cool-aid a despicable act, and a total waste of a well-crafted distillation, but at 15 it made the whiskey go down much easier. Too easy in fact. I had one, then another, and another. I am not sure how many I had in total, but it was too many. After an hour or so everything started getting blurry, the trees started to spin, and the camp fire sparkled like the fourth of July. At some point later in the night I awoke, rubbed the leaves off my face, and was freezing cold. I vaguely remembered that I had brought a brown sleeping bag with me, but it was nowhere to be found. I stumbled through the campground in a heavily intoxicated state, careful not to step on my fellow campers, looking for my brown sleeping bag, calling out through the night, “has anyone seen my sleeping bag, it’s brown.” But no one said a word.
The trees started spinning again so I laid back down on the ground and mercifully passed out. The next morning, I awoke with a splitting headache, but I did find my brown sleeping bag. Sammie Carr, a star of our basketball team and class clown, was sleeping snugly inside it. I was furious, but my head hurt too much to make a scene. Every time I saw him the following sophomore year he would call out “Its Brown” and crack up laughing. It took me 10 years to forgive him.
Later in college I took a liking to Jim Beam white label, which could be bought for $9.99 a bottle at the time. It was in fact a decent cheap liquor, but I wouldn’t touch the stuff now, even as a mixer. But back in my poor college days it was my drink of choice and went fine with Sprite. I snuck a flask of it into the Kentucky football games, and had a few mixers before half time, which was needed my Freshmen year when Kentucky went 0-10-1. I think the lone tie was with the Sisters of the Poor school for underprivileged kids. During my Junior year I began collecting the empty bottles and lining them up on a ledge in my dorm room, like any good college student would do.
One forgettable night I was stood up on a date and preceded to smash all of the bottles against the dorm room wall. It was quite possibly one of the most immature things I have ever done, so now I turn my empty bourbon bottles into lamps, so they can live a long and productive existence.
But back to how I became a bourbon snob. Upon getting stationed back near Kentucky at Wright-Patterson AFB I decided to visit the bourbon trail in central Kentucky. The bourbon trail is similar to Napa valley and the wine country in California, only you sip bourbon instead of a fine Cabernet or Chardonnay. Each distillery has their own heritage and story to tell, and each claim to have something unique that makes their bourbon special. It could be a top secret yeast that they’ve been preserving since the ice age, guarded in a vault protected by a pack of german shepherds. Or a unique mashbill, which are the grains used to distill whiskey. Bourbon, by U.S. law has to be 51 percent corn, after that it’s a mixture of rye, wheat and occasionally some barley. Wheated bourbon has a high content of wheat in the mashbill and is typically milder. Maker’s Mark being the most famous wheated bourbon, but if you want to shell out the big bucks and be a real bourbon snob you can go for Pappy Van Winkle, the grand daddy of wheated bourbons. The 20 year-old Pappy’s typically sells for around $2000 a fifth on the black market, the 23 year-old goes for around $3000. In 2013 it was discovered that 200 hundred bottles of Pappy’s had disappeared from the distillery, in what became known as Pappygate.
I myself thought it was just a brilliant marketing scheme, but then arrests were made in 2015, and in 2017 the ring leader pled guilty. The real tragedy to this saga was that the evidence (barrels and bottles of high-end bourbon) may have to be destroyed. Talk about an injustice.
Other distilleries have their claim to fame as well. Woodford Reserve triple distills their bourbon in old fashion copper stills, Four Roses has the super-secret yeast, Jim Beam is the world’s #1 producer, Maker’s Mark dips their bottle in red wax, yada, yada, yada. The average American couldn’t differentiate between Jim Beam White label and Pappy’s if they didn’t see the label.
The first step in visiting a distillery is going on their tour. Each tour is again a little bit unique. Maker’s Mark actually lets you put your finger in the beer, which is what they call the mixture of yeast and the grains when it is cooking.
My favorite part of the tour is walking through the rick houses, which is where the bourbon is aged. The rick houses have this lovely aroma wafting about that smells like heaven, or how I envision heaven would smell. It’s a sweet, oaky, vanilla-like aroma that is intoxicating. I swear if one of the cosmetic companies could duplicate this heavenly aroma in a perfume they would sell out instantly. I would in fact run out and buy a case just for me. Unfortunately, I would likely attract middle aged bourbon snobs like myself, or the town drunk. In the rickhouse this aroma is alcohol vapors floating in the air as the bourbon in the barrels slowly evaporates. This seepage is called the Angel’s share because it drifts upwards to the heavens, and if indeed this is their reward then I may amend my sinful ways here on earth and lead a better life, for I too want a share (or two). Typically, the tour guide gives a warning about lighting up a cigarette when touring in the rick house for fear of causing a catastrophic fire.
Occasionally a rick house gets hit by lightning and goes up in a huge ball of flame. One of the most famous was the Wild Turkey fire of 2000 when 7 rickhouses caught fire and bourbon flooded the Kentucky river, killing hundreds of thousands of fish, inspiring the song “17 Miles of Bourbon” by the Wrinkleneck Mules.
I can only image thousands of intoxicated fish, swimming in circles, asking their schoolmates if they had seen their sleeping bag, it’s brown. I guess there are worse ways to go than drowning in bourbon.
As you follow along on a distillery tour the guide likes to ask questions to test your knowledge. After having been on about a dozen tours and reading some books on the fine art of making bourbon I can usually answer most every question asked. The last time I was on the Maker’s Mark tour I answered the first two questions and the tour guide knew he had a ringer so he gave me a look that said, “OK wise ass, you know your stuff, let the others answer a few questions.” So, I buttoned up my lip for the rest of tour.
Next to the rickhouse my other favorite part of the tour is the tasting at the end. Each distillery lets you sample 2-3 shots of their product and my wife, god bless her, slides hers over to me. So I get 4-6 shots of the Kentucky good stuff. Ain’t life grand. People often ask me which distillery gives the best our, and they all do a good job, but I prefer the more traditional or historic distilleries like Maker’s Mark and Woodford. Last time I was at Maker’s my brother Paul and I stopped to admire a pile of wood pallets used for shipping, (something only Kentucky brothers would do).
We are both woodworking hobbyist and like to make things from the wood pallets and old barn wood. As we were standing their admiring the wood pallets and discussing our craft a lady walked by and gave us an odd look, and I heard her say, “What are they, a bunch of skid freaks?” So was borne the name of my woodworking business.
After returning from my first bourbon trail visit with a half dozen bottles of unique bourbons, I decided to throw an old fashioned (no pun intended), bourbon tasting party. I had 7 bottles primed for sampling, starting with White Dog (Moonshine) and ending with Bookers, a premium barrel proof bourbon made by Jim Beam, that typically bottles around 128 proof, that will knock your socks off. Bourbon goes into the barrel between 110 and 120 proof, and by law it cannot go in higher than 125 proof. Most distilleries then add water when it is bottled to lower the proof to a milder level, commonly 90 or 94 proof. Bourbon that is bottled at 100 proof and aged for at least 4 years is called “Bottled in Bond”. This reflects a historical period in the late 1900 century when there was little quality control and legal standards and unscrupulous whiskey rectifiers added flavors and colored bourbon with iodine, tobacco, and other substances. It got so bad that people were occasionally poisoned, so to save the reputation and quality of bourbon the Bottle in Bond Act was enacted in 1897. To meet the standard the bourbon had to be aged in a bonded warehouse for at least 4 years, hence the term “bottled-in-bond.”
In the past few years the trend for the premium bourbons is to not add water and bottle it at whatever proof comes out of the barrel. The technique provides much more flavor, because it is not diluted by water, but it also yields a much higher proof, that takes some getting used to. For my bourbon tasting party I tell bourbon history and folklore in between the samples to give everyone a chance to recover from the last shot. And for my first bourbon tasting party I made another error in judgment. I had a few Old Fashioned cocktails before the tasting, to be social of course. Then, as the host, I had to lead by example and sampled each of the 7 tastings with my guests, finishing with the 128 proof Bookers.
After the tasting we lit a bonfire out back and then the rest of the night got a little fuzzy, the trees started to spin, and the fire started to dance around, much like it did 4o years earlier when I mixed Jack Daniels with cool-aid. I did not wake up shivering because my wife had coerced my into the living room and threw a blanket over me before I passed out on the floor. I don’t remember if the blanket was brown, but then again I don’t remember much of that night at all. I think everyone else had a good time too, they all came back to the party next year. After that I made sure my samples for the tasting were MUCH smaller.
Several years later my wife and daughter got a male puppy and I decided I didn’t want it named Fluffy or Spot, so I diligently started brainstorming for a good manly dog name. As I sat there puzzling and puzzling until my puzzler grew sore, I peered over to my liquor cabinet and spied my bottle of Booker bourbon, and I had my puppy’s name. Much like the bourbon, my puppy Booker is high-spirited and packs some bite.
This story is dedicated to my Dad, Bill “Westy” Westermeyer, who would have turned 88 next month. He was a professional beer drinker, but was known to sample a bourbon on occasion. Often, after a hunting trip he would stop at the local watering hole for a quick drink (or two), and if anyone would ask if he bagged any game, he would reply that he killed a couple of wild turkeys. When they asked to see them he would pull a couple of empty Wild Turkey miniature bottles from his pocket, with a wide grin on his face. So I have many good memories of bourbon, and a few nights when I have no memory at all.
This month’s song, is 17 Miles of bourbon, of course: