It's easy to forget, when you're firmly esconced in your own happy bubble of culinary joy, that mediocrity fills the world like so much styrofoam popcorn. The one surefire way to burst that bubble is air travel. For when you are on the plane, the universe of diverse and wonderful consumables is suddenly and horribly narrowed to a meager selection of subpar goods supply of which, in Soviet-era style, is prone to running out even before demand has been given the opportunity to arise.
Coming home from New York, wedged in a middle seat, I sought succor in the form of Jack Daniels to numb the psychic pain of the trip and help make the time pass faster. (This is another thing about air travel -- the eerie extension of time, as if the fuselage of the plane is some kind of time machine with the preternatural power to turn hours into days. Small wonder I always feel years older when I deplane.)
Now, DPaul and I like us the bourbon. A lot. Having been to Kentucky something like 500 times, we have had the occasion to visit a few of the distilleries, like Maker's Mark and Labrot & Graham (producer of Woodford Reserve). Many distilleries are in idyllic spots* full of natural beauty (fresh mountain stream water is, you see, a critical ingredient), peppered with quaint and country-fied cottages and cabins. Yes, it's all very Disney, but they do cultivate a marvelous image of old-fashioned booze-making.
(Photo: DPaul Brown)
The past several years has seen a veritable bourbon revolution. Boutique producers opened up the door for high-end, artisanal product to enter the market. Big-time producers are turning out small-batch brews that rival them in quality and flavor. Like scotch, there is no single winner, but rather a matter of what you prefer in a bourbon, and no matter your proclivities, there's a bourbon to match your taste.
In my mind, good bourbon balances a few key notes: Sweetness, spice, butter and burn. Considering the raw alcohol (white dog, pronounced "white dawg") that goes into the casks is colorless, flavorless and basically rocket fuel, all complexity must come from the handling and management of the casks and their contents. Many distilleries buy used barrels from wineries; the wood on the inside is infused with wine, sherry, madeira, what have you. Other times, new oak barrels are used. Regardless, all bourbon casks are burnt to a cripsy black on the inside. This develops the sugars and unique flavors that ultimately go into the bourbon. You should taste caramel, honey, cherry, tobacco -- all sorts of things that never went into the liquor in the first place. This is the art of the distiller.
Among our regular favorites are Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve. But a few weeks ago, on a routine trip to Plumpjack Wines, I was intrigued by the notice of a new private-label Plumpjack bourbon. We got talking to the manager, and he explained that he had been to a variety of distillers, sampling and tasting (hard work, but someone's got to do it), ultimately settling on this Eagle Rare 13-year from Buffalo Trace. They bought up a barrel and had it bottled -- the barrel now sits in front of the shop, so do check it out. The bottle says 10-year, but that's because Eagle Rare currently only has two ages registered with the ATF -- 10-year and 15-year. They will apply for their own label and age, ultimately private-labeling their own. So, ignore the bottle and focus on the liquor.
We were mightily impressed with this stuff. Spice is its strength, rich with cinnamon and clove and maybe a little cayenne. And sweetness, sure, with honey and maple on the nose and just faintly like sweet pipe tobacco. Buttery, yessir, though just enough to soften the last element: burn. It's got a lovely, gentle heat that fills the mouth.
And then there's Jack. Even splashed over a plastic cup full of ice, I had to wince. Oh, there was sweetness, to be sure, but I cannot compare it to honey, caramel or maple syrup. No, more like Mrs. Butterworth. There was spice, I guess, in the form of old, ground cassia. Butter? Maybe margarine. And oh, it burned all right.
Now, we like our bourbon straight up or over a little ice, that's it. We did put it through its paces with a couple of Manhattans, and it holds up just fine, but you end up losing some of its beautiful subtlety. For my money, Maker's Mark is the ultimate Manhattan bourbon, as it has quite a lot of cherry to it.
I found out the other day that Plumpjack has purchased a new barrel, which will be in in December. I assume it will be very similar to this first batch, though of course with all single-barrel boozes, your mileage may vary. Still, I encourage you to try it. I want to make sure it's popular enough that they keep producing it. However, I don't want it so popular that they run out. So please just leave a few bottles for me. I'll hoist a glass in your honor.
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* It's not always so idyllic. Shortly after one visit, one of Wild Turkey's barrel houses caught fire, sending flaming barrels of bourbon rolling downhill into the river and tainting the local water supply. How I wish we had been there for that.