The Bourbon Culture

Those that know me would certainly call me a bourbon fan.  Maybe its because I am from Kentucky or maybe its because we happen to make the best bourbon in the world or maybe, just maybe, its because of the culture that surrounds bourbon.

This week is the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby.  It has its own magic and tradition that I will save for another post.  I have a fantasy about doing Dawn at the Downs that never actually happens because I have to be at work so early.  It is a total local/insider happening here in Louisville.  You can show up before sunrise to watch the horses workout and hang out on the backside of the track where all of the trainers and owners are.  

I could watch horses run all day.  Especially early in the morning when it's the perfect Kentucky spring morning (cool enough for a jacket, sun coming up, making you really glad you drink coffee, the lingering, pleasant smell of wet grass and horses) and the steam rises up off of the horses as they workout.

There is a buzz that has begun as we officially have kicked off Derby Week.  Watchful eyes from those in the know will miss nothing at the week of workouts, tracking every improvement or set back, twitch or injury, waiting to see what leads up to the greatest two minutes in sports.  Derby will inevitably bring bourbon to the forefront again this week.

This will be the week when every crap-tastic restaurant and bar in the world will put a Mint Julep on the menu and proceed to butcher it.  It will be a week when many non bourbon drinkers will order a well bourbon from companies that shall remain unnamed and think they have experienced a bourbon.

Bourbon is steeped in tradition.  Steeped in it.  That tradition oozes out of the top of the bottle when you pull the cork and the bottle sighs.  The care that goes into making bourbon speaks to me.  Anything that has rules and rituals for the cooking, distilling, aging, and bottling automatically gets a place on my liquor shelf.  But what warrants multiple bottles, with multiple ages on my shelf from multiple distillers is about what happens after the bottle is open and poured.

Bourbon is about connection.  Connection to the subtleties of flavor and smell (vanilla, caramel, tobacco, sassafras, toffee, smoke...), connection to history and heritage, connection to what has come before that informs what is coming next, connection to local land and limestone filtered water.  It is the connection to friends through conversation over a bourbon and a fire.  It is the connection to the intimacies of fear, love and longing that surface the longer you sit and the deeper into the bottle you go.  It is about togetherness.  It is about pace- the unwind and slow down that happens after the first sip.  Its a good thing to be; connected.

More and more boutique bourbons are popping up throughout the state.  At last count, we have 15 distilleries producing bourbon and 2 that are just producing moonshine so far (here in KY, an un-aged white liquor made from a corn mash) on the Bourbon Trail alone.  The big distilleries won't acknowledge all of them, but the tourist board certainly does.  If you are around these parts, be sure to make time for a distillery tour.  They are a lot of fun and you will get a great amount of information, the best kind of propaganda, and bourbon to taste.  

I'm sure this will come as no surprise, but my taste for sipping whiskey is running to the single barrel, older bourbons lately.  I am still a fan of Old Forrester Signature and Buffalo Trace for mixing, but nothing beats a 20 year old Pappy except maybe a 23 year old experimental batch bourbon coming out of Buffalo Trace.  Sublime.  The smoothest bourbon I have ever tasted.

Happy Derby, friends.  This week, in honor of my beloved state in all her of her resplendent glory for Derby, go and purchase a bottle of fine Kentucky bourbon.  Then call your best and dearest, sit around a fire pit, talk about what's on your mind and laugh together long into the night.

The excerpt below is from a letter written by General S.B. Buckley, Jr. in 1937 when asked for his Mint Julep recipe by one General Connor.  It is a wonderful tongue and cheek recipe of a Mint Julep.  Absolutely one of my very favorite recipes I have ever read, it illustrates precisely the ritual and tradition involved with bourbon- not to be trusted to "a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee".   While we won't be gathering fresh mint from the streams here, we will certainly be taking the same care when we propose a worthy toast and sip the nectar of the gods. 

 A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.

So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:

Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon, distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.

In a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush.

In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outsides of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint.

Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glittering coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.

When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden, where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.

Being overcome by thirst, I can write no further.

S.B. Buckner, Jr.

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  1. I adore good Bourbon and Scotch specifically for the terroir. But I'm curious... Which Bourbon has the sassafrass notes?

  2. It was the experimental bourbon I was talking about. Mind. Blowing. Bourbon. Buffalo Trace 23 year old single barrel.

  3. Need more information. Live music plays at almost all bars on Bourbon st. Your description sounds like every bar.

    1. Helena- that is the beauty of bourbon:-). Uniting folks whether they are in Kentucky or New Orleans. Thanks for the link. We will check it out next time we are that way!