Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

Bourbon, Bartenders and Sommeliers: A Rant

One shouldn’t have to visit a rock and roll hotel in order to find a bartender that understands bourbon. That being said, you would be forgiven for expecting the wait-staff at the Hard Rock Hotel to have a firm grasp of the differences between bourbon, scotch and rotgut whiskey. Enough icons of music have stumbled onto or off of stages with either a bottle of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels in their hand to make whiskey the unofficial drink of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After all, the club was called the “Whiskey-a-Go-Go”, not the “Vodka-a-Go-Go”. Being a Kentucky native, it should come as no surprise to anyone that my main focus, object of affection, drink of choice and favorite ingredient in the kitchen happens to be bourbon. I have a reasonable fondness for Scotch and a new found respect for Japanese whisky, but I do not buy, purchase, drink, partake, enjoy or even tolerate that sugary foul tasting concoction known the world around as Tennessee Whiskey. If your reading this from Lynchburg, Tennessee all I can day is “I’m sorry”. God must not love you as much as he does me.

Before the vitriolic responses start, I should point out I am well aware that Jack Daniels is the world’s best selling, most popular, and largest produced whiskey brand. McDonald’s sells more hamburgers than anyone else, too. Need I say more? “Filtered through sugar maple charcoal for smoothness” isn’t a byline that makes me enthusiastic about the end product. Peanut Butter is smooth, as is a baby’s backside. Neither of which is something I want to encounter when I plop down at the bar for a drink. And for the record, I like my PB&J made with the chunky stuff. Because of Jack Daniel’s international prominence it is often confused by uneducated bartenders and waiters as belonging to the family of whiskey known as “bourbon”. The fact that is isn’t and the manufacturer doesn’t claim it to be so has done little to clarify the misconception in the marketplace. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Got that? Ok, say it again. Understand that and the rest will come easy.

My friends call it “The Rant”, and if you’ve ever eaten in a nice restaurant with me you’ve probably heard it at least once. I’m worse about launching into “the rant” while dining in Kentucky. Owners here don’t have any excuse in my book for failing to train their employees. I’m talking about the difference between bourbon and other types of whiskey. When a restaurant professional gets it wrong, it is almost the only time you will ever hear me talking derisively to another human being. Nothing sets me off more than to order a drink from an otherwise well trained and informed bartender or waiter and ask “What bourbon’s do you have?”, only to be told Jack Daniels, Crown Royal or Seagram’s 7 – none of which are bourbons. Sorry buddy, three strikes and you’re out. You expect the sommelier at a nice restaurant to know the difference between Cabernet and Merlot, why not the differences between Bourbon, Canadian, Scotch, Irish and Tennessee whiskies? The fact that whiskey, and bourbon in particular, have been the fastest growing spirit categories for years only makes the offense that much more egregious. It’s the restaurants that are usually the worst offenders. The wait-staff is happy to explain the subtle differences, fruitiness and relative sweetness or acidity of various selections in the $25 a bottle and under category on their wine list. Few however are able to explain what makes a Maker’s Mark different from a Woodford Reserve, or a Booker’s from a Elijah Craig Single Barrel, which is a real shame considering the retail price for any of the above mentioned brands is equal to if not more than many of the by-the-bottle wine selections in most of your mid-tier fine dining establishments.

Which brings me to the subject of how much bourbon costs. I have three distilleries within 15 minutes of my house, along with one of the best whiskey bars in the world about the same distance away (The Horse & Barrel in Lexington). Ordering a Woodford Reserve on the rocks in Lexington, I expect to be charged somewhere between $6 and $8. Travel three and a half hours south to Nashville, the price for the same drink nearly doubles to $12 to $14 dollars a glass. I attribute this to nothing more than Tennessee protectionism and an attempt to make Jack Daniel’s more economically appealing to the general public (having failed to come up with a way to make it more pleasing to the palette). In Chicago, the costs jumps again to $16 to $18 a glass for a bourbon than runs $35 retail for a 750ml bottle in Lexington.

All of this brings me back to the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago, where I’ve just returned from a week’s business trip. During this time I had plenty of opportunities to observe the knowledge and proficiency level of local bartenders when it comes to bourbon, having after a few days drank the hotel bar out of the good stuff and being forced to settle for Basil Hayden’s (only 87 proof!) as a fall back position. At one bar after inquiring of the bartender the establishments bourbon selections, and watching him fumble through his well picking up and setting down bottles (obviously looking for one that said “bourbon” on it), I decided to order a beer. If the guy in charge didn’t know what he had, the chances of him discovering anything I wanted to drink were about the same as walking into Buddy Guy’s Blues Bar and hearing the house band play “Freebird”. One night I wandered down the street to Morton’s. I sat down and ordered a Woodford on the rocks, seeing the bottle displayed while not prominently behind the bar, at least not hidden away in a dusty corner either. The bartender smiled at me like I just passed a test and said “The man knows what to drink.” I liked the guy immediately. The hotel bar also knew without looking what was and was not bourbon, although they evidently didn’t have a lot of orders for it judging by the shallowness of their inventory. Three nights of being invaded by a small horde from the Bluegrass State was enough to run them out of both Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek. They had Maker’s Mark in their well, not much different from the bars back home. Here’s a helpful tip to keep in mind: if you ever see a red waxed sealed bottle of Maker’s Mark alongside the bar’s other top shelf liquors, the proprietor is either an idiot or thinks his customer are. Maker’s Mark is good bourbon, in some respects it is what started the whole bourbon revolution thanks to a flattering article in The Wall Street Journal during the mid 1980’s. But if you are from Kentucky, you know there is so much more that is better. If Maker’s is considered top shelf in an establishment, God only knows what’s in their well. Probably Kentucky Tavern or Cabin Still. Trust me, you don’t want either of them.

Can bourbon be used in cocktails besides the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the ubiquitous Derby Day libation the mint julep? Sure, but you have to know what you are using. Unlike vodka, gin or even tequila to some extent, what bourbon you choose will drastically affect the end product. We’ll cover Bourbon Bartending 101 another day. Just keep in mind next time to order a Beam and Coke that you’d be better off leaving out the Coke. And if you are drinking Jack Daniels, you are probably not drinking with me.

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2 responses

  1. Sarah

    Well said Neil, well said!

    October 21, 2008 at 1:38 am

  2. Well said is right!

    I honestly don’t think many people outside of Kentucky would understand this rant like we do.

    I do have friends that are die hard Maker’s fans-but mostly because they are members of the “club” (whatever that means).

    If I still partook (is that a word) in the beverages, I think to honor my families reputation, I must drink Woodford.

    Thanks for the great post!

    October 21, 2008 at 2:23 pm

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