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
- The best horses in the world.
- The most amazing hats you'll ever see.
- 100,000 of your closest friends on the infield.
- 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
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
If you're ever lucky enough to find yourself in the
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…