May 4, 1964, is a special date for Kentucky because on that spring day, U.S. Congress in all its wisdom officially declared bourbon as an “American Native Spirit.” It’s completely American—and aficionados are passionate about it. Kentuckians may well be the most passionate about it: 95% of the world’s bourbon—which must have a “grain bill” of at least 51% corn—is made right here in The Bluegrass State.
I will be the first to admit that I am intimidated by bourbon; after all, there are more barrels of bourbon than people in Kentucky. I know that not being exposed early to this all-American spirit has hurt my chances to ever become governor of this great state.
All that in mind, I want to ask: What is considered “good bourbon?” Like many people in this state, I have been invited on several Bourbon Trail distillery and destination tours but had to decline because 1) I do not want to make a fool out of myself and 2) I have not acquired a taste. At certain outings, I find myself ordering a beer or other mixed drinks, while everyone else is enjoying a bourbon neat or on the rocks. I have heard that it is offensive to mix certain bourbons with anything other than water, and I certainly do not want to offend people.
So, what is a person to do when they find themselves surrounded by bourbon and have little idea how to enjoy it? The answer? Go to the expert. I could not find a better person to ask than Jonathan Blue. Blue is the chairman and managing partner of Liquor Barn, which operates 17 locations in Louisville, Lexington, Elizabethtown, Bowling Green and Danville with the slogan “Where Kentuckians go to Celebrate Life.”
What is the smoothest bourbon a person can start with?
JSB: There are so many excellent choices out there today for beginners or seasoned afficionados. The best and most interesting aspect of the bourbon craze is that there are absolutely no wrong answers or choices. Because of the way in which most bourbons are aged—in a new American oak barrel—the taste is unique and creates a libation that lets the drinker pick and choose his or her preference based on one’s specific taste preferences.
When with friends or business colleagues, what is a bourbon I can order that doesn’t paint me as a newbie?
JSB: Evan Williams Single Barrel. Reasonable price point. Flows easily on the palate.
What could one do to acquire the taste for bourbon?
JSB: Start slow and taste in small quantities as many different brands, proofs and ages as possible. Settle on something to start that can be consumed without food and another choice with a meal to get a baseline. Then launch your choices from there and continue to experiment.
What should I be tasting, smelling, seeing in a good bourbon?
JSB: Again, this really is a personal preference with no wrong answers. I look for a very consistent, rich color throughout the glass once exposed to oxygen. It is always amazing to me the differences in the nose between the different single barrels. This is one of the most unique aspects of bourbon and definitely one of the most fun. As far as taste, I would suggest closing one’s eyes and letting the mind wander with the taste buds and palate leading the way to turn what is experienced into words.
What does “straight bourbon” mean?
JSB: By definition, this category has additional legal requirements beyond those of regular bourbon, including an age of at least 2 years old. It is my understanding that straight bourbon may not contain added colorings or flavorings. Of course, straight is a term also synonymous with “neat” when ordering bourbon in a bar or restaurant setting.
Is it against the law to mix an expensive bourbon with anything in Kentucky?
JSB: We usually sample bourbons neat to start when tasting innovations or in the rickhouse. During a business dinner, we request drinks with one large cube. More and more people are cutting their neat bourbon selections with a water dropper in order not to dilute the contents too much. Again, it comes down to personal preference at the end, of course.
If you are going to mix, what are some of the best bourbon concoctions?
JSB: At the top of the list, of course, is the Old Fashioned. Gaining ground is the Manhattan, which is having a resurgence for many reasons. COVID-19 has fueled many cocktails using bourbon as the basis.
Is it true that once you make bourbon in a barrel it can never be used for bourbon again?
JSB: That is correct. Switching gears, some of the best tequilas that we have sampled and procured are those that are finished in Kentucky high-end bourbon barrels.
I have heard of ‘high-rye’ and ‘wheated’ bourbons. What are those?
JSB: By definition, it is a mash bill (essentially pre-fermenting ingredients) containing 20-35% rye. There is a move toward these subproducts, led originally by Old Fitz/Van Winkle/Makers and more recently by the Weller wheated selections, which have been more accessible than Van Winkle yet in very high demand for the past several years.
What is your favorite bourbon? How do you like it prepared?
JSB: Angel’s Envy Rye. Full disclosure: We were an early investor that got us into the business and the company was sold to Bacardi a few years ago. Great taste, incredible finish, unique as can be. One of my all-time favs.
What is the most expensive bourbon you have ever tasted? Did you like it?
JSB: O.F.C. by Sazerac. Simply incredible.
Have you always been a bourbon drinker?
JSB: I am a fan of many spirits, especially those that bring attention to Kentucky. I have been amazed at the attention that this has brought us from the eyes of the world. I am excited to see what the future holds as far as innovations in the sector.
Do you remember the first bourbon you tasted?
JSB: Blanton’s. I was infatuated with the horse and the shape of the bottle, never realizing that it would take off worldwide in popularity. I’ve been spoiled from that point forward.
Do you have a bourbon collection? If so, how many bottles do you estimate having?
JSB: As someone once said to me—and American Express coined the term—“Membership has its privileges.” I have a pretty good collection. However, the best feeling for me is to see the smile on a customer’s face when a top quality and rare bourbon is landed for purchase at one of our stores. It’s nice to make someone’s day.”
Is it true that everyone should be drinking bourbon?
JSB: As a Kentuckian, I always tell the story that I have been lucky enough to have traveled all over the world and was always asked about the things that people in other countries knew about Kentucky, including the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, KFC and Muhammad Ali. There was never a universal query about the commonwealth. Today, I am universally asked about bourbon all over the world when I travel. It is the one common denominator that we now have as a brand to the entire world and something that we can be very proud to be identified with worldwide.
There you have it, straight from an expert. Who knew that special day back in 1964 started a Kentucky revolution that would become an $8 billion industry? Cheers! ■