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The Quest for Corn Liquor

My lovely wife, the Irish Woman, has a taste for top shelf bourbon. She’s of 100% Irish ancestry, you see, and a proud native of the Bluegrass. The sweet smokiness of bourbon is the scent of her childhood, it’s taste as sweet as mother’s milk.

So, she knows her whiskey. White label Jim Beam or Wild Turkey 101 is cooking bourbon. Many a dish in our home has been flavored with them, from Boston butt in the crock pot to the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Maker’s Mark is the minimum for sipping or mixing with Coca-Cola. Woodford Reserve, Maker’s 46 or 101, and Knob Creek are good enough for company.

Our liquor cabinet groans under its load of bottles. The daily stalwarts lie among their more esoteric brethren. Friends and family know that bourbon always makes a good present or thank you gift. Bottles of every size, weight, and shape nestle themselves on the shelves, waiting to be opened and poured out a few drams at a time.

But Wild Turkey Rare Breed, now that’s the tipple that brings a twinkle to her green eyes. She discovered it one hot summer afternoon when we visited the distillery. We were returning to Louisville from a weekend at the lake, and decided to stop off for a tour of the distillery and a tasting at the visitor’s center.

At the visitor’s center, we met an older gentleman named Jimmy. He was perched on his red and white scooter, chatting with the tourists and being 100% the Kentucky gentleman. He noticed Irish Woman’s accent and asked where we were from.

“Kentucky,” I replied. “We’re from Louisville.”

He quirked a half smile, looked me in the eye, and said, “Son, there’s no Louisville in Kentucky.”

This brought a grin and an “I told you so” from Irish Woman. Truly, this was a true son of the Commonwealth. He bleeds blue, has a dry sense of humor, and knows bourbon like the back of his hand.

Jimmy and Irish Woman talked while I wandered the racks of tee shirts, crystal glasses, and coffee mugs. Imagine my surprise when I had picked out and paid for a few doodads, then found my lovely wife waiting for me with a brown paper bag in her hand.

Jimmy had suggested a bottle of Wild Turkey’s top shelf bourbon, Rare Breed. It’s smooth as a baby’s behind, with a sweet, rich flavor. It comes in a special, ornate bottle that stands out against a background of its plainer neighbors.

It quickly became Irish Woman’s favorite. She doesn’t drink every day, but one or two drinks of Rare Breed on a Friday or Saturday evening make Irish eyes smile. It’s rather expensive, but it’s her favorite and she makes a bottle last for months, so it’s an indulgence that’s worth every penny.

So, you can imagine her surprise when she could not replace the bottle she finished over Christmas. No matter which liquor store she went to, be it a huge market stocked full of every variety of booze you can imagine, or the smallest of mom-and-pop operations with a couple shelves of top-shelf behind the counter, she could not find the object of her desire.

Friends and family have helped by checking their own nooks and crannies, but alas, no Rare Breed is to be found. Yes, we could pay most of a house payment for a bottle on the secondary market, and a few places online have it. But I prefer to pay for the roof over our heads rather than the booze in our glasses, and Kentucky has some rather…. interesting laws when it comes to buying alcohol from out of state.

So, what did my beautiful wife do, you ask? Did she find another obsession, I mean, appropriate substitute? Did she lower her expectations for the flavor and strength of evening nip?

No, gentle reader, she went to the source. She called Wild Turkey and left a voice mail asking where all the Rare Breed has gone. I imagine a plaintive, tear stained plea for the makers of high-proof hooch to release just enough of this truly rare bourbon that Irish Woman could stock up for the coming booze apocalypse.

Amazingly enough, she got a reply. Gotta hand it to Wild Turkey, you don’t see representatives of a large corporation calling a lonely customer back that often these days.

The nice young man explained to She Who Shall Not Be Denied that Wild Turkey did, indeed, have enough whiskey to last out the dark times ahead. No, the issue they have had with getting more of the blessed Breed out was the glass in which it is sold.

Supply chain issues have kept Wild Turkey from getting the special bottles Rare Breed uses. Rather than put their bourbon in a different, possibly inferior bottle, they just haven’t sold any of it.

I imagine a Wild Turkey branded cargo ship, stranded somewhere off Long Beach, its hull bursting with the crystalline vessels needed to satisfy the appetites of bourbon connoisseurs the world ‘round. Patrol craft encircle it, keeping the pirates of Southern California away and ensuring that the bottles will eventually reach their destination.

Rest assured, the purveyors of the brownest of brown liquors are striving to source their special bottles. This will be a trying time for those who cannot see surviving without their 90 proof, single-barrel reason to live, but it is temporary.

And anyway, the longer it takes to get the bottles, the longer the whiskey sits in the barrels. I’m told that a long life in the barrel leads to a better whiskey, but I don’t appreciate fine bourbons as much as someone who grew up close enough to bourbon country that she could smell the distilleries on a windy day.

So, as we go through a period of mourning and expectation of the return of the Rare Breed, please raise a glass to the Irish Woman. She shall spend this time in quiet contemplation of which of the myriad of whiskeys available to her will be a good substitute for her favorite.

As for me, as the weather turns warm, I shall go back to the heresy that is gin and tonic, or perhaps even have a nice glass of scotch on occasion. And if I feel like a bourbon, I will do as I always do: randomly pick one out of the liquor cabinet, pour a few fingers worth into a glass, and sip at it for a few hours.

Bourbon, The Brownest of the Brown Liquors

Radley Balko points us to a New York Times article about bourbon and the American bourbon industry.

Being currently located just north of bourbon country, I consider myself blessed by the whiskey gods.  I have Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Woodford Reserve within an easy drive of the house.  What this means to me is that I have an opportunity to taste and enjoy a lot of different bourbons that most everyone else either can’t get or pays a lot of money for.  What you have to go to a premium liquor store for in Manhattan, I can usually get in the Kroger liquor mart.

Funny anecdote #1 – When Irish Woman and I were first dating, she invited me over to make and eat barbecue chicken.  She was making her barbecue sauce, and noticed that her bottle of Jim Beam was almost empty.  She asked me to, and I quote:  Go to the store and get a bottle of whiskey.  Being an innocent bourbon neophyte, I went to the liquor store and returned with a bottle of Jack Daniels.  I returned to the house, and was met in the driveway by my lady love.  She looked at what was in the brown bag, put it back in my car, then drove to the liquor store to get herself a bottle of Jim Beam.

That was the day that I learned that Jack Daniels, while a wonderful Tennessee whiskey, is not bourbon, and Irish Woman cooks with and drinks bourbon.  We use bourbon in much the same way that others would use vanilla or liquid smoke.  Bourbon adds a sweet, smoky flavor to whatever you cook with it.

Funny anecdote #2 – When Irish Woman was making our first Thanksgiving meal, I noticed that the level in the bourbon bottle was going steadily down.  The turkey had a bit of bourbon poured into the cavity for flavor, the country green beans with ham and onions had a drop or two of “blessing*”, and Irish Woman herself was having a nip or two.  I joked that everything cooked in Kentucky had a blessing.  Later that day, we went to her aunt’s house for dessert, and I found that I really liked the pumpkin pie. I commented on it to the aunt, who innocently admitted that she used the recipe off the can of pumpkin, but added a good amount of bourbon to it as well.  Irish Woman almost had pumpkin pie come out of her nose as she burst into laughter.

I’m not a bourbon connoisseur any more than I’m a beer or a wine connoisseur.  I can’t afford the really good stuff with any regularity, and to be honest, I’ve found what I like in my price range.  My palette isn’t good enough to sense too many notes in whiskey, beer, or wine.  Hey, I was raised on Mogan David, Christian Brothers, and Hamm’s Beer, what do you expect?

Bourbon, like every potable made by man, has its dregs and its ambrosia.  The trick is to try a bunch of them and find the ones you like.

So here are my favorite bourbons, just to add to what the Times is discussing.  Now, remember, I like all of these bourbons.  I cast no aspersions on any of them.

  • Jim Beam – Lowest shelf bourbon we use.  Honestly, Jim Beam is to bourbon as cooking sherry is to wine around here.  Yeah we’re spoiled.  
  • Maker’s Mark – A great bourbon for mixing or cooking.  Irish Woman lerves her some Maker’s and Coke.  Up until a couple of years ago, this was usually the best bourbon you could get outside of Kentucky in most places unless you really searched.
  • Maker’s Mark 46 – A new entry from Maker’s.  I tried this this past January, and it’s much richer, darker, and smoother than original Maker’s Mark.  This one definitely goes into the rotation.
  • Elmer T. Lee – This is a small batch from Buffalo Trace.  Mr. Lee was a master distiller for BT, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s very smooth, and is considered a good value for top shelf bourbon.
  • Woodford Reserve – Our sipping standard.  A little Woodford with a drop or two of water in it will usually fix what ails you.  Funny Anecdote #3 – During a January campout with my guys a few years ago, we were all huddled around the bonfire-of-massive-proportions, with several bottles of happiness making their way around the circle.  The bottles of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam usually went from person to person quite quickly, and took two or three trips ’round the fire to empty.  The bottle of Woodford, on the other hand, crawled around the circle as each of us kept it to take more than a sip or two, and it was almost dry by the time it got back to where it started.
  • Knob Creek – A little harsher than my other favorites, but has a really good flavor and color.  Also, what gun guy wouldn’t like a whiskey with the same name as his favorite outdoor shooting range?
  • Eagle Rare – Also a good sipper.  Comes in a very distinctive bottle that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  Good sweet notes with minimal burn at the end.  Makes a good gift to friends who are learning bourbon.

I’ve tried a few of the new flavored bourbons, and they’re good.  I like Woodford Reserve’s Maple Finish, and Wild Turkey’s American Honey is quite nice on a cold night.

So, what do you all like?

*We call it “Blessing” because the way you measure it is to pour it out long enough to cross yourself.

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