It’s hard to believe that another years has blown by. As we hustle and bustle along with the holiday season, there’s one day in December that just doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. With all that has gone on over this past year, it’s time to take note and celebrate a day that changed American history and has paved the road for most of us to just get by to the next day feeling a little more hopeful, and in many cases, a little bit hungover. Repeal Day is December 5th, and to me it’s simply “the most wonderful time of the year”. It was the day that the Volstead Act (also known as the 18th Amendment) was overturned by our government. Prohibition was over. Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned from it was that when people are legally denied a basic freedom, they’re going to find a way to do it in a big way. We’re gonna make a party out of it! It is the responsibility of this Sommelier to explore not only wine, but whiskey and bourbon, and with the type of year we’ve had, I’m more than up to the task.
Whiskey, Rye, Bourbon, Moonshine...what the Hooch? American is experiencing a revival of some of the darkest days in our short lived history. Speakeasies are popping up in the most obvious places and the password is Chuck Norris. WTF? I don’t claim to know it all, but I live for the journey, as long as my liver holds out. Martini bars are so passé since vodka is basically a distilled spirit made of cereal grains or potatoes, water and ethanol, and is filtered to extract every bit of flavor out of it, with a minimum of 40% alcohol. Much like moonshine, with a whopping 75% alcohol, these vehicles are designed to get you where you want to go fast. The flavor is that there is no flavor. But as many of us have learned from past experience, getting there fast has its consequences.
Whiskey has a long history throughout Europe and is quite often blended with a mash of fermented grains including barley, corn, rye and wheat. Irish Whiskey, Scotch Whisky, Canadian Whisky…each enjoy their own nuances and spelling, but comes from the Gaelic language meaning “water of life”. Like everything else, America is country of immigrants and their traditions, and so Americans have their unique versions of what whiskey should be. Tennessee Whiskey is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal known as the Lincoln County Process. Then there’s Sour Mash which uses the leftovers of the grains used in the original process to create a sweeter, deeper flavor like Jack Daniels. Kentucky Whiskey is more commonly known as Bourbon and it is purely American. 95% of all bourbon made calls Kentucky its home. But besides its southern roots, bourbon undergoes some pretty strict laws to herald that title. The Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon requires its mash to be at least 51% corn, the mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, barreled at 125 proof or less and must not contain any additives. It must be aged in new charred oak barrels which usually are white oak, but can be any variety of oak. Sounds simple enough? Don’t try this at home, not only is it still illegal to distill bourbon at home due to taxation, it’s also highly flammable and combustible. Besides, we are in a bourbon renaissance and now, more than ever, aficionados are coming out of the cask to a local whiskey den near you.
So back to the Speakeasy. A few years ago, I attempted to “find” one of these elusive drinking establishments in lower Manhattan. My app told me I was at the right address, but it was a Chinese Health Club that was obviously closed, or not. After knocking on a few doors, it became apparent that I was more likely to get a whiskey a few doors down from my local homeless man huddled under his stoop for the night, who obviously didn’t need a secret password. So I said fuck it and moved along. How could this place stay in business if they didn’t want mine, and if no one else could find it?
Modern Speakeasies are more of a novelty than a good business plan, and although we all want to feel a little dangerous by breaking a non-existent law, most of us just don’t want to work that hard for a buzz. Drinking dens are the new rave. Unlike your favorite dive bar that includes all the standard whiskeys complete with dust that’s stuck on the bottles like syrup, today’s whiskey bars are warmly lit, ambient and cozy with rockstar, hipster mixologists serving everyone from suits and philanthropists to church ladies, college kids and the LGBT community. Burlesque and Vaudeville shows are featured along with local acoustic acts or House music. It’s a place that we put our politics aside and just be...because bourbon has earned a new reputation and is sought after the way Screaming Eagle was just a few years ago.
Like the nuances of fine wine, the flavor profiles and pairing capabilities are abundant and you are likely to find sipping bourbon just as pleasurable. Prices can be equally daunting, so finding a local whiskey society is a good way to taste some amazing whiskeys that are highly prized as well as finding your “everyday bourbon”...yes, that’s a thing. It’s not unreasonable to plop down $100 for a bottle of your favorite, or $300 for a one ounce shot of Pappy Old Van Winkle, but you don’t have to. Some great buys available at you finer liquors stores will end up costing you a lot less than most wines, and most people won’t knock off a whole bottle in one night like they will with wine.
Rock Hill Farms is one of Buffalo Trace Distillery’s single barrel bourbons at 100 proof has aromas of dark fruit notes, with a touch of cinnamon and caramel. It leads the palate with citrus and apple which develops into berry and light cinnamon, cocoa and herbal flavors, finishing with notes of brown sugar and vanilla, this bourbon makes a perfect gift for about $50 a bottle.
Maker's Mark Cask Strength is a special display of an old favorite. At 107 proof, its robust cinnamon and mint on the nose with juicy cherry and vanilla underneath leads to subtle smoke, toasty oak, nutty caramel and chewy dates which finishes with clove and pleasant heat. About $70 a bottle.
Heaven Hill 6 year Bottled in Bond is perhaps the best bang for your buck. 100 proof and aged for 6 years as opposed to the traditional 4 years, this nutty, cocoa, toffee, fruit and spice blend together to create a peanut-like flavor with a bit of citrus and a buttered popcorn taste. At about $20 a bottle - this is your “everyday bourbon” and a sure crowd pleaser.
Of course, you could splurge on one of the Jim Murray Award winning Bourbons like Whistle Pig Boss Hog The Black Prince for about $750 a bottle. Colonel E.H. Taylor 4 Grain - the 2018 Bourbon of the Year will run you a mere $100 and will impress the most impressionable. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof also about $100 will put you on everyone’s Christmas list.
You don’t need to be an expert (and believe me, it’s not easy tasting multiple whiskeys, bourbons and ryes) but to expand your knowledge base, keep in your library or give the perfect gift this year, buy a copy of Clay Risen’s book American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye - A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit.
For both the wine and bourbon lover, try one of the fruit forward, absolutely delicious wines aged in bourbon barrels like 1000 Stories Zinfandel or Petite Sirah made in small batches by innovative Mendocino winemaker Bob Blue, available in limited allocations at Trader Joe's for about $20...it pairs perfectly with TJ's Kentucky Bourbon Barrel cake and is a must-have for the holidays.
So until next time - Happy Holidays! Happy Repeal Day, and as always - Bottoms up!