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Wine Geek Boat Trip

New London, New Hampshire

After a day of swirling, spitting, and grasping for just the right flavor adjectives, today Jack and Thelma announced we’d be doing champagne brunch on a boat.

Deb and Jim, all bright-eyed and bloaty.

I catch Andy sneaking a soda.

Sixteen hung-over titans of industry in a small boat on a stormy lake might be a recipe for trouble …

But no problem, ‘cuz here comes Thelma:

(“Thelma,” obviously, spells fun.)

Champagne certainly helps!

Jack and Thelma.

Jack and Thelma get down to my funky solo trombone recital:

After the boat ride, we tore into a bunch of Burgundy. This is slightly shocking, as Jack and Thelma are staunch Bordeaux partisans. Their friends have long been trying to spark their Burgundy interest, and this year they’ve finally capitulated, arranging an informal Burgundy tasting at lunch.

It was a good chance to record some discussion of the two wine regions. You needn’t be a wine geek to enjoy the following discussions:

Podcast 1—MP3: Thelma contrasts Bordeaux with Burgundy.

Podcast 2—MP3: Thelma explains why Burgundies are more suited to big tastings (plus: the proper way to drink Bordeaux at a big tasting).

Podcast 3—MP3: Bob Feinn, owner of Mt. Carmel Wine and Spirits, is one of the most knowledgable experts in the country, and he (like a number of American wine lovers) has grown infatuated with Burgundy. Thelma and I lightheartedly argue with him as he tries to account for his preference.

Podcast 4—MP3: Debate resumed (with wine in hand), we get to the gist: It all boils down to diet.

Podcast 5—MP3: Thelma and I catch Jack waxing rhapsodic over a Burgundy, and I fear for their marriage (needlessly, it turns out).

Bordeaux Out to Here

New London, New Hampshire

Today I’m at the home of my friends Jack and Thelma, who really know how to throw a party. For the story of how I met Jack and Thelma, listen to the podcast in yesterday’s report.

Here are some shots of their place:

The garden room, used for the afternoon tasting.

The kitchen.

The den.

Click the photo below to read the day’s game plan (wine lovers: no drooling on the keyboard!):

A few early arrivals had stopped by the night before for an informal wine-geek potluck, bringing along this stupendous selection of bottles. As impressive as today’s wines are, I’m not sure they’ll eclipse this eclectic array in terms of sheer lusciousness:

Here are the 54 bottles we’ll open this weekend (leaving aside, of course, the champagne, the white wines, the burgundies, and the port):

The stemware and the Big Pour:

The view from my seat:

My friend Jim (see last two reports) demonstrates stage one of the spitting process by slobbering into a small bowl …

... which is later transferred to the “spit bucket” ...

... which, surprisingly, has no euphemism.

This tasting’s set-up was unique and very clever. It was both a vertical tasting (where multiple vintages of a given wine are compared) and a horizontal tasting (where multiple wines of a given vintage are compared). Each flight consists of two Bordeaux poured in 1966, 1986, and 1996 vintages, or six glasses total. This means tons of comparison fun and the chance to learn about each winemaker over time … and about each time over winemakers!

The unique approach of this tasting produced a firm conclusion at stark odds with conventional wisdom. Only by drinking virtually all of Bordeaux (at least all the good stuff!) for 1966, 1986, and 1996 were we able to notice a huge problem missed by all the experts—who’d been blindered by drinking either horizontally OR vertically. Here’s how it unfolded.

On the first few flights, the 1986s were pronounced “corked.”

Corked wines are bottles in which a bad cork has imparted a moldy, dank aroma. Corked bottles are actually fairly common, but while the aroma is quite specific, it’s amazing how frequently even experts miss it or disagree about it. I’ve seen highly experienced tasters strain to describe the je ne sais quoi of a wine, only to see one shrug and mutter, “It’s corked,” with the rest quickly nodding in sheepish accord. For one thing, there are varying degrees of corkedness, so it’s not always that obvious. And in some wines, the off aroma can hide more easily behind other aromas.

The first few 1986s were declared either “corked” or “slightly corked” by most. But the problem didn’t stop as the tasting unfolded; ‘86s in subsequent flights were also nebbishy and musty. The group grew confused. Wines don’t cork in patterns—it’s usually a random problem unrelated to vintage or maker. (And the exceptions, where a large run of bottles turned out badly, are well known.)

But virtually every 1986 had the same off quality, to varying extents. The entire vintage wasn’t corked … it was simply cursed.

This doesn’t mean the 1986s were all bad. If we were drinking only 1986—a horizontal tasting of various makers—we’d have enjoyed the better ones, and made note of the differences between the wines rather than their unfortunate similarities. And if we were drinking only specific wines vertically, we’d have likewise noted whatever merit there was in the 1986s. In at least a few cases, that merit was fairly substantial—just not compared with those same wines in 1996 and 1966!

Only via this weirdo approach—tasting all the 1986s in contrast with other vintages—were we able to ascertain that the 1986 vintage was actually quite lousy, and seems unlikely to improve with age. If you’ll consult the esteemed wine references, though, you’ll see that the unanimous conclusion is that it was a pretty decent vintage. Myth busted!

The evening tasting was black tie and took place in the formal dining room. The harvest theme involved lots of birds and guns and bullets. Fortunately, arguments rarely turn violent at these things.

A few quick thoughts about the wines:

Chateau Palmer, a third-growth (i.e., officially “third-rate”) maker, produced my all-time favorite wine in 1966. As always, the ‘66 Palmer gripped me in a transportive and intensely multilayered symphony. I’ve never been to a wine tasting in which 1966 Palmer was poured where it didn’t thoroughly steal the show—and this is no exception.

The really top Bordeaux were pretty darned good even in 1986 (the mark of a great maker is the ability to play the hand that’s dealt and produce class in problematic years) but still showed lingering touches of that offness. What on earth happened in 1986? Meteor strike?

The 1996 vintage is excellent, with great potential. It might be a bit underrated. Chateau Margaux 1996 shows huge promise. It will grow up to be screamingly great.

Jim had a brief moment of mortification late in the evening tasting. Between flights, two tasters are asked to give their assessments. When it was Jim’s turn, he panicked, froze up, rifled around for his notes, and started stammering about wines drunk hours ago.

It could have happened to any of us. And the crowd reaction was loving (howls of laughing WITH Jim rather than at him). Wine can be a status token for those who seek such things. Snobs have an investment in self-esteem to protect. But these guys aren’t like that. They just really love wine. And they like anyone who shares their indomitable quest to appreciate ever more deeply and acutely. Even weirdo jazz musician intruders like me.

I hadn’t trekked to the Bardstown Kentucky Bourbon Festival to guzzle lots of bourbon. I can do that at home! I was just following an innate human drive to share great things with kindred spirits. And as I downed what amounted to $1,200 worth of Bordeaux today, I didn’t feel any more rarefied or upscale than I had sipping bourbon in Kentucky. It was, in fact, the exact same spirit: learning and sharing with my fellow holdouts—folks who proactively seek quality rather than consume in mindless lockstep. We huddle together for warmth in a society where compromise is king.

Food, by guest chefs, was very correct and enjoyable (not real soulful, but, alas, Thelma can’t throw the party AND cook for everyone!). But one interesting wrinkle: One meal concluded with a dessert of vanilla custard, poached sekel pear, and duck foie tuile. The latter was essentially a cookie fried in duck foie gras fat, which lent a pervasive nutty richness that by no means seemed undessert-like. What a neat idea! Here it is:

Somehow amid the frenzy I managed to record an audio interview with Thelma, discussing her views on food, cooking, the ever-increasing level of deliciousness, and the legacy of her friend Julia Child. (Note: This was recorded before the release of the book The United States of Arugula, which covers some of the same ground.)

It’s in two parts:

Part 1: MP3
Part 2: MP3

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This tasting is an incredibly enjoyable and educational annual phenomenon that thoroughly spoils one for anything wine related for weeks and weeks. But the event also raises questions about big tastings, aesthetics, and the purpose of wine. Tasting such a quantity of great wine in such unnatural compaction makes it inevitable that fallacies will arise. Always eager to grow and to calibrate my palate, I pay careful attention to the opinions of the more knowledgeable tasters … but I sometimes notice blind spots amid the erudition.

The following is an email I sent Thelma after last year’s tasting, comparing the pitfalls and absurdities of wine tastings to those of beauty pageants and music competitions:

“Judging a right brain thing like wine in a left brain environment like a formal tasting creates unavoidable problems. Most of all, we tend to over-analyze and under-feel.

“There were some wines that told beautiful stories in slightly crooked, tangential ways … but were despised. There were some that sang beautiful songs quite softly … but were dismissed. There were a bunch that were beautiful in a less obvious, more nebulous way that failed to draw any praise at all. There were wines which had great emotional impact but offered less intellectually, and they were underrated. When wine tasting becomes a beauty pageant (as it must in the unquestionably clinical atmosphere of a massive tasting), there’s a tendency to quickly dismiss the girl with the crooked tooth. And I felt that a lot of the picks were for the most perfect glossy gal. I’m always bored by that sort of thing. I’m not so contrarian as to prefer fault for fault’s sake, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that some of the favorites were the wines with the fewest detectable flaws, rather than those with the most appreciable beauty.

“In piano competitions, judges are quick to winnow out contestants who miss even a single trivial note—they’re WATCHING for errors, in a way that they would not if they were simply enjoying a performance in a natural environment. “Spot-the-flaw” is the natural method by which the human mind distinguishes between large numbers of similar items. But this tendency must be, to some degree, resisted, because it occludes appreciation for the deeper qualities which, in the end, are what we seek and value in wine, music, etc.”

Body by Jim, Plus Astounding Ecuadorian Railroad Pizza

Wallingford, Connecticut

I’m at T-minus 24 hours to winetasting. Oh, I didn’t tell you: Tomorrow I’ll be drinking glass after glass of priceless Bordeaux atop a mountain in New Hampshire. I explain how the hell I ever came to be invited in this podcast, titled “The Tale of Jack and Thelma”: MP3.

Here are the port wine tasting notes mentioned in the podcast.

My friend Jim (who’s also attending) helps explain exactly what we’ll be tasting in this podcast: MP3.

I’m facing a massive ingestion of foie gras and buttery food—plus all that alcohol (we’ll only be spitting merely wonderful wines; the rest will go down the hatch … after much swirling, swooshing, and furrowed eyebrows). Looking ahead to an umpteen-zillion-calorie weekend, I clearly need a vigorous workout, and Jim has agreed to whup my chow-touring butt into shape. We met at his gym, where he put me through a series of tortures specifically tailored to the rigors to come. We did exercises to firm me up for cork pulling, glass hoisting, etc.

Click on the photos and video (below) of Jim demonstrating the “wine-lover’s workout” while you listen to this podcast (MP3), a pastiche of treasured moments from my pathetic follow-through (yes, that’s me howling like a wolverine):

In this short video, Jim works “to failure”: Movie file.

I tortured Jim back by making him try some yoga:

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Armed with a cardio mandate from my triumphant workout, I’d earned some capital and intended to spend it. My thoughts turned to pizza.

Wallingford, Connecticut, just north of New Haven, is an interesting area I’d been wanting to check out. I got incredibly lucky, stumbling upon Trackside Pizza (118 Dudley Avenue, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-697-1081). It’s invisible from the main road (Route 5), hidden in a ravine down next to the railroad tracks.

Trackside has it all. You dine in a real railroad car, alongside the tracks …

... and the pizza is superb—the equal of any in New Haven (I had the seafood combo, brimming with impeccably fresh shellfish) ...

... and the owners, sweet folks from Ecuador, are very friendly and genuine. The sheer unique coolness of eating phenomenal pizza in a charming, tidy railroad car staffed by Ecuadorans stuns customers out of their dining glaze. Strangers talk to each other. A couple of chowhoundish truckers even let me take a photo of their pie:

Here’s my theory (to be verified on some future visit): I think the owners worked at top pizzerias in New Haven, saved up, and have applied their pizza know-how here in their own place. And I’m thrilled. It’s dismaying that so many Mexican, Central American, and South American chefs cook so much of the most highly regarded food in this country with nary a speck of credit. How fantastic to see a few breaking out.

Whatever their origins, this much is clear: These guys are preserving the New Haven pizza tradition far more diligently than the present regimes at Sally’s, Pepe’s, or Modern (the Big Three), all of which are shadows of their former selves.

I also quickly sampled Louie’s Pizza (552 North Colony Road, Wallingford, Connecticut; 203-265-0161), which has been baking pies since 1960. Like Tony’s Baltimore Grill of Atlantic City (see report #6), it makes lived-in pizza. You can really taste the tradition. But it’s no match for the riveting grandeur of Trackside.

Grand Apizza North (448 Washington Avenue, North Haven, Connecticut; 203-239-5786) looked good but was closed when I passed it.

There’s so much good pizza around here. South-central Connecticut is like a ride—one ought to be charged just to enter the region. Why don’t more New Yorkers ply through here to recontact with the sort of proud pizza heritage we’ve so utterly lost?

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As mentioned in podcast #1, here are my

Grahams Port Wine Tasting Notes

Please bear in mind that the tasting described below took place in 1995, so significant changes have occurred with all the more recent vintages. In other words, these notes are for entertainment purposes only!

I started with the ‘77. Very young, syrupy, and grapey, the fruity taste about a mile away from the alcoholic kick. A good port to chat over (which people did quite a bit of, although they inexplicably were able to keep up their patter even over the older, more artistic ports. I don’t understand how—I retreated to a corner as I reached older vintages, my ecstatic grin reassuring the concerned hosts that all was well).

The ‘70 was a bit drier and cleaner tasting, though the alcoholic kick was still somewhat crude and unbalanced. The port hadn’t found itself yet, though there was a bit of a story in the finish, which receded with a plum taste.

The ‘66 made one nod one’s head: OK, here we go. This is port. An incredible aroma, the mouthfeel all silky and subtle. The alcohol played games—pulling and retracting throughout the story like a crazed taffy-pulling machine. Finish was elegant and left no fruitiness, although like the other young ports, there was a bit of cloying cotton candy hovering over everything.

My host Eugene seemed excited about this one, and I understand why. Fine port, though not so venerable as to be exorbitantly expensive. Much better, also, than the two older ports that followed.

‘63 was cagey, overly subtle. You had to find the port yourself, but with effort you could uncover virtually anything you sought inside the guarded flavor. Sipped absentmindedly, it had as much interest as the cardiogram of a corpse. Dig down for alcohol, and a cannon shoots straight for your nose. Look for a finish and ye shall find. I managed to deeply concentrate on about 2 of my 20 or so sips, and found a delicate, rippling effect in the finish that was quite beautiful; it lasted far longer than the in-mouth flavor. The only word for this port is Japanese—it was as elusive, delicate, provocative, and fleetingly beautiful as any Japanese brush painting.

But I didn’t want to work so hard. I wanted waves of cresting flavor to knock me over. I’m American, not Japanese.

Weird note: I’m a musician, and I find that when port is good, it has a tempo. I can nod my head to it; I can almost dance to it. The pace at which the flavors crest and fall in a great port is very rhythmic to me. The ‘66 was bopping, but the ‘63 didn’t swing at all.

‘55 had a big wallop of cotton candy, and I found it listless and inelegant.

‘48 was bliss. I poured myself into my glass and swallowed. Smoky, buttery, huge landscapes of crazy sensual flavors, some big, some almost subliminal, all changing and switching around. Still the cotton candy, but that was just the outside layer of a hugely complex petticoat. I noticed the stuff was rather brown, so it may be that I just LIKE oxidation (hey, I’ve enjoyed some infected beers as well), but great cheese ain’t so pure and sterile either, folks. My only complaint: The finish was a bit sudden. The show’s over before you expect, but it’s cool because you WANT to be left alone to work through your feelings about this sublime stuff.

Eugene seemed amused—and understanding—of my happiness at this point, and was excited for me to try the ‘45 (I was anxious to get some before it was all gone; wine honcho after wine honcho had gone straight for the good stuff, which they drank in a blasé fashion—do wine people always condescend to ports like this?).

I was amazed to find no brown in the color of the ‘45. As purple as last year’s batch. The aroma was stately, and the flavor described a straight line to me: no fireworks and digressions like the ‘48, just a controlled, direct path, shimmering with refined, bristling energy. Strange thing: This was one of the only drinks I’ve tried where I could send the alcohol up to my nose and then rein it back in in full bloom. Response like a Ferrari’s. The finish, like the ‘48, went thud, but then further waves came, so subtle as to call into question whether they were drink based or psyche based.

What a difference three years makes! The ‘45 and ‘48 were utterly different. The ‘45 was incredibly strong in its statement, never wavering, never yielding. While the ‘48 seemed capable of being experienced in subjectively different ways by different people (though not so much as the mirrorlike ‘63), the ‘45 took you on its trip and planted you firmly on the ground. The kind of thing that wins contests and earns the praise of experts.

I liked the ‘48 better.

After all this, I returned to the ‘66, which Eugene was touting as the poor man’s ‘45 (with talk going on like “If I spend less than a thousand on a bottle, I have no problem just drinking it,” I figured this vintage had my name on it). Revisited after the good stuff, the ‘66 seemed crude. All the elements were all there, but nothing had come together yet. Sort of like a country street lined with not-quite-mature trees, their branches struggling to touch, to provide a canopy, but not quite making it yet.

A snob for the evening, I discarded my 1/4 glassful and called it a night.

Fun in Bethel, Serious Scores in New Haven

Bethel, Connecticut

Kristie and April, troublemakers in the idyllic (and oh-so-chowy) little town of Bethel, Connecticut, wanted to take me for my first clam chowder as I headed north.

The Putnam House Restaurant (12 Depot Place, Bethel, Connecticut; 203-791-1852) has tons of antique charm and extremely well-poured tap beer. The chowder was fine, but other stuff was just OK—a bit disappointing for a town with such high food standards.

My Casio Exilim camera is out of control—it made those calamari look great. I fret that it may no longer be my trusted agent of truth.

April was all atwitter about the new fried-in-house potato chips at Stew Leonard’s (99 Federal Road, Danbury, Connecticut; 203-790-8030), the world’s largest dairy store, so we rode over to investigate.

They’re certainly pushing those chips.

They’re even offering free samples.

This is Pablo. His full-time job is to fry the chips. And he is so totally into it:

Hear April and me making our way—against the traffic flow—through this enormous shticky store, filled with animatronic mooing cows and such (and also meet Pedro) in this podcast of rambunctious shopping fun: MP3.

The potato chips were delicious and, of course, extraordinarily fresh. But the kettle corn was killer. We ravaged it in the parking lot. Hear our ebullient crunching and giddy exegesis in this podcast: MP3.

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Then it was on to New Haven, where I was to meet my buddy Jim for a bite. On my way into town, I passed a sensational-looking sidewalk smoker, spewing lovely aromas of Jamaican jerk.

I braked hard and screamed into my cellphone for Jim to come meet me immediately, as I suspected the chicken was about to emerge from the smoker.

Caribbean Connection (370 Whalley Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-777-9080) makes very serious old-fashioned jerk chicken, and, unlike many Jamaican jerk places, they also serve terrific sides (I really liked my plantains, collard greens, and even the rice and peas). Really nice folks, too. And though I’m restraining my praise because I know a couple of slightly better places in the outskirts of New York City, this jerk chicken is grand-slam great for New Haven, and worth a trip for anyone driving through (as many do on their way to or from Boston).

Jim dutifully joined in for some takeout Jamaican (it passed the drizzle test, by the way—we ate sitting on a bench, it drizzled, and we kept eating), but we were both saving room for the meal we’d planned on, at L’Orcio (806 State Street, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-777-6670), a newish Italian place that Jim wanted me to try.

What a gem. It’s intimate but with a non-smarmy atmosphere, personal service, and a terrific, well-priced wine list; and the food—at least the two things we tried—is killer, and as authentically Italian as one could ask for (chef-owner Francesco d’Amuri is from right off the boat).

Gnocchi al Gorgonzola are astounding. The gnocchi are as refined—subtle, light—as one could imagine, yet they also have full-fledged soulful/satisfying peasant-fare credentials: by far the best gnocchi I’ve ever had. I was particularly impressed by the bleachy white Gorgonzola sauce—not just for its lush deliciousness, but for the chef’s assurance in declining to gussy it up.

Farfalle strascicate is wailingly delicious homemade bow-tie pasta tossed in a creamy meat sauce with peas. Once again, the chef accomplished a whore/madonna integration—a precise equilibrium between subtle refinedness and unaffectedly lusty good eating. I’ve seldom found cooking so evenly bridging the two extremes with such confidence.

Even in an era when high-end restaurants take particular pride in their cellars and compete to hire the most informed sommeliers, it can still be a strain to get the house to take back a corked bottle, even if your party’s established its wine-geek credentials. We dined at the bar, served by a smashingly beautiful and preternaturally composed young woman whom I’d figured was simply part of the handsome décor. She opened our bottle, took a careful whiff, pronounced it corked, and invited us to reorder.

The problem was fairly mild and by no means easily detected. This server is smart as a whip. For the umpteenth time on this trip, I was reminded that appearances can deceive.

Addendum: Central Connecticut Barbecue Cluster

En route to New Haven, rushing to meet Jim, I asked Eartha (my GPS navigator) to show me names of all nearby restaurants. The result was a stunning barbecue conjunction, god-knows-where in rural Connecticut, that I, alas, had no time to check out. Hear a podcast where I note this remarkable node and read off the names of the barbecue joints: MP3.

Seafood Shacks: A Plan of Attack

Manhattan, New York

Back home in New York City for a few days, surprised to see trees a different color than they were at my August departure.

I’d seen a copy of the just-published New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, by Elizabeth Bougerol, and it was incredibly timely, seeing as how the next leg of my trip will take me up through New England. It’s a hefty book, very well written, and includes virtually all of my top picks. I thought it might be a good idea to meet with Elizabeth so that she could help launch my northward trip with some seafood shack savvy.

We enjoyed a lively conversation al fresco in front of the underrated East Village restaurant Quhnia (45 East First Street, New York, New York; 212-529-3066). Listen in:

Podcast #1: General hunting tips (and why going in October makes the task harder but the prospects better): MP3.

Podcast #2: I must wake up early and go hang with fishermen: MP3.

Podcast #3: Chowder obsessions, self-loathing Canadians, and all for the love of salt: MP3.

Podcast #4: Final counseling and benedictions before I head north: MP3.

Bourbon Redux

Bardstown, Kentucky

Bourbon fans may have been disappointed by the lack of serious bourbon talk in these last few reports. The following podcast—long but informative—is for them. JB and I ramble on and on, running down what we’ve drunk and what we’ve learned, while puffing on icky Maker’s Mark cigars (which, apparently, have bourbon in them).

If you’re not a bourbon geek, don’t even think of clicking on podcast #1: MP3

Quick advice on how to drink bourbon … in podcast #2: MP3

Tips for those considering attending next year’s Bourbon Festival, plus a final appreciation of Officer Bill, in podcast #3: MP3

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I ought to be banned from renting cars. I’m not referring to the vehicle I smashed up back in Mt. Vernon—I mean my complete inability to remember to fill the tank before returning. Driving into Louisville Airport, I grimaced, made a hasty U-turn, and went off searching for gas.

And thank goodness for this, because in my meanderings I found exceptional Vietnamese pho at Pho Binh Minh (6709 Strawberry Lane, Louisville, Kentucky; 502-375-9249).

I only had time to gulp down half a bowl of meaty broth—I was in and out of there like a meteor—but this is the sort of serious homey grandma Vietnamese place I’d been looking for for years, and I’m sorry I didn’t have time to really check it out.

I also regret lacking time to plunge into the issue of hot-water cornbread, which confused me greatly. I ate so many startlingly different renditions of cornbread (in general) and hot-water cornbread (specifically) that I feel like I need to sit down somewhere and get seriously calibrated on this food. Little greasy fried corn pancakes are cornbread? Huh?

Here’s a recipe JB found.

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Some bourbon links:

The message boards at are a good place to discuss bourbon with serious enthusiasts. That said, don’t forget that Chowhound, too, has a spirits discussion board!

I haven’t had time to actually read through an issue, but I love just the idea of The Bourbon Country Reader!

The Bourbon Companion: A Connoisseur’s Guide, by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan, is highly regarded. It’s out of print, but used copies are easily found.

Malt Advocate sometimes covers bourbon.

Bourbon aficionados will want to bookmark the price lists I linked to in report #29 (I keep them all on my PDA so that I have a handy price reference).

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And now, a message from our CEO (who doesn’t know I’m printing this, so I may well be fired) ...

Neil Ashe, CNET’s CEO, has fine taste in obscure bourbon. He hipped me (not that we’re constantly hobnobbing … it’s just that what else am I going to talk to the guy about when I pass him in the hall? Physical-plant depreciation?) to Vintage Wine & Spirits, a great store for bourbon in Mill Valley, California. His recomendations are: A.J. Hirsch 19-year-old (extremely rare, no longer produced) and George T. Stagg unfiltered. I’ve had the Stagg, and it’s great—though, as with any barrel-strength, high-proof spirit, you need to really water that sucker down. I’ve never tried Hirsh, which JB has been stalking for years. Does anyone know where to find a bottle? If so, please leave a comment beneath this article!

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To close the chapter on Kentucky, JB sent me the following email after returning home:

It took a few days, but I am really appreciating the mashed potatoes at Stephen Foster Restaurant. I’m getting your whole ‘this is where they got the idea for 1000’s of pounds of soulless mashed potatoes’ jive. It’s something I’ll tuck away as part of my chowhound education.

Speaking of soulless, I have to admit that I went to Talbott’s Tavern for lunch Sunday. Dagwood’s sandwich place and the lunch counter place were closed, and I didn’t think my nieces could make it to the taco guy. I could not get served a bourbon with lunch because it was before 2p on Sunday! Had the pot roast—awful potatoes, nice vegetables, soulless pot roast. I ordered corn fritters and pecan/chocolate pie for desert. You would have warned me off the pie, with good reason. It wasn’t awful, after all it’s pecans, sugar & chocolate, but that’s about it. The corn fritters were like corn malasadas (which, I assume you know, is a Hawaiian donut). They were well fried, warm on the inside, not too crispy on the outside, better corn flavor than Berea’s sad little tin of spoonbread. They would have been a lot better without an inch of powdered sugar. Definitely the best thing on the menu, which isn’t saying much. My sister-in-law had the fried catfish, which was a sad cornmeal crusted affair that looked and tasted baked and not fried. My nieces enjoyed the grilled cheese and green beans, and of course the powdered sugar! It was strange sitting down to a meal in a restaurant without a camera and microphone in my face. I may never sit down at a restaurant again without hearing your voice.

I’m drinking Blanton’s because I want to finish the bottle to make room for Elmer T. Lee and the Van Winkle rye. Also, I was wrong, you can get Wathen’s in CA.

Thanks for a great trip!


PS—I just listened to your podcast about The Streak. You’re right, I wouldn’t believe it if we hadn’t found Derby City Truck Stop. I have gazed at the picture of the fried fish three times, couldn’t help myself.

Madly in Love with Maxine’s

Bardstown, Kentucky

Any breakfast that includes mashed potatoes can’t be all bad. And while nothing at Stephen Foster Restaurant (503 W. Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown, Kentucky; 502-348-5076) will light your heart on fire, I did find their buffet charming. JB did not. Per my argument in report #25, I felt JB undervalued the mashed potatoes because he’d had so many crappy renditions—empty, soulless versions of this, the Real Deal.

Watch, as I attempt to force-feed him bite after bite until he acknowledges their aesthetic worth, in this video (complete with weird clicking and perpetual refocusing, which, to my mind, just adds to its cinematic trippiness): Movie file

Later, we tried for the fourth time to have a drink at historic Talbott Tavern, the only really bourbonish hangout here in the epicenter of bourbon.

We waited while they closed the bar for an hour to set up for a musical act, which turned out to be some lame singer/songwriter. The gorgeous, centuries-old, rife-with-ambiance room was jammed with young beer drinkers, and we tried to kibbitz with the bartender—a sullen kid who didn’t give a damn about bourbon. Finally, we walked out, resolved to never return.

JB and I have tried restaurants all over Bardstown, invariably charmless all-you-can-eat buffets. But the bourbon frustration has been worse. We’d attended bourbon tastings, tours, and events, and queued up on lawns by day and by night to tipple bits of booze out of plastic cups. We’d discovered secret bottles at Bosnian bastions, and drunk plenty of wonderful Bulleit on the patio back at the B&B. But after several days, we still hadn’t settled in anywhere and just drunk a glass of great bourbon in a properly relaxed, expansive environment among fellow aficionados. As JB noted, we’d had far more bourbonish experiences sipping in the backyard of his Oakland, California, home.

Then we found Maxine’s (402 Cathedral Manor, Bardstown, Kentucky; 502-348-3459).

Maxine’s is located on the outskirts of Bardstown, right next to one of those bourbon-storage facilities that pumps angelic nectar into the Bardstown air.

Maxine’s is not well known by locals. And those who’ve heard of it seem to shudder at the mention of its name. Maxine’s is an off-the-beaten-track, somewhat-forbidding roadhouse frequented by, we heard, faceless ogres. We were warned to take great care there. The prospect of physical violence was raised.

Of course we ran right over.

I love Maxine’s. And I don’t say that lightly. I mean, I’m literally in love with a bar. Bardstown doesn’t realize what they have there. Trepidation, I suppose, is the natural reaction of those who’ve forsaken the richness of life toward those who have not. Few people deserve Maxine’s (I’m not sure I do), and that’s fine, because Maxine and her husband, Robert, are elderly and couldn’t handle much of a crowd, anyway.

You must fly into the Louisville airport and drive the 45 miles to Bardstown for an evening at Maxine’s, and you must do so quickly. Because here you’ll find a last vestige of the best sort of old-time Southern culture. When Maxine’s closes, as it will any day now, we might as well all move to Norway.

Yes, Maxine’s is dark and lived-in. It’s a time-machine throwback lacking the modern comforts of crap food, crap music, and overall plastic soullessness. Everybody’s a little quirky. But Robert remembers your drink (forever, I’ll bet) and cooks perfect food, and Maxine is a warm, bawdy hoot. Both have hearts as big as the state of Kentucky. Maxine and Robert are not real religious—they like a beer or three once in a while—but their sinner spirituality makes them kinder and wiser than most of the prim, proper folks who’d never set foot in their tavern.

The following photos are bright from the flash and don’t convey the ambiance. Maxine’s is darker and more broody/glowy, like a tavern in an old fable. I wish I were a good enough photographer to really capture it.

We settled in and drank six-year-old Barton bourbon with a single ice cube (everyone else has served us bourbon slurpees, brimming with ice) in the correct glass at the correct bar with the correct knickknacks all afternoon, with Robert talking to us. Not entertaining us by playing the old-timey Southern dude, but really TALKING to us—and frying us up memorable cheeseburgers.

It’s hard to describe the deep joyful relief we were feeling. It was also relieving not to hear, for the thousandth time, “Where y’all FROM?”—the only-semipolite version of “Y’all aren’t from around here, are you?”

We noticed, perched with pride of place on a shelf behind the bar, an ancient, unfamiliar-looking bottle of bourbon. JB is staring longingly at it in the top photo, above. Here’s what he’s focusing on (it’s the bottle to the left of the Knob Creek):

Here’s a close-up of the bottle …

... and a mega-close-up:

This bottle had been there, sealed, forever, and Robert gravely informed us that it would remain that way.

This petty disappointment did nothing to reduce our joy at Maxine’s. Moaning with profound contentment, JB and I made our way out, telling Robert we’d be back later that night, much better dressed.

Then it was on to the Bourbon Festival’s closing gala, a $250/person fete where everyone who’s anyone in bourbon (plus nobodies like us) braved the long queue decked out in black tie.

JB in a tux looks like the very epitome of Bourbon, no? Neat trick for a Jewish ice cream exec from California!

The first hour consisted of a fun tasting of interesting bourbon cocktails, plus most of the major brands.

Best of all was an errant bottle of Family Reserve Rye from the Pappy Van Winkle people.

Other attendees ignored it, but JB and I nearly finished off the bottle single-handedly. It’s great stuff, and rye is increasingly popular, but the company can’t produce enough to keep up with demand (it’s hard to latch on to trends when a product requires the better part of a decade to mature!).

JB’s trip was made by getting to meet his hero, Jim Rutledge, the legendary master distiller of Four Roses (who’s quite an unaffected nice guy, by the way).

Hmm … maybe JB’s not exactly the epitome of Bourbon after all …

After the tasting hour, we headed into the tent for dinner, which turned out to be a catered nightmare that could just as easily have been a Long Island bar mitzvah. After an ugly encounter with the first course, struggling to make conversation with the dull strangers at our large table, we bolted for the car and sped back to Maxine’s. No one batted an eyelash as we entered in our tuxedos, and we spent a life-affirming night deliriously gobbling Robert’s soulful steak and potatoes, sipping good bourbon, and schmoozing with Robert, Maxine, and their diverse clientele (including a Bardstown elder who regaled us with bourbon-industry anecdotes and inside dirt). Robert remembered that I’d mentioned loving fried chicken, and he’d bought some chicken wings between our visits to make up some off-menu fried chicken for us. I don’t think he charged us (I need to note that I work anonymously—neither Robert nor any other food professional in these reports had the slightest idea that I’m a writer).

The dinner crowd (perhaps a dozen customers) eventually cleared out, and Maxine, who walks a bit haltingly and seemed completely exhausted, sighed at the sight of all the dirty dishes. I got up and began clearing plates, but Maxine grabbed my arm and begged me to stop (“Honey, me and Robert can clear that out in 20 minutes, really!”). Having coaxed me back to my chair, she cracked open the ancient bottle that had sat on that shelf for decades.

Rereading that last sentence, it seems unbelievable. Why would a couple of new customers—regardless of how friendly and in love with you and your place they may be—inspire you to do such a thing? It’s because Maxine is wise, and she knew we’d fully appreciate it and she understood that we needed it. She sensed that we were desperately seeking from Kentucky something that was uniquely hers to give. We had her treasure and we had her heart … as she had ours.

The bourbon was sublime (and on the house). The night was sublime. Kentucky was sublime. The trip was sublime.

The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told

Lawrenceburg, Berea, Corbin, and Mount Vernon, Kentucky

It’s day three of the Bourbon Festival (for previous reports, use the links in the sidebar). Listen as JB and I plot our day (and JB reveals his pick for “the perfect bourbon”) in podcast #1: MP3

This morning we took a great tour of Four Roses Distillery (1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky; 502-839-3436), which makes some of my favorite bourbons (they don’t reveal which brands they produce on contract, but I’m pretty sure Bulleit, which I particularly love, is among them). Master distiller Jim Rutledge is a legend, and he gave a neat presentation on the ins and outs of bourbon over a surprisingly good buffet breakfast. Lots of people attended— it’s finally starting to feel like a real bourbon festival!

Seeing this sign, as we drove in, was a big moment for JB, who idolizes Four Roses:

Hear part of Jim Rutledge’s presentation (caution: suitable only for extreme bourbon geeks) in podcast #2: MP3

The pre-bourbon porridge:

JB shows poor impulse control.

(I’m kidding. We were actually invited by the tour guide to stick our fingers into the vats for samples. The flavor was yeasty/starchy and totally unbourbon-like.)

Here’s the “beer still” (undistilled bourbon is called “beer” ... and that’s what it is at this point—a mildly alcoholic beverage brewed from grain):

See the beer still in action, in video #1: Movie file

After Four Roses, we blundered into quality frozen custard at Mollie’s (2901 Richmond Road, #160, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-0133), across the street from fabulous Liquor Barn (3040 Richmond Road, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-4170), the place to buy bourbon. Some errant custardy woojoo pulled me into the plasticky shopping strip, and it was good stuff.

Frozen-custard aficionados ought to check out, which lists custard stands nationwide. While it’s incomplete and bare bones, I love that a fellow custard lover takes the trouble.

Then came the most twisted and epic day of chowhounding of my entire life.

+ + +

I was very excited to drive way down to Berea, Kentucky, for the 10th Annual Spoonbread Festival. Spoonbread is sort of a cornmeal souffle, something I’ve been cooking, myself, since the age of eight … without ever having tried anyone else’s. During previous travels in the South, I’ve always looked for it, but there’s a specific spoonbread belt I’ve never managed to pass through. Berea, its seems, is ground zero, hence the festival.

We arrived in town and came upon a large festival in a lovely park, but could find no spoonbread. As usual, food service was dominated by carnival concessionaires hawking blooming onions, funnel cakes, and the other drabness that’s supplanted regional foods at American fairs.

How could there be no spoonbread at a spoonbread festival? It seemed impossible. But finally, off in a corner, hardly noticeable among the zillions of booths offering kitsch, trinkets, and come-ons of various sorts, was a small spoonbread tent. A gloomy woman therein fecklessly scooped dryish spoonbread out of a rice cooker. The crowds stayed away. It was expensive. And it wasn’t very good. This was spoonbread made fast, cheap, and sans an iota of love or care.

But, hey, one bad spoonbread concession needn’t destroy one’s morale when one is at a spoonbread festival! So JB and I amiably walked around, trying to find the rest of the spoonbread. But there wasn’t any. And that’s when we started getting annoyed.

We heard the Boone Tavern might be serving spoonbread back in town, and so we rushed off to go try some. But as we exited the park, we were collared by a trinket-selling young woman named Tammy who was attired in very natural fibers. Tammy could not imagine why anyone would leave such a great scene so early.

“Well, we were sort of hoping for some spoonbread,” I explained, figuring this eminently reasonable statement might satisfy Tammy’s curiosity.

But no. “Berea’s about lots more than spoonbread, you know,” she replied, lightly miffed. I looked at JB and JB looked at me, and I gamely inquired, “Like what?”

Tammy replied vaguely about something called a “moonbow” somewhere outside of town (we later learned that this is a nighttime rainbow—the sort of thing young trinket makers go for). For specific fun tips, she perkily suggested I dial 611 for local information, insisting that the operators know lots of really good things for tourists to do.

I steered the conversation back to spoonbread—a bad idea, as it only stirred up further contempt at our presumption to attend a spoonbread festival expecting spoonbread. How had we heard about the festival, she asked; was it over the Internet? Well, yes, actually it was. Tammy let forth a peal of scornful laughter, the origins of which I still don’t fully understand.

As if on cue, some crusty older dude with military bearing showed up. Tammy told us he worked at the nerve-agent factory. I asked him whether touring the factory might be one of the fun local activities we ought to enjoy in Berea. Tammy’s Rumsfeldian friend shook his head no with a stone face. We could try to get in, he remarked, but we’d likely be shot.

And off we went to the Boone Tavern.

The Boone Tavern (not a real tavern in this dry county) is the expensive restaurant in the quaint Boone Tavern Hotel. Its menu includes shrimp orecchiette and sorghum glazed salmon atop sweet potato risotto but no mention of spoonbread. And it was closed, anyway.

Thus ended our stay in Berea: scorned by Tammy, bereft of spoonbread, and … hungry. Especially JB, who is not accustomed to missing lunch.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Harland Sanders was embittered for years about how KFC had dragged his name in the mud with its miserable fried chicken. The colonel’s chicken, I’d heard, was actually wonderful. At the Harland Sanders Cafe, folks cooked, as one lonely little point of light amid the franchise glop metastasizing around the world, his great original recipe. I’d always wanted to go. And it was only another hour south.

Hear JB and I grouse as we set out from Berea to the Harland Sanders Cafe in podcast #3: MP3

... and watch video of the entire spoonbread catastrophe:

2: The drive into Berea:
Movie file

3: Hot on the trail:
Movie file

4: Explaining my fascination with spoonbread:
Movie file

5: So where’s the freakin’ spoonbread?
Movie file

6: Spoonbread scored … sort of:
Movie file

7: The wrong recipe:
Movie file

8: JB picks morosely at his spoonbread:
Movie file

9: Regrouping … and the indignation mounts:
Movie file

10: The Boone Tavern:
Movie file

+ + +

The drive seemed to take forever, and we finally pulled into scruffy Corbin, ravenously hungry. It was easy to spot from afar: the Harland Sanders Cafe! How exciting!

We went in, and I got a bad feeling when I saw a kitchen encased behind plexiglass, as in a museum.

So was there any food at all? We slowly worked our way around the curving lines of the Harland Sanders Cafe, past a wall of framed photographs of the colonel and his early restaurants, past the restrooms, and … gack. I turned a corner and spotted the very last thing I wanted to see:

Sullen, dead-eyed kids in fast-food uniforms and headsets asked if they could take my order, sir. I stood before them frozen and unable to reply, my jaw slack and mouth agape. Their inured reaction to my staring indicated that countless others had stood in this spot in a similar state of crestfallen paralysis. The tiles beneath my feet were bleached white from the bitter tears of my fellow chicken pilgrims.

The Harland Sanders Cafe had been gotten to. This one holdout, this small point of light, had been snuffed and paved over with dreck. There never was an original recipe. This is the good chicken. Once again: MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, SIR?

Deeply traumatized, we got back in the car and drove silently to Main Street, Corbin, where a Chowhound poster had tipped me to the Fad, a place serving pool hall chili—a nearly extinct regional food. I couldn’t find it, so I tried calling an old number, and some deaf old coot answered.

“Hi, is this the Fad?”
“The Fad?”
“The FAD??”
“Yes, THE FAD!!”
“The Fad’s been closed for 16 years!”

+ + +

Have you ever been in a car where the temperature plunges and you know your passenger is thinking murderous thoughts and there’s nothing you can say or do to restore even a modicum of sunny good feelings? This was one of those times.

We had now driven hundreds of miles, going most of the day without eating a thing. I, as a professional food writer, can time-shift my meals with ease. JB cannot. And JB never really wanted to leave the Bourbon Festival. And JB knew the Harland Sanders Cafe would be a sham. He’d warned me!

The drive out of Corbin (where there’s nothing to eat) was silent and depressing. My sullen passenger was ruing the day he’d left his comfortable California existence (and wife and children, who’d been calling his cell phone hourly to reestablish his sense of guilt re: the abandonment) to tag along on my nutty adventures. So I had to make good.

“JB,” I intoned, after clearing my throat, “I’d like to assure you that by the time this day is over, you will have eaten something extravagantly wonderful. We may be in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but rural empty space between here and Bardstown, but I will find us something sublime. I will pull something out of a hat. Trust me.” JB grunted crankily.

Onward I drove, in the silent, angry car, turning up the radio to drown out the tumult broadcasting from JB’s vacant gastric tract. I did, however, record podcast #4 (with JB bravely feigning optimism for the listening audience): MP3

I stayed off highways, threading my way through small towns and shopping strips, craning my neck to scan storefronts with the catlike alertness of a Manhattanite seeking a parking space. Flop sweat beaded on my brow. Finally, after driving through the chowless main drag of Mount Vernon, Kentucky, I came to a four-way-stop intersection.

I let the car to my left go. I let the car straight ahead of me go. A car approached to the right, and, figuring it was my right of way, I proceeded. The car, which was not planning on stopping, hit the brakes too late, and we collided. It turned out that I was in the wrong. This was a three-way, not four-way, intersection, after all.

The other car had nary a scratch, but the driver, a terrified girl driving a loaner, insisted on calling the police. In time, a cruiser glided into the frame and a late-middle-age patrolman in sunglasses got out. Slowly.

While JB and I watched from across the street, the policeman, without so much as glancing at us, interviewed the driver, went over her paperwork, and took down a report. Sometime during those 45 minutes, JB muttered something to me under his breath that I couldn’t quite make out. Bake off my muffin tins? “Take off your bourbon pin!” he hissed at me, and I realized I was still wearing my Bourbon Festival lapel pin. In a dry county. At the scene of a traffic accident. My God.

I snatched violently at the pin and chucked it into a trash can (along with a small portion of my shirt), and eventually the cop turned his head to fix us with a stare. The woman drove away. The officer slowly—oh, so slowly—proceeded to walk toward us, with jaw set. I flashed on every bad movie I’d ever seen. JB started to shake a little.

After crossing the street as if it were a four-mile trek through tobacco juice (paying no attention to traffic, which stopped to allow his brooding passage), he approached JB and me, extended his hand, and smiled widely. “Bill Barrett!” he boomed. “Jim Leff!” I answered, hesitantly. A tiny voice next to me whimpered, “Uh, JB Leibovitch.”

Officer Bill proceeded to take down our information. Very slowly. Officer Bill isn’t one for paperwork, but he gamely plowed through the procedure, double- and triple-checking numbers and addresses. All my papers were laid out on the hood of my car, including, last and all the way to the right, my insurance card—which I noted, with no small panic, had expired two weeks earlier. I knew that JB noticed this, because his shaking had increased. I was worried his sneakers might stamp cracks into the concrete sidewalk.

Officer Bill was so friendly and engaging, though, that I nearly forgot this looming disaster and just enjoyed his conversation. JB was wondering how long it would take me to steer the conversation to food, but I didn’t need to. Officer Bill, you see, is a serious food lover. Without knowing a thing about me, he began pelting me with chow tips.

“You were in Berea? Did you get a chance to try that pizzeria just off the square? I think their crust is something special!”

“No, didn’t get there. We were trying to find spoonbread at the spoonbread festival … I can’t find spoonbread back home.”

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Really? I used to live in Jersey. There was this sensational Italian bakery … damn, what was the name?”

And on it went. I never expected to meet such a kindred spirit under such conditions. But conditions were about to change, because Officer Bill was moments away from setting eyes on my expired insurance card, and I couldn’t handle the tension any more.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed. “I see my insurance card’s expired!”

“Hold on. Just hoooold on a minute. We’re not up to that yet,” said the methodical policeman, who was still wrestling with my registration info. The food schmooze continued, I was starting to sense the launch of a lifelong friendship, and I felt thoroughly ashamed for having fallen prey to stereotyping.

Finally Officer Bill picked up my insurance card and sighed. “You know, if you’re not insured and you tell me you are, we’ll have to subpoena you for passing false information?”

“Yes, Officer Bill. You see, I left on this trip—I’m eating my way across North America for a media company in California—over three weeks ago, so it expired while I was on the road and the new card is surely sitting in my mailbox back home.”

I was way too off-script at this point—I think Officer Bill stopped listening sometime around the point when I mentioned “a media company in California.” And it was after 5 p.m., so my insurance agent had left the office. Officer Bill seemed unsure what to do with me.

“Look,” I said, “I’m perfectly willing to spend the night in jail if need be. All I ask is something great to eat for dinner first. We’re not here for pizza. We need something local. Something like catfish.”

At mention of the word “catfish,” Officer Bill’s eyes lit up. “What day is this?” he asked. “Friday!” JB and I shouted in unison. Officer Bill slapped the hood of my car and told us we had to go immediately to Derby City Truck Stop, on the other side of the interstate, where they fry the heck out of catfish, Fridays only. Hardly able to contain our jubilance, JB and I carefully jotted down the directions, pumped Officer Bill’s hand with deep, affectionate gratitude, and drove off to a rather generic-looking truck stop.

There was no catfish—they were frying up some other fish. We ordered, the plate came, and the fish was fantastic. Just look at it!

Notice JB’s hand in the background of this photo, balled up into a fist of exhilaration:

At this point we recorded podcast #5, running down the day’s highlights and trying to synchronize our level of adoration for Derby City Truck Stop: MP3

After the first order of fish, the revelrous mood sank a bit as we started to doubt our feelings. The dramatic arc of this story demanded a monumental finale. Was the fish truly great, or were we merely willing it to be great? As with most Kentucky restaurants, the Derby City Truck Stop is all-you-can-eat, so we requested another round. And it was even better. We went through order after order, insatiable, refusing to ever stop eating. It was like being on a cosmic escalator of galvanizing chowhound wonderment.

Hear the podcasts we recorded between each supernal round:

Podcast #6—JB recants: The fish isn’t good, it’s “really, really” good, after all: MP3

Podcast #7— No … the fish is actually even better than we thought: MP3

Podcast #8—Fish round 4: MP3

Dessert was even better. Much better, in fact:

Lemon meringue pie with perfect meringue—tight as a nail but gossamer light and instantly melting. Geological striations of luscious custard, sharp and true lemon, and the richest, moistest, crumbliest of graham cracker crusts. Banana pudding was the best I’ve ever had (and this is a dish I’ve had a lot), with banana slices perfectly dovetailing into rich pudding, Nilla Wafers neither saturated nor dry, and more of that incredible meringue.

Hear the giddy dessert podcast: MP3

And then: blackberry cobbler.

In report #29, I explained how sometimes, back in Bardstown, “the wind shifts, and angels puff into your nose. An unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation” from the aging bourbon barrels scattered around town. This blackberry cobbler, though it contained no bourbon, was the sweet embodiment of that indescribable, deeply consoling aroma. I never thought I’d find it in edible form. Even bourbon itself doesn’t fulfill that aromatic promise. But the blackberry cobbler did. I felt utterly complete.

I’d had the perfect meal; a meal so unfathomably delicious that it transformed an agonizing day into a gorgeous operatic crescendo of awed predestination. I would not have changed a single thing.

+ + +

NOTE: If you skipped the videos or podcasts from the spoonbread festival, above, you may want to go back and check them out. They really evoke the comical slow burn as events unfolded.

I’m sorry I have no photos or video of Officer Bill, but he will forever be etched in my memory as one of the great heroes of chowhounding. The next time you eat something wonderful, please toast Officer Bill Barrett, Chowhound Paragon.

Barrels, Barrels, Everywhere

Bardstown, Kentucky (continued)

What says “fun” more than a barrel-rolling competition? Consider us your go-to source for up-to-the-minute reports on this burgeoning sport.

The aim isn’t just to hustle around 500-pound water-filled barrels. It’s to ensure that they all wind up with their bungholes facing up (if one is off by even an inch, points are deducted). And since each barrel travels less distance than the one before, the roller must make allowances by spinning these suckers around with incredible precision.

In the following video, watch the logos on the barrels (which correspond to the locations of the bungholes). Ideally, all logos will wind up neatly in the up position. Movie file

Check out this old-time barrel wrangler (bear in mind that these things weigh 500 pounds each): Movie file

Heaven Hill Tour

We toured the Heaven Hill distillery. These guys make Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, and they also quietly produce bourbon on contract for many other companies (contract distilling is a common arrangement; the hundreds of Kentucky bourbons are all produced by Kentucky’s nine remaining distilleries).

Here are the storage facilities where the barrels are aged. Yes, they look eerily like penitentiaries, but the smell is, as I noted in my last report, nothing short of heavenly.

It’s all about those barrels, babe:

Here’s a weird, but weirdly educational, exhibit. The instructions read, “Press button for aroma,” which emerges from the brass horn:

Eager tour participants in guided tasting:

Back to the bourbon festival, which, on the weekend, actually turns into a bourbon festival. Tons of people come and congregate on a fairground, a few of whom cram into a small area where shots of all the usual bourbons are sold. You drink from plastic cups, standing up, outdoors in the heat.

The perimeter was rife with merchandising, none of it very intriguing:

This wasn’t really what we were hoping for. So we turned our sights on food, which was sort of generic fair food, with a couple of exceptions.

Hog Wild BBQ, from Boston, Kentucky, sent a van:

They make fried corn (breaded and deep-fried half ears), certainly a new sensation for me:

Burgoo soup sounds more interesting than it tastes (sweet and tomatoey):

Pulled pork and brisket were OK:

The only thing approaching deliciousness was a truck where a family from Oaxaca prepared gringo-friendly Mexican food. After I talked to them for a while in Spanish and expressed my appreciation for Oaxacan cuisine, they made me a couple of things with some actual chile heat. These guys aren’t serious cooks, just immigrants trying to make a few bucks via their ethnicity. And they lacked any kind of real ingredients. But they put their hearts into their work, and it had a charm. It was a small find, but as with the Treadwell Franklin Walton United Methodist Church Pancake Griddle I found at the otherwise missable Delaware County Fair in upstate New York, anything above/beyond the usual carnival fare is a blessing indeed. Even, alas, if the carnival is as hip-sounding as the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

My halfhearted effort to persuade the Mexican wife to bring me real Oaxacan tamales the next day went nowhere.

So Where’s the Bourbon?

Frustration in Bardstown

After the dramatic balloon glow, I set out to do what I thought would be an easy thing: find a place to sip a good bourbon in Bardstown, Kentucky, the hometown of Kentucky bourbon, on the eve of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

There is one and only one likely venue in Bardstown: the historic Old Talbott Tavern. The woody, atmospheric bar was closed for a private party, but I was directed by a hostess to try their annex, a hellish noisy teen pick-up nightmare. I declined. Around Bardstown I drove, at 9 p.m., searching, like Diogenes, for an honest bar. I might as well have been in Long Island or Phoenix. There’s nowhere to drink beyond a handful of lousy generic watering holes. Where are the bourbon-loving festival attendees? WHERE’S THE FREAKIN’ BOURBON??

I stumbled into a moldering joint down a dark alley, which only served beer—probably a wise choice, given the scary clientele. The denizens directed me to a sports bar on the edge of town where the bartender—a hardened dye-job blonde in a belly shirt—muttered and mumbled her short list of bourbon holdings, bringing me my $2 shot in what appeared to be a plastic urine sample cup. Having spent years dreaming of attending this bourbon festival, I was determined to make the most of it, and remained perky and engaged amid deafening gangsta rap music and hostile gazes from plastered rednecks who’d never before seen anyone ask a bartender to list the bourbons.

That was last night. This morning, my bourbon-drinking buddy JB arrived on a red-eye flight from California. JB is a busy ice cream executive with two young kids. He’s the last person in the world you’d expect to be able to get away, but he’s managed, via months of coercion and planning, to convince wife and coworkers to allow this trip. It will take him years to pay back the favors asked and chits cashed, and all he expects is a few days relaxing in a bourbon-saturated wonderland.

After much soul-searching, I decided to give him the bad news right off the bat, figuring low expectations are always the best policy. JB’s a pretty cool dude, and he handled the news pretty well. Watch along in this video: Movie file

We spent the day chowhounding the area. First we hit Kurtz’s for excellent pie and cobbler, and weirdly latke-like cornbread (this area makes “hot water” cornbread, which appears to be little pancakes).

Believe it or not, this is cornbread!

Then we hit Tom Pig’s restaurant, mostly just because I liked the name. As with nearly every other restaurant in Kentucky, service is “all you can eat.” In Kentucky restaurants, it’s generally not possible to eat less than all one can eat. Unfortunately, JB couldn’t eat more than a bite of his roast beef sandwich in catastrophic brown gravy:

Tom Pig’s fried chicken was quite satisfying, however:

On an impulse, I order grilled cheese, and it was GREAT:

One of my side missions was to check out fried chicken in gas stations, but greatness evaded me. Even this Citgo (the second Citgo station I’ve eaten at during this trip—see report #16 for the previous one), with an awesome rooster in front, disappointed:

Look at this weird bug we found on the wall:

The Old Talbott Tavern was closed for the afternoon, but we finally found a non-awful alternative for bourbon drinking: Kreso’s, an upscale Bosnian restaurant. They’re not overtly Bosnian, but that’s where the folks are from, and there are some Bosnian gestures on the menu— though, being too stuffed with fried chicken, we didn’t try anything.

Kudos to JB, who made a major, major score here, noticing (via a mirror reflection) a bottle even the staff didn’t know about. Watch a video explaining this find: Movie file

Then we attended our first official, ticketed festival event: a “cooking with bourbon” demonstration. We ate some uninspired food, hoping against hope that the chef/speaker would liven things up by setting the joint on fire with his flambé:

The drippy crowd was non-revelrous, but at least they assured us we weren’t the only ones lured into this supposed festival.

We once again missed the chance to drink at the historic, woody Old Talbott Tavern, which closed at 10 p.m.—during a bourbon festival! So we headed over to an ongoing little bourbon tasting at the Chapeze House ...

... where we paid a healthy sum of money for a trayful of micro-splashes in little plastic cups …

...from a dizzying number of bottles:

Sip along with JB and me, on a languorous summer night in small-town Kentucky, via this podcast: MP3

It was a good learning experience, and we found a few new brands to love (Noah’s Mill, Old Fitzgerald 1849, and Vintage Rye 23-Year-Old Whiskey), but it was all a bit overwhelming. Lesson learned: Bourbon is not much fun when you’re quaffing microsplashes of multiple brands in plastic cups. Very little drinking satisfaction. This is, after all, not chardonnay. This is bourbon, and we want to expansively sip good stuff, cavorting with other aficionados. We remain, alas, frustrated in this ambition.

See how discontent poor JB, all duded out in his “party” shirt, is, despite his brave Game Face:

Here are the bourbon price lists mentioned in the podcast:

LeNell’s, a bourbon-specialist liquor store in Brooklyn, New York

Vintage Wine & Spirits of Mill Valley, California

Virginia state liquor stores

New Hampshire state liquor stores

This was obviously not the greatest of days. But if hell is the absolute absence of divine love, we’ve certainly not been damned. Because every few hours in Bardstown, the wind shifts and angels puff into your nose. An unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation.

It took a while before I realized this was a worldly scent rather than a religious awakening. It’s the smell of bourbon aging in barrels, which no poet alive could capture in words. This is, quite simply, what your nose always craved. Sporadically and unexpectedly throughout each and every day, no matter where you are (even if there’s no distillery for miles around), you suddenly feel utterly enraptured.

A ghostly bourbon-storage facility.