I was delighted awhile ago when my job sent me to Louisville, Kentucky. Actually, let me give a bit more context: A job I was planning to quit in 6 weeks was sending me to Louisville. Home of bourbon.
There’s a magnetic field around Louisville keeping some really tasty smaller batch bourbons from hitting other markets. Some you can’t get anywhere outside of Kentucky. Now that I knew I could half-ass all of my work obligations, my self-assigned mission was to try as many obscure bourbons as I could.
It did not take me long to locate a few establishments that offer bourbon flights. All are somewhat touristy. I chose the Seelbach Bar where on a quiet Sunday afternoon I sidled up to the bar and though the bartender did not say, “Just call me the bus driver ‘cause I’m taking you to school,” well, she should have.
Here’s what I had over a few days, some rare, some not-so-rare (a few of these I had back at home, actually, I include them for comparisons sake):
• Four Roses Single Barrel: Four Roses was a wildly popular bourbon in the US before it was made unavailable for 50 years due to some arcane export decision by its parent company, Seagram’s. It’s still hard to find in some states (though not quite as hard to find as their website would have you believe). Odds are this was your grandfather’s bourbon. My kindly bartender advised me that this was also the brand most likely drank by any overseas armed forces personnel (particularly in Japan) and no doubt was the impetus for many a regrettable tattoo or shore leave romance, paid for or otherwise. The Single Barrel is sublime; rosewater and cedar are lying low in there, and their presence is appreciated.
• Four Roses Small Batch: A bit more citrus than the single barrel and a bit more fight to it. Roughly $10 cheaper per bottle than the single barrel but it doesn’t have a lesser taste so much as a different taste. A fine value.
• Jim Beam Black Label: Fancy Manhattan guys in finance on the bourbon bandwagon could be a bit squeamish around this bad boy. Sure it’s mass-produced. So is a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson. So what? Remember when you were a kid and you used a magnifying glass to burn your name into pieces of wood? Imagine you burned the word, “Bourbon,” onto a 2x4; now imagine someone hit you with that 2x4. That’s how this bourbon tastes. In a good way.
• Old Pogue 9yr. It’s oakier than some of the other one’s I tried but still remains balanced. I like a really broad mouth feel (that’s what she said) and this delivers. If I could find this at home it would be my ‘everyday’ bourbon.
• Noah’s Mill 15yr. 118 proof so pretty harsh, you probably need a few drops of water to brink this to an even keel. Without adding water, beneath the searing pain of alcohol, I get coffee and hazelnuts (though it is impressive I get anything). Taking baby sips you can get some real sweetness. After I cut it with a bit of water it becomes grassier and more herbaceous.
• Elijah Craig 18yr. The bartender advised me this was the oldest single barrel bourbon made. It’s got less structure but a nice straw and barnyard feel to it; which is not to imply cow guano so much as corn and wood, country air and bluegrass. Put another way, this bourbon tastes like William effing Faulkner.
• Pappy Van Winkle 23yr. Again, I like my bourbon to hurt a bit, and this was magnificent, yet too smooth for my taste. The flavors were great; vanilla, maple, maybe some tobacco, but come on, fight back.
• Eagle Rare, 17yr. This one had a decent bite but still not quite enough for me. There’s a little coffee hiding in here. For those with different taste, I could easily see how this could be considered their ‘perfect bourbon’ but for me it’s just a ‘damn fine’ bourbon.
• Vintage Bourbon 23yr. Helloooo bartender. I said goddamn. This bourbon is a photo-finish away from perfection. Though I don’t typically add water, I’m cool with those who do because hey, the master distiller adds water so we shouldn’t get all snooty about it. I think the water is what is holding this one back from true greatness. It tastes like the distiller added a tiny bit too much.
• Four Roses, 120th Anniversary, barrel strength. Dammit. The bartender snuck us both a pour on the house and I added too much water to mine. I was still able to get a strong rye finish out of this one, but I don’t have anything else too meaningful to say about it.
My kindly bartender showed me a trick for adding water after I mucked up the last bourbon (and maybe everyone but me already knew this). You always want to add the water with some precision less you ruin your bourbon, so it is best to go drop-by-drop. Just get a straw, put it partway in your water, plug the end of the straw with your thumb and release the water over your bourbon. I think the last time I employed this strategy for transporting liquid was with chocolate milk in the 5th grade lunchroom.