Bourbon Brigade

By Hyacinth Miles

After several months of carrying around a leaky bottle of bourbon in my car I finally called the manufacturer, Bourbon Distillers Ltd. The reclusive Mr. Kulsveen suggested that I might exchange the defective bottle for a new one at their distributor’s office. The office turned out to be a cinder block building, which was completely unremarkable except for the fact that it was totally unmarked on the outside, lending a quality of espionage to my errand.

Hence I finally got the bottle out of my car and in the mail to my friend in Pittsburgh. But the entire incident made me curious to learn more about bourbon. So I called up Tom Troland, bourbon connoisseur and an exhaustive source of information about the local distillers.

The first time I called I caught him in the middle of a party.

“I heard you were a bourbon expert,” I said, after introducing myself.

“I do like bourbon.” he said. “So I shrewdly disguise a drinking problem under the guise of expertise. Do you have a drinking problem?”

“Yes,” I said, “But I don’t have any intellectual justification for it.” Considering that this conversation was taking place halfway through Labor Day Weekend, my justification was factual.

One of the first things Mr. Troland set me straight on was the number of bourbon distillers in Kentucky. I (and, incidentally, Maker’s Mark, which gave me that information) had thought there were seven distillers in the state, but according to Mr. Troland there are 10, if you count both Jim Beam sites. The others are Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, Barton’s, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill.

Each of these distillers follow the laws governing bourbon as laid down by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a federal organization founded on the principle that all vices should be part of the same bureaucracy.

In addition to specifying what percentage of alcohol the bourbon can be at different stages of the its manufacture (not more than 62.5% when it is put in the cask, although due to evaporation in the barrel it can end up much stronger), BATF requires that bourbon be aged in charred, unused oak barrels. According to Mr. Troland, it is this step that makes bourbon different from all other alcohol.

“Over time tannins and other flavors in the wood are released into the bourbon,” he said. “The longer the bourbon is left to age, the stronger the presence of oak flavors will be.” When I asked how long bourbon should age, Mr. Troland was thoughtful. “Two years is the legal minimum. Beyond that, it depends on what you’re looking for. Older doesn’t always mean better. Many times a very long aging can result in a much harsher taste.”

The average time for a bourbon to age is five or six years, which is much less time than, say, Scotch whiskey ages, because Scotch makers use old barrels. Therefore the wood will not affect the taste of the Scotch as quickly as it will the bourbon.

When I asked Mr. Troland if he had any bourbon recommendations, he threw out a dizzying array of names. Two that stood out were George T. Stagg, and Eagle Rare, from Buffalo Trace. Both of these bourbons have limited distribution and are released only once a year, usually in the fall. They can be difficult to come by at other times of the year, due to their enthusiastic local following.

For something always likely to be at your local liquor store, Mr. Troland recommended Elmer T. Lee, also from Buffalo Trace, named for their master distiller, and Jimmy Russell Reserve. For something slightly cheaper he suggests Jim Beam Black Label. “But really,” he says, “I like them all. There are so many good bourbons on the market these days.”

For those looking for another unique whiskey experience, rye whiskey is enjoying an increase in popularity. “People might think it’s Canadian,” said Mr. Troland. “But really it’s not.” In fact many of the local bourbon distilleries also produce a rye whiskey.
The process of making rye whiskey is very similar to that of making bourbon, but whereas bourbon is made from corn, the primary grain in rye whiskey is (surprise!) rye. Like bourbon, rye whiskey must contain 51% of its primary type of grain. A few good rye whiskies on the market right now are Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac, or the Jim Beam Rye.

When choosing a bourbon or rye whiskey, consider buying a higher proof. Bourbons that contain more alcohol will have a more robust flavor. “You can always water it down if the alcohol content is too high for you. Just remember to always use bottled water, never tap water.”

“Any last bourbon anecdotes you’d like to share before we finish up?” I asked.

“Well, there is that story about Mark Twain,” Mr. Troland said. “A guest at the writer’s house saw that Twain had a very large stash of bourbon. When he asked why his host needed so many bottles, Twain replied, “’I drink bourbon to prevent toothaches…I’ve never had a toothache…’”

Words of wisdom. n