“I was totally dumbfounded by your call,” Elena Boiko, my longtime friend and fellow sommelier, smiled. “Gregory Alonzo willing to share his private bourbon stock with me?” she playfully teased. “I thought American men preferred to imbibe in bourbon and smoke cigars when they shared in man talk.”
“Now when have you known me to smoke a cigar,” I laughed jubilantly.
“Then it dawned on me,” Elena paused lightly and flashed me a teasing smile. “Grisha has been watching the Hustler.”
“Bourbon, J.T.S. Brown,” I quoted Eddie Felson, the film’s lead character. “This is where my fascination with bourbon began.”
“How so?” Elena queried.
“My father’s favorite movie star was Paul Newman. Together we would watch The ‘Hustler,’ and often times go out and shoot pool,” I paused in fond reflection. “One day I was helping my grandfather around the house when I came upon a bottle of J.T.S. Brown Bourbon. Gramps told me to grab a couple of glasses and he poured us each a drink.”
“How was it?” Elena clearly displayed her interest.
“It was everything one would expect from a $10 bourbon,” I erupted euphorically. “My Gramps’ toast was much more memorable.”
“And what did Gramps have to say?” She laughed along with me.
He quoted Mark Twain. “There’s no such thing as too much good whiskey.”
“Grisha, what prompted this bourbon tasting? Elena asked flatly.
“When it comes to spirits, I am often identified with vodka and brandy,” I chuckled under my breath. “In reality, I’m just an old bourbon man at heart.”
“OK,” she flashed me a quick smile. “My Kentucky gentleman, please share with our readers a little about your passion for bourbon.”
Bourbon has been produced since the 18th century and has long been closely associated with the American South. The name is derived from Bourbon County, Kentucky and in turn was named after the French royal family. What separates bourbon from other spirits is that it must be made from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn. Bourbon is also aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and has no added flavoring or coloring. This then, classified as straight bourbon. The charring of the oak casks gives bourbon its reddish-brown coloring and unique flavor. In the past, bourbon was distilled in alembic or pot stills, however, today the use of a continuous still is quite common.
“Grisha, I am a bit confused,” Elena paused to collect her thoughts. “What exactly is ‘small batch’ bourbon.”
“A small batch bourbon is made for the true connoisseur,” I smiled. “Essentially, it is the practice of mixing the contents of a relatively small number of selected barrels. Small-batch is considered to be an upper-premium bourbon and must be aged a minimum of six to nine years.”
Traditional bourbons contain 8-10% rye. This makes for a bold and spicy spirit. Four Roses 2012 Small Batch Limited Edition has a much higher rye content at 20%. The alcohol content is 55.1%, aged 12 years, and a price tag of $70. What makes this spirit so special? Quite simply, Four Roses has managed to create one of the all-time great bourbons. This is a true sipping whiskey. The color is medium amber with copper and burnt orange. On the nose, there is a myriad of aromas ranging from cinnamon, spice, maple, chocolate, cherries, orange, vanilla, all with the softness of sweet fruit. The palate is very well structured with layers of flavors ranging from toffee, vanilla cream, maple, and cinnamon. The finish is woody with notes of spice, vanilla, and a lingering fruitiness.
“This is a bourbon not only worthy of sipping, it is a bourbon worthy of sniffing. I loved the complex aromas and fruitiness that filled my nostrils,” Elena clearly showed her glee.
“Four Roses is a rich bourbon meant to be enjoyed fireside with that special someone,” I nodded in agreement.
“I did have some reservations with the high alcohol content,” Elena remarked.
“Many bourbon drinkers like a splash of water to open it up,” I paused lightly. “In the Southern States it is quite popular to enjoy bourbon with branch water.”
“Branch water?” Elena queried.
“This is the water of the distillery that is often bottled and sold in small quantities.”
Our next bourbon, Knob Creek Small Batch is aged for 9 years. This is a robust and sophisticated spirit with density and power. Predominately wheat, it is 50% alcohol and a price tag of $55. The color ranges from copper to medium amber. The nose is rich in deep aromas of toasted nuts, overripe peaches, grain, and oak. There are hints of caramel, cinnamon, and vanilla. As Knob Creek begins to open up, there are clear notes of spicy rye, beeswax, and linseed oil. The palate is full-bodied, honeyed progressing to an intensely grainy and drier mid-palate. The finish is long and rich in almonds, nougat, and oak.
“I especially like the rich texture on the finish of Knob Creek,” Elena flashed me a subtle smile. “This is definitely your palate.”
“Knob Creek is indeed the bourbon I drink most often,” I chuckled under my breath.
Our next bourbon is the one that everyone wants. It is a Pappy Van Winkle and there are 3 offerings. 10-year old at $40, 15-year old at $80 and a 23-year old at $230. The alcohol content 45.2%, 53.5%, 47.8% respectively. This is a wheat based bourbon and we tasted the 15 Year Old Family Reserve. It is a rich copper in color. The nose is of caramel, spice, toffee, pecans, and toasted wood. On the palate, Pappy Van Winkle is softer and smoother. There are hints of spicy, raisins, and barrel char.. The finish is long with caramel, coffee, and spices.
“I particularly like this bourbon’s healthy dose of barrel char,” I smiled in agreement. “With time and air, Pappy Van Winkle only gets better.”
Our last selection differs from the others in that it is not from any of the legendary Kentucky distilleries. Hooker’s House Bourbon hails from California. What separates Hooker’s is that it is aged in new American Oak barrels for four years and then further aged in Carneros Pinot Noir barrels for an additional nine months. Double barreling produces a spirit that is enhanced by Wine Country influence. The color is a most lovely medium amber, while the nose is filled with aromas of cherries, figs, plums, and violets. The palate is definitely bigger and bolder than the nose. There are distinct flavors spice, cinnamon and cherries abound in this well-balanced bourbon. The finish pleasant, fruity, and the lush cherry flavor proves to be an ideal blend with sweet vermouth. This Sonoma-Style Straight Bourbon is 50% alcohol and retails for $40.
“I must admit that the double barreling creates a bourbon unlike any other.”
“Grisha, I’m ready for a Manhattan or two,” Elena playfully teased.
“But that my friends is another story …”