Category Archives: Essays

Dr. James Crow

You don’t have to dig deep into the history of bourbon before you will come across the name of Dr. James Crow. There may not even be a bourbon history without Dr. Crow. His contributions to the distilling process set the standard for producing good, consistent bourbon and these processes, for the most part, have not changed in almost 200 years. It’s no wonder that he’s often referred to as the “father of bourbon.”

Dr. Crow graduated from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as a doctor and chemist. He arrived in Kentucky in 1823 and went to work at the Glenn’s Creek distillery for a short time. He then went to work at the Old Oscar Pepper distillery where he remained for most of his career. It was there that he applied the scientific method to making whiskey and thus changed the course of bourbon history.

The basic formula for whiskey is this: beer and steam go into the still, and alcohol and spent mash come out. Early distillers made whiskey as consistently as possible, but in the end, it didn’t make much difference. It was sold by the barrel and ended up in the hands of rectifiers who would add colors and flavors and water to make more profit. Crow, on the other hand, approached distilling as a scientist and began to look at the many variables of the whiskey-making process. He wanted to know why some whiskeys were good and some were bad. Armed with a thermometer, a hydrometer to check proof, and litmus paper to measure acidity, he began to meticulously record all of this data until he learned what made consistently good whiskey. He also was extremely concerned with cleanliness in the distillery. Dirty equipment, vats and tanks could harbor bacteria and even unwanted yeasts that would make whiskey taste bad.

It is worth noting that Dr. Crow is often credited with ‘inventing’ the sour mash process. This involves adding some of the spent mash from a previous batch of whiskey to start fermentation of the next batch. The sour mash process keeps ph levels and yeast strains consistent with each run of the still, ensuring a consistent product and controlling the growth of unwanted bacteria that could taint the whiskey. It is more likely that Dr. Crow learned the method elsewhere and became responsible for its use in almost all bourbons.

After experimenting with batch after batch, his bourbon was so good that people began to ask for ‘Old Crow’ by name. It was one of the first bourbons to be referred to by brand and was enjoyed by many of his contemporaries, including Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Walt Whitman, Henry Clay, Jack London and Mark Twain. According to legend, Grant’s critics complained to president Lincoln about Grant’s excessive drinking, to which Lincoln replied ‘Find out what kind of whiskey he drinks and send a barrel to my other generals.’

Doc Crow died in 1856 but his contributions live on in every drop of delicious bourbon that passes your lips. Almost 50 years after his death, the New York Times wrote that “to him, more than to any other man, is due the international reputation that Kentucky whiskey enjoys, and the vast distilling interests of the country are largely the result of his discoveries.” With that in mind, Doc, I drink one to you. Cheers.

Bourbon Tasting Journals

I’m not a huge fan of bourbon ratings or reviews other than for personal reasons because in the end, they are basically someone’s opinion and opinions as they say are like, well you know. Unless you find someone whose tastes in bourbon are exactly like yours, then their rating could be totally irrelevant to you. The exception? If a bourbon tastes like gasoline. Still though, there may be someone out there who likes that who would otherwise be deterred from trying it because of a bad review.

Your personal ratings are going to be the best tool you can use in order to consistently find new bourbons that you like. Finding out which bourbons have a similar mashbill, age statement or even distiller can be clues to which bourbon you should try next. But how do you remember all of the different whiskeys you’ve tried and how you rated them?

Although there are several apps available for iPhone and Android, I personally use a whiskey journal. I like the feel of paper and pen but again, that is a personal preference. The journal I use has a place to write all of the pertinent information about the bourbon, including color, age, distiller, a flavor wheel, etc… The great thing about these journals, which they make for wine and beer as well, is that you can flip through and see what you wrote about a bourbon that you haven’t tried in months with quick access to how you rated it. Is it something you would serve at a party? Use for mixed drinks? Give as a gift? Also, it is convenient to compare last year’s limited release of a bourbon to this year’s release or to compare different batches of the same bourbon.

The best way to learn about bourbon is to drink bourbon. The best way to remember what you drank is to write about it. You’ll soon find that you have an invaluable tool to go back to again and again to refresh your memory and impress your friends. Happy drinking and journaling!

The Old-Fashioned: America’s Original Cocktail

I spend my nights driving for Lyft, mostly taking people to and from bars.  On a recent Thursday morning, I picked up a group of three coeds around 2:00 am, and as I drove them back to campus from a night of $1 well drinks, I learned that one of them was a bartender.

As we made small talk, I looked in the rear-view mirror and asked the bartender if she minded telling me how she made an Old-Fashioned.  She obliged me with a recipe that included simple syrup, soda water, muddled fruit and bourbon.

“That’s not an Old-Fashioned,” her friend who sat in the front, next to me, blurted out.  “You don’t use soda, and where are the bitters?”

“It’s a sports bar,” the bartender said.  “Our customers aren’t as picky as you.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” the friend in front said.

“They don’t care,” the bartender said.

“I didn’t know you can’t make an Old-Fashioned,” the friend in front said.  “This changes everything.”  He looked at me and shook his head the way Peyton Manning does when a receiver drops a pass.

“It’s a sports bar,” the bartender said again.

“I’m into cocktails,” the friend in front told me.  “I’ve got a book that’s only about the Old-Fashioned and its history.  I’m kind of a snob.”

We pulled into the drive-through at Taco Bell and the Old-Fashioned controversy was quickly forgotten as my passengers pooled their singles and pocket change for a few burritos.

The argument flared up out of nowhere and flashed brightly for a few minutes, like a barroom brawl, something that is typical among those who make and/or fetishize cocktails in general and the Old-Fashioned especially.

Put another way, the Old-Fashioned is one of those polarizing, line-in-the-sand topics that people use as a litmus test of one’s character – like your political party affiliation, your religion or whether you love the Yankees.

So.  Why all the fuss?

The Mount Rushmore of Cocktails

The Old-Fashioned is America’s proto-cocktail, dating back to the time between the Revolution and the War of 1812.  The earliest documented use of the term “cocktail” comes from the May 6, 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository, a newspaper from Hudson, New York, in which a reader asked the editors to define the term.  A week later, the paper defined “cocktail” as a “potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water and sugar,” still the standard definition, especially for modern mixologists, who curate and promote the original or traditional recipes of venerable cocktails.

Being the original cocktail, the Old-Fashioned didn’t need a fancy name to distinguish it from competitors in its early days.  Known simply as a Whiskey Cocktail, the name stuck…for a time.

Throughout the 1800’s, the Whiskey Cocktail was modified according to local tastes, substituting other spirits for whiskey, as well as more exotic garnishes and ingredients.  By the 1860’s, a nostalgic backlash against the rising number of cocktail variants gave birth to a new name for the granddaddy of cocktails – the Old-Fashioned – which refers to an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail made according to the traditional recipe.

Like an amateur artist adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa, bartenders everywhere used the traditional Old-Fashioned recipe as a platform on which to demonstrate their genius, and cocktail manuals printed through the twentieth-century give testimony to the assault that was made on the drink.  Along the way, the lemon peel gave way to the orange wedge, which was coupled with a maraschino cherry – as garnishes and as a muddled slush of pulp to give the cocktail the consistency of soup.  Another variant that has become standard in some quarters included dousing the drink with soda water.

And so it went.  As the Y2K scare came and went, the Old-Fashioned became just that, an old-fashioned cocktail ordered by no one but out-of-touch seniors with blue hair and beige, Velcroed shoes.

Mad Men, Mixology and Craft Cocktails

If anyone was paying attention, it would have appeared that the Old-Fashioned was about to go the way of the 8-track tape deck, but two events occurred almost simultaneously that reversed the fortunes of the cocktail – Mad Men and the rise of craft cocktail bars.

In 2007, Mad Men premiered on AMC, telling the story of a 1960’s era New York advertising agency.  In the pilot episode, Don Draper, the story’s main character orders what will become his signature cocktail – an Old-Fashioned.  The series sparked many fads, like a surge in mid-century home furnishings.  It also coincided with the rise of mixology as a deepening of the concept of bartender and craft cocktail bars, where patrons enjoyed the kinds of classic cocktails featured in old, black-and-white movies.

Recipe Controversy

As mixologists and aficionados alike delved into the history of the Old-Fashioned, a debate arose over the proper construction of the drink.  This led to scholarly research in which sources like the aforementioned 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository were discovered.  Even though early recipes indicate the starting point for the Old-Fashioned, people cling to their favorite versions of the cocktail.  Even Mad Men’s Don Draper added to the controversy when he was shown making an Old-Fashioned in season three.

Purists, like David Wondrich, who writes for “Esquire” magazine, advocate a recipe like this one which sticks to the original:

  • ½ tsp. of loose sugar in the bottom of a single Old-Fashioned glass
  • 2-3 healthy dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp. of water
  • muddle these ingredients until the sugar is dissolved, as it won’t hardly dissolve in alcohol
  • add 3 ice cubes to the glass
  • stir
  • add 2 oz. or rye whiskey or bourbon
  • stir again
  • add a twist of lemon or orange peel, then use as a garnish
  • add a stirring implement
  • let sit for one minute before serving

The next time you’re at a bar and feeling bored, ask the bartender how he or she makes an Old-Fashioned.  No matter what they say, you’ll have the makings of a great bar-bet.  Just be careful that you don’t get into a barroom brawl.  The Old-Fashioned will do that to people.

Hashtag #BourbonLove Hashtag #BourbonIsFriendly

Last week at the Filson Historical Society’s Bourbon Salon, I ran into Maggie Kimbertl, the “unofficial” bourbon editor for louisville.com. She’s also very active on Twitter. We were discussing Twitter and how I’ve been using #bourbonisfriendly when tweeting about bourbon. Maggie asked Sarah Strapp, one of the Filson event coordinators, if she had a preferred hashtag for live tweeting about the bourbon salon and she said #bourbonlove.

If you haven’t been to bourbon tasting, you may not understand why either of these tags mean anything. But the first time you do, you’ll quickly see what is meant by #bourbonisfriendly because of the #bourbonlove that flows like… well, like bourbon. I’ve yet to attend an event where I didn’t meet a new friend. The bourbon writers, historians and master distillers are approachable and eager to share their knowledge of bourbon with others.

Ultimately these hashtags are a simple invitation, a way of welcoming outsiders into the community of bourbon lovers. A simple way of inviting people from all over the world to Kentucky – to come and experience the friendliness of Bourbon Country for themselves. As a community we want to see awareness of the products and brands grow, increased tourism for our beautiful state, and preservation of our bourbon heritage for future generations.

Bourbon, a Backpacker’s Best Friend

There’s nothing like cresting a long hill, especially at the end of a long day of hiking. My wife and I needed a break and thought a few days on the Appalachian Trail would do us good. We started at Damascus, Virginia and hiked ten miles that first day.

At the top of the hill, a sign marked a trail junction, and as I caught my breath and waited for my wife, I read the words that pointed the way. To the left, our campsite was a quarter-mile further. To the right, tomorrow’s hiking waited. My wife joined me a moment later, happy that we were done for the day.

Though it was mid-May, the night promised to be a cold one, so we hurried to set-up the tent and get our things squared away before dark. At dusk, we gathered our food, stove and other essentials and went to the shelter where there was a table. To the right, a guy was building a fire.

As we ate our freeze-dried food, an older man stumbled into camp, accompanied by a large chihuahua and an Australian cattle dog. We’d passed him on the trail earlier. He was loud and funny, a big talker. He hadn’t hiked a mile in twenty years, he told us, and on a whim decided to get back out and see if he could still do it at sixty-seven years old with one re-constructed knee.

The guy who’d built the fire had started at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, at Springer Mountain, Georgia, about a month ago and planned to hike all the way to its northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin, way up in Maine. He was painfully shy and gave off an awkward vibe as he sat silently by the fire, occasionally poking it with a stick. Thin, with a bald head and dark, woolly beard, he reminded me of the comedian David Cross.

After dinner, I put away our things and found our reward for a hard day of hills – a flask of red wine for my wife and a bottle of bourbon for me. I held up the plastic Coke bottle I’d funneled the 100 proof Old Grand Dad in the night before and beheld the metallic, copperish glow, backlit by the fire, then screwed off the cap and caught a whiff of the caramel and vanilla before taking a long drink. It entered my mouth cool, like water, but grew warm as it made its way over my teeth and down my gullet, the perfect antidote to the night’s chill air.

The old man hand taken a seat next to me, complaining about his knees, and I offered him the bottle, telling him this might help. He smiled as he took bottle and thanked me. He sniffed the opening of the bottle and closed his eyes, savoring the aroma before lifting it to his lips.

“This ain’t no cream soda,” he said, handing the bottle back.

I offered the bottle to the fire builder. He asked if it was whiskey, and I told him it was bourbon. He leaned forward and took the bottle and considered it a long while.

“You needn’t worry about germs,” the old man said. “Alcohol kills cooties.”

Thus prompted, the fire builder took a tentative drink. “Nice,” he said, nodding his head. He handed me the bottle without further comment.

Passing the bottle around the fire was like entering a trail fraternity, where the social barriers of the outside world melted away, leaving us only with our selves, our stories and our bourbon. And so we sat until late into the night, sharing experiences of other trails and other times, the men passing the bottle and my wife enjoying her wine.

As we parted for sleep, I asked the old man how his knee felt.

“What knee?” he asked, winking. I feel nothing.

I would say it was the perfect start to a wonderful three days on the trail except that we drank all the bourbon that first night, leaving me nothing for the next two days. That small detail aside, I doubt we would have enjoyed the night nor each other quite so much, had there been no bourbon with which to break the ice.

Bernie Lubbers: The Whiskey Professor

When it comes to bourbon, Bernie knows his way around. Literally. As “The Whiskey Professor” and Brand Ambassador for Heaven Hill, he logs over 100,000 miles a year around the world teaching folks about Kentucky Bourbon. I had the great pleasure of meeting Bernie Monday night at Bourbon’s Bistro. He and fellow bourbon enthusiast/bluegrass musician, Hickory Vaught were putting on a show called “The History of Bourbon Whiskey as Told Through Bluegrass Music.”

The 90 minute presentation is both educational and funny. Bernie was a stand up comedian before becoming “The Whiskey Professor” so it comes as no surprise that he is very comfortable telling humorous, fact filled stories about the history of bourbon in between bluegrass songs that he and Hickory perform on mandolin and guitar. Each song is related to a period in bourbon and Kentucky’s history and the audience gets to sip on a little bit of whiskey from the same time period. It is a tasting event as much as an educational one. Bernie’s YouTube channel describes it like this:

Join Hickory Vaught and “The Whiskey Professor” Bernie Lubbers as they perform the History of Bourbon Whiskey as Told Through Bluegrass Music. In this original show, you will hear, see, smell and TASTE bourbon as the history of it is told in story and song. This is the perfect event for visitors to experience that is totally unique and will be a highlight of your group’s visit to Louisville.

Also, check out Bernie’s book “Bourbon Whiskey-Our Native Spirit, 2nd Edition: Sour Mash and Sweet Adventures.” He’ll sign a copy when you buy it directly from whiskeyprof.com.

Bernie’s upcoming gigs:

  • June 1 8pm – Louisville, KY – Haymarket Whiskey Open jam, so bring your instruments and jam along with Hickory Vaught and Friends, or just sip on some bourbon and tap your foot along to some great bluegrass music.
  • June 9 – Covington, KY – Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar Mainstrasse in Covington
    Meet and greet after a tasting for the Cincinnati Bourbon Society
  • Aug 26 7pm – New Albany, IN – The Exchange
    Kentucky Bourbon Authors meet and greet and book signing. Meet Fred Minnick, Susan Rieglar, Bernie Lubbers, Mike Veach, Tim Laird, Molly Wellman, and other Kentucky Bourbon authors.
  • Aug 29th – Sept 1st Labor day weekend. – Louisville, KY – Bluegrass Festival at the Water Tower
    Kentucky Bourbon Authors meet and greet and book signing.

Bernie shares all things bourbon on his website, whiskeyprof.com, and he’s @BernieLubbers on Twitter.

How to Taste Bourbon

A quick Google search reveals that there aren’t many variations in the process of tasting bourbon or any spirit for that matter. There are four basic steps to describing what’s in your glass: the appearance, the nose, the flavor and the finish.

Sounds simple enough, right? I suppose it is. You could just as easily apply the same steps to Kool-Aid, coffee or cola. But for me, tasting a new bourbon goes much deeper than that. I learned how to taste bourbon from a very serious sommelier. Yep, you read that correctly. It wasn’t just wine tasting procedure I learned from him, but how to “get to know” what is in the glass. He took it to a whole new level, keeping extensive notes in meticulously organized journals. He aerated the wine, paired it with different foods, studied its history – he was passionate about it.

I know not all of us have the time or even the desire to take our bourbon tasting to that level but I would love to encourage you to pause a little and go beyond the four steps especially when tasting something for the first time. If at all possible, use a tapered glass. A red wine glass works great or you can buy whiskey glasses that also taper at the top, concentrating the aroma. A rocks glass or tumbler will allow the subtle aromas to escape before you can pick them out. Also, a good wine or tasting glass is made of thin crystal or glass, making it easier to judge the appearance of the bourbon.

Step One: Appearance

Before you focus on the appearance of the bourbon, read the label. Is there an age? If it’s an older bourbon, it should be a darker color. This should also foreshadow the intensity of the flavor. The darker the bourbon, the more flavor it will have. Be creative. Bourbon reviewers use their imaginations to describe colors. Honey, molasses, straw, amber, finished pine- the color may remind you of something totally different than someone else. It may look like straw to you but finished pine to someone else. No biggie, just note the color and enjoy the beauty of it. You may also note whether it is cloudy or clear. Imagine where the barrel was in the rickhouse, the seasons of Kentucky forcing the bourbon in and out of the wood, imparting it with divine color and flavor.

Step Two: Nose

Use a tapered glass to nose the bourbon. It’s not a good idea to shove your nose into the glass and deeply inhale. You’ll likely get a burning nose full of alcohol vapor. Swirl the bourbon around the glass and pass it back and forth under your nose. When you first start seriously tasting bourbon, you won’t smell it and say things like “I get a hint of ginger and stone fruit with bubble gum and caramel”. Most of those kinds of reviews are more pretentious prose than practical information. Use what you know to describe what you smell. “This bourbon reminds me of wood smoke” or “It smells kind of sweet.” Don’t worry about getting it right. Picking out distinctive aromas takes time and practice and practice is fun!

Step Three: Flavor

This is the best part. Take a sip and swish it around in your mouth. This has been described as “The Kentucky Chew.” The point is to let the bourbon coat your entire tongue and mouth. You don’t have to get fancy with your flavor descriptions – stick with what you know. If you’re drinking a high proof bourbon, you can add a few drops of good clean water to cut the proof. It makes it easier to pick out flavors that the alcohol can mask. For me, sweet flavors such as vanilla, caramel and oak are the easiest flavors to pick out. After you get more experience, you will be able to taste spices, fruits, grain, nuts, etc… thankfully, there are so many bourbons to try and so many flavors to discover.

Step Four: Finish

After swishing the bourbon around in your mouth and noticing the flavors exploding on your palate, swallow. Take note of how it went down. Was it smooth? Did it burn? Either way, did you enjoy it? After the swallow, you’re looking for the finish or aftertaste. How long did it last? I prefer a long finish that brings out even more flavors than the first taste. Some bourbons have a thicker mouthfeel and will hang around longer. Again, you don’t have to get technical about your descriptions. This is for your enjoyment. Have fun with it.

Step Five: Sip

You won’t find this step in any tasting guide on the net or in a book on whiskey. After I’ve tasted a bourbon and have given it the thumbs up, I’ll pour a glass neat and sip it slowly. It’s made to enjoy, after all. I can’t imagine an occasion where it would be appropriate to shoot bourbon. Bourbon is ultimately an agricultural product. I like to close my eyes and think about everything that went into the making of something I’m so passionate about.

Farmers had to grow the corn, the rye, the wheat and the barley. The good, sweet Kentucky water is naturally filtered, free from iron and and other undesirable components. A master distiller introduced a specific yeast strain and added spent mash to ensure a consistent product. He patiently waited and tasted over and again until it reached its peak maturity. I think about the rich history of bourbon and how it is the history of America in so many ways. I think about my great grandfather making corn whiskey after he got black lung and could no longer work in the coal mines. I marvel at the tenacity and perseverance of great men who weathered prohibition, economical hardships and two world wars yet kept the bourbon flowing. Neither the revenuers, the teetotalers, nor prohibition could stifle the progress of America’s Native Spirit.

Pour a glass of your favorite bourbon, close your eyes and think about all of the work that went into the bourbon that was barreled today that you will enjoy years from now after it has had its long rest in the rick house.

Mash Bill School: How to Pick a Winner

If you’re like me, sometimes you find yourself standing in the bourbon aisle trying to decide whether to buy your old standby or try something new. It can be expensive to take a shot in the dark, buy a fifth and end up with something you don’t enjoy. I guess that’s why Coke exists. One way to avoid this problem is to find a bar with a very good bourbon selection and try a glass before you invest in a bottle, but before you go here’s a way to guestimate which bourbons will fit your taste before looking at the menu.

All whiskey, bourbon or otherwise, starts with a mash bill. That’s the fancy distiller’s word for recipe. All bourbon must be a minimum of 51% corn and usually contains malted barley. The third grain, called the flavoring grain, varies from brand to brand.

Bourbon can basically be divided into three categories based on the flavoring grain: traditional recipe, high-rye recipe or a wheated recipe. The traditional recipe contains around 70% corn and equal amounts of barley and rye, the high rye contains more than the industry average of 15% rye while the wheated recipe has no rye. (Bourbon with both wheat and rye is rare.) Rye is associated with “spicy” bourbons while the wheated variety is smoother and sweeter.

That being said, you also have to realize all of the factors that affect the taste of bourbon. There’s the length of aging, yeast strains, alcohol content and storage methods to consider. If you think about it, it’s amazing that each of the more than 100 brands of bourbon has a distinct taste, while containing only a handful of simple ingredients. The same distiller can run two batches of whiskey using the same exact mash bill but store them in different rick houses and get two distinct bourbons. In other words, just because two bourbons fall into the same category doesn’t mean they won’t have their own characteristics. It’s worth noting that while some brands make no attempts to keep their basic mash bills secret, some go to great lengths to conceal what’s in the mash tub.

Without further adieu, here’s a basic list of popular bourbons and the category they fall in:

Traditional High Rye Traditional Wheat
Knob Creek Basil Hayden Maker’s Mark
Jim Beam Old Grand-Dad Van Winkle
Wild Turkey Four Roses W.L. Weller
Evan Williams Bulleit Larceny
Buffalo Trace Old Forester Rebel Yell

Obviously, there are more bourbons than I have room to list but you can easily search for any brand’s mash bill online and get some idea of what it’s made of. You may just find a new favorite.