Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"First Saturday in May" -- bonus entry!

If you can't identify the reference, you're clearly not a Kentuckian. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- but y'all need some educatin'...

The Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday in May each year. This year is the 133rd running at Churchill Downs in Louisville. (However, if you want to really experience Thoroughbred racing, drive an hour and a half to the east and go to Keeneland in Lexington during Spring and Fall meets. You'll understand…)

The Kentucky Derby is:

  • The best horses in the world.
  • The most amazing hats you'll ever see.
  • 100,000 of your closest friends on the infield.
  • Burgoo.
  • Mint juleps.

The backbone of a mint julep, of course, is bourbon. One of my favorite columnists is Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle. He once made a somewhat disparaging comment about bourbon, specifically Maker's Mark, in one of his columns, and he was a big enough man to do some research about Kentucky's contribution to the world of spirits and understand he was mistaking bourbon for ordinary whiskey. (He also gave me some fabulous scotch recommendations -- but that's another story.)

So what's the difference? For a whiskey to call itself "bourbon," there are several criteria it has to meet -- relating to production, aging, composition, and so on. The process is exacting -- so don't let anyone tell you that Jack Daniels is bourbon. It's not. And should be treated as such.

Bourbon is a sipping drink. Good bourbons are best either neat (LiquorSpeak for "poured into a glass, mixed only with air"), on the rocks, or cut with a splash of water. The first two are the way I usually take mine.

I did a taste test with four "midrange" bourbons. The really inexpensive stuff, for my taste, isn't good for much of anything except doing shots and baking. (That's your Ancient Age, Ten High, Beam, Evan Williams, et al.) The expensive stuff is…well…expensive. But here are four that you'll likely find on any liquor store shelf.

Maker's Mark -- You can't miss Maker's. The distinctive bottle shape. The red wax. The font on the label. And, of course, the flavor. Maker's uses a higher percentage of winter wheat as a main grain in the mash, which produces a very smooth, distinctive flavor. Makers has a nose that's slightly smoky and has a strong vanilla component. The flavor, even neat, is smooth and balanced with a nice warmth at the end. Unlike some bourbons, the "warmth" doesn't catch in your throat. There's a slight smokiness, too. I think it's a very pleasant drink. $20-26 for a fifth.

Wild Turkey 101 Proof -- Ah, the "Kickin' Chicken." In the interest of full disclosure, this was the first alcohol that I ever…shall we say…overimbibed, and it turned me off bourbon until I was an older and wiser man. Wild Turkey is the transition between the cheap stuff I mentioned above and the better grades of bourbon. Still, it's pretty common, so I'll include it. Tasting it after the Maker's was a shock. The scent of alcohol on the nose is much, much stronger. The nose is also "heavier" and smokier. The taste is hot and smoky. Now, if you cut it with a splash of water, you're going to have more of an easy time, and there's some nice vanilla and caramel flavors that I didn't expect. Still, it's not my favorite, even after all these years. $15-23 for a fifth.

Woodford Reserve -- Among Kentucky bourbon drinkers, there's a definite split. There are Maker's drinkers. There are Woodford drinkers, and rarely the twain shall meet. There's good reason for this -- apparent when you taste it. Woodford has a wonderful nose -- almost floral, with scents of cedar and vanilla. It's a smooth drink -- and is much more sweet than the others here. It's not as smoky, but to my palate -- not nearly as flavorful as many other bourbons. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff -- but it's not going to be as interesting flavorwise. Woodford Reserve is also made by Brown-Forman, the company that brings you Jack Daniels, Herradura, Canadian Mist, Early Times, Fetzer, and others. $20-29 for a fifth.

Buffalo Trace -- Buffalo Trace is one of the more recent entries into this price point of bourbons. The nose is very clean, almost nearing the scent of scotch. It's almost "mossy" -- not quite peaty like a scotch. The taste, however, loses the little caramel in the heat of the alcohol. Cut with a little water, however, you get a smooth vanilla taste as the smoke and alcohol get balanced out a little bit. $16-25 for a fifth.

Again, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a Maker's drinker by habit, as any of my friends will tell you. Of the bourbons of this type, it's my favorite -- especially in winter during basketball season. As for Derby time, I also think Maker's is the best backbone for mint juleps. Many people swear by Woodford for juleps, but since Woodford is already sweet, I think adding the requisite simple syrup overpowers the flavor with sugar. (I'll toot my own horn…my juleps are peerless.)

If you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in the Bluegrass, you owe it to yourself to take the road trip down the bourbon trail. You can tour the Maker's, Woodford Reserve (actually, Labrot & Graham), and Buffalo Trace distilleries -- and for bourbon aficionados and turistas alike, seeing the history and learning about the spirit of the spirit is well worth the drive. (Although be forewarned, Loretto, KY -- where Maker's is distilled -- is a dry county…)

Also, slipping out of Vine character for a bit -- there are some premium bourbons worth splurging on. Some of my favorites are the "B's": Blanton's, Baker's, and Basil Hayden's. If you can find a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's 15 year, I'd put that up against the finest scotches. And then there's a whiskey not technically a bourbon, but well worth a try -- Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. Trust me…the stuff is sweet music. Bernheim was created by the grandfather of Miss Judy, one of my dear friends.

For those of you who haven't yet recognized the First Saturday in May as the holiday it truly is -- give some of these a try. You'll start to understand. And if you don't, you'll have fun trying.

Until next time -- place your bets…


Anonymous said...

woo blantons!!


Great writeup. As a Lexington resident, I happen to almost completely agree with you. While I like Woodford ok, it has this kind of early chemical taste to it that Makers completely lacks. Definitely my second choice of the common options.

I'll take the B's or the Pappy's any day though. First I've heard of Bernheim though, will have to give that a shot.

Anonymous said...

I still say the best julep leaves the sugar sprinkled over your shoulder instead of in the glass. Mint and ice goe well with bourbon, though.

Lord Runolfr said...

Of course Jack Daniels isn't a bourbon: it's a Tennessee Whiskey, which has its own distinct standards that we wouldn't want confused with those of bourbon.

Nothing wrong with bourbon mind you, but it's not the same thing.