Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bourbon Recommendations for Friends

How many times are you asked by friends to recommend a bourbon?  I really struggle with this because my favorite is just that, MY favorite.  Because I like Ambrosia apples, does that mean that it is the best apple?  Most of the time, Ambrosia suits my taste.  However, I don’t have a bad thing to say about a good Fuji or Pink Lady.  The same can be said for bourbons.
For this entry I thought I would share what I tell my friends who are searching for a good bourbon.
I don’t think that they should start with an expensive limited release bourbon.  Everyone thinks they want Pappy because the media has told them that it is “the best bourbon” and that is what they think they want.  I try to convince them that they can get a REALLY good bourbon for not a lot of money without camping out at their liquor store for months. 
I usually ask my friend in search of a bourbon to come to my house for a tasting.  We host a bourbon tasting party every year but it usually has a theme and some twists for the enjoyment of my bourbon savvy friends.  This is not what my friend on a mission needs.  While I like my bourbon neat, I encourage my friend to add a little water to take it down to about 80 proof.  Here is what I offer my friend as examples of what is available:
A wheated bourbon like Maker’s Mark, Larceny or Old Fitz
A low rye bourbon like Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare or Elijah Craig
A higher rye bourbon like Town Branch, Old Forester or Woodford Reserve
Another offering that I like to share that can be a really good gateway whiskey is Gentleman Jack or George Dickel Barrel Select.  I know these are Tennessee whiskeys but both are really good starter spirits for those who want to eventually get into bourbon.
If my friends doesn’t live near me or is unable to come up for a tasting, I suggest that a trip to a well stocked but not fancy (expensive) bar would be money well spent.  A shot from each of the categories above over the course of several days can give an overview of preferences.  Probably the best option, although not very practical for many, is to visit the tasting rooms on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  Not everyone can do that so the bar is probably the best option for most.
Each of the bourbons or Tennessee whiskeys that I offer my friends is widely available at any good liquor store for $30ish.  I don’t want to expect anyone starting on bourbon to lay out big bucks for something they may not like.  If, after a tasting, they can narrow down to a few, they can get out of the liquor store for less than $100.

When pressed by the friend to identify my FAVORITE bourbon I really have to hedge.  In summer, I like a wheated or low rye bourbon.  However, when I sit by the fire on a cold winter night I really enjoy the “Kentucky Hug” from a bourbon with a spicy rye kick.  In the rare occasions when I make mixed drinks, like the juleps for Derby Day, I typically use a higher rye bourbon.  My favorite bourbons fit my tastes and, like Ambrosia apples, may not fit the tastes of others.  I rarely spend more than $50 on a bottle of bourbon.  I don’t want to buy a trophy, I want something that I enjoy drinking and sharing with my friends.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hosting a Kentucky Derby Party

Our family loves the Kentucky Derby.  We watch other races, especially the Triple Crown, but there is nothing like the Kentucky Derby for elegance and history.  I guess that my attention span is too short to enjoy automobile races or many other sporting events. However, the two minutes of excitement at Churchill Downs keeps me gripped to my seat.
Probably our favorite thing about the Derby is having great friends over for fun, drinks and watching the fastest two minutes in sports.  As described in a previous recent post, I take my juleps seriously and only use the best ingredients.  In 2016, I made used over a case of Woodford Reserve in the juleps for our Derby party.  My wife makes the best pulled pork barbecue that I have ever eaten and her Kentucky Pie is without peer.
We encourage our guests to dress for the event and many of the lovely ladies wear traditional floral hats.  I, of course, wore a white suit with a black ribbon tie.  All of our friends are welcome regardless of dress.  We just want to enjoy a day with some great friends.
When guests arrive, we give them an envelope with $12 in Derby Bucks that they can bet on any horse they wish in $2 increments.  The $2 bills are modified with iconic images of the Kentucky Derby and even a famous fried chicken magnate on the front.  On the reverse of the bills there are places for guests to put their name and the horse for the bet.  The wallet also contains my julep recipe and a bit of information about mint julips that we are serving.  The last thing in the wallet is the most recent odds sheet for the race to guide the betting.
After discussions on the merits of each horse over dinner and drinks, each guest places their Derby Bucks bets in containers labeled for each horse.  Some guests read up to see how a horse has done in prior races under expected race conditions of the day.  Others just like the name of a certain horse or the color of the jockey’s silks.  All betting is closed before post time and everyone gathers around the televisions.
After the race has concluded and a horse is wearing the roses, the guest with the most money won is awarded a Kentucky Derby Commemorative bottle of Woodford Reserve.  The second place better gets a nice julip beaker (glass) commemorating that year’s running of the Derby.  Interestingly, neither winner in 2016 likes bourbon!  Their husbands, however, enjoy Woodford a great deal.
Probably our best Derby party was in 2012.  The Kentucky Derby was on May 5 that year so we had “Cinco de Derby” and mixed Derby hats with sombreros.  The meal included barbecue and enchiladas.  Drinks were juleps and margaritas.  Making it even better, our younger daughter and our (now) son-in-law graduated from their undergraduate programs so we threw in a graduation theme as well.  It was quite the eclectic afternoon.
My wife and I were really hoping to host another Derby party next month but, unfortunately, I have to work out of town on that day.  We will really miss having our friends over and enjoying our time with them.  I may get back home barely in time to catch the race but will be unable to watch all of excitement of Derby day.  I guess we will shoot for 2018 as our last Derby party in our current home before we move back to Central Kentucky where we will hope to continue the tradition in our new home.

For anyone considering hosting a Kentucky Derby party, I highly recommend it as a great way to bring friends and family together.  To help, I have included images of our invitations, Derby Bucks and other contents of the guests’ envelopes.  
Snapshots from our 2016 Kentucky Derby party are here.
Images of invitations and wallet contents are available here.
If anyone would like a better copy of the materials that I used last year please comment on the blog or contact me via email and I will be happy to send cleared copies of anything you would like.  Although I wan't be hosting a party this year, I may be able to help someone else in their race day get-together.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

New Brands – advertising & gimmicks

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.
I guess I just like the tried and true but I tend to stick with bourbons that have been around for a while.  Ones that have a history and a known brand history are found on my shelf more often than upstarts.  I have had some newer brands that are pretty darn good and some of the old favorites that have disappointed me, generally I go for the tried and true.
A couple of years ago a dear friend bought a bourbon for me that came from a western state.  He paid a handsome price for this bottle and it came in a really fancy bottle.  However, the flavor of the bourbon really disappointed,   Not that it tasted bad but it was just not spectacular.  I know that he paid nearly $100 for the 750 mL bottle and I would have been infinitely happier with a bottle of $30 of-the-shelf Kentucky juice for one third the price. 
I have been impressed with some of the craft spirits that have come on the market.  A few of these have even entered the mainstream market.  New distillers bring fresh ideas and experimentation to the offerings many of them are pretty darn good.  I recently read about an upstart distiller who will soon be making bourbon with corn, malted barley, rye and wheat.  I will look forward to giving it a try with an open mind. 
Many of the small new distillers have to produce white spirits to have something to sell while the bourbon is aging.  You can’t expect a new distiller to spend the volume of money that has to be invested in the production of bourbon to wait for 10 years to sell the first drop of whiskey and start bringing in money.  In addition, many of them are buying juice from a mega-distiller in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  Many of these are actually pretty good.  While I object to calling the factory distilled spirits “craft whiskey” I have found that they usually aren’t bad. 
I do appreciate honesty.  If a new distiller acknowledges purchasing their bourbon from another source, I have typically OK with it.  However, if they try to disguise it or imply that it was produced in a particular location, I tend to have a less than positive attitude.  Still, I try to find the bourbon that tastes good not the one with the best sales gimmick. 
I respect that some old brands are coming back as premium whiskey.  Some pre-prohibition brands are now owned by some of the big bourbon conglomerates.  A few of these are really pretty darn good.  It makes me feel good that a brand that was a good whiskey in the 1920s and either disappeared or became a rot gut is now being reintroduced as a good premium bourbon.
Probably the bottom line is that a good bourbon needs to stand on its own without a cute name, a fancy bottle or a lot of hype.  I won’t be excited about a new bourbon just because it is in demand or is getting a lot of press.  I will buy a shot and see if it fits my taste preferences and whether it is not overpriced for the quality of the drink.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mint Juleps

As mentioned in a prior post, as spring approaches, I enjoy a good mint julep.  There is a small patch of spearmint growing beside my hose just for the purposes of making the best juleps outside of Louisville.  Several friends have asked me to share my recipe so I thought that this would be a good place.  I invite any reader to share their favorite recipe.  I don’t usually use a wheated bourbon for juleps since I believe the rye is needed to come through the mint and sugar.  You want to get the perfect blend of the sweet from the simple syrup, bite and complexity from the bourbon and the fragrance of the mint.  I also don’t use my best (most expensive) bourbons for juleps but I won’t use a bottom shelf drink either since off or foul flavors can come through.  I like to use at least 92 proof bourbon but there are some very workable 100 proof choices available.  My juleps NEVER have fruity syrup, artificial mint extracts, any mint other than spearmint or pre-made julep mixes.

Kentucky Bourbon Mint Julep
2 parts simple syrup (equal parts sugar and branch water)
8 parts good 100 proof Kentucky bourbon
1 part branch water
Mull young, fresh spearmint leaves in a small quantity of bourbon to extract mint oils.  Combine simple syrup, bourbon and water with mint extract to taste.  If possible, allow this mixture a few days in a cool area like a refrigerator to develop married flavors.  I really like to put the julep mix in the freezer for a few days so when it is served, the mix doesn’t melt the ice in the cup. If you are short on time it is alright to serve right away.  A silver or stainless julep glass is perfect but a highball glass will do fine.  If possible, full the glasses with ice to pre-chill the glasses.  Dump the ice from the glass after chilling.
Rub the inside of the glass with a couple of mint leaves.  Fill the glass with finely crushed ice and pour the mixture of syrup, bourbon and water over the ice.  Garnish with a bruised mint sprig and dust with confectioner’s sugar.  Use a low straw that brings the nose close to the mint while sipping. 
My juleps usually turn out better if I make my juleps as a batch.  However, you can make then one at a time with 1 oz. simple syrup, 4 oz. bourbon and ½ oz. clear water.  About eight mint leaves should be crushed to make each glass.  To scale up to make a liter of juleps use one 750 ml. bottle of bourbon, about 180 ml of simple syrup and about 100 ml of iron free water.  Plan on using about 100 fresh mint leaves for the batch that will be crushed into a small quantity of bourbon.  You can adjust the ratios based on your taste and the characteristics of the bourbon you are using.  If I am using a bourbon with a lower rye mashbill I tend to go a little lighter on the simple syrup.  A really high rye bourbon may call for a little more simple syrup for my taste.
The mint julep is a high alcohol drink so please enjoy responsibly.  Because they are so delicious, their potency can sneak up on you.

Simple Syrup
I can’t even mess this one up.  Mix equal parts of cane sugar and filtered or spring water and bring to a boil stirring until all sugar is dissolved.  The simple syrup can be “minted” by adding some of the mint that was extracted fresh from leaves.  The simple syrup can be stored in a sealed jar in a refrigerator for a good while although if it is minted, it will quickly lose the mint flavor.  For that reason, I don’t typically add mint until I am ready to make the drinks.

Mint Extract
Pick only the small, tender, fresh leaves from spearmint plants that have not been treated with any pesticides.  Do not use any old or damaged leaves or any part of the mint stem.  Making a batch of julep is easier since all of the mint can be extracted for the entire batch more easily. 
Rinse the leaves in cool tap water to remove any dust or insects.  Cut a square of clean cotton cloth like a one square foot section of discarded sheet or the back of a cotton shirt.  Cheesecloth is too loose for this process.  Place the rinsed spearmint leaves in the cloth square and fold into a bag.  Crush and squeeze the mint then dip into a shallow bowl with a few milliliters of bourbon,  Squeeze and wring the bag of crushed mint leaves dripping the extract into the bourbon and wringing again until the bourbon in the bowl smells strongly of mint.  The freshly extracted mint can be added to the simple syrup or the pre-mixed juleps to taste.
If you are making juleps one at a time, simply crush about 8 rinsed tender spearmint leaves in the julep glass with a splash of bourbon.  Remove the crushed leaves from the glass leaving the infused bourbon.
The mint sprig that goes in the top of the glass can include the stem tip with a few tender leaves.  Quickly clap the sprig between your hands to slightly crush the mint which will release the aroma as the julep is sipped.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Casked Bourbon

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.

In my post last week I gave reasons that I do not care for flavored bourbon.  This week’s post presents some of the same argument although to a lesser extent.  I will restate that I think bourbon should taste like bourbon.  One could build an argument that there is little difference in adding a flavor to bourbon by dumping liquid flavor to a stainless tank of bourbon and putting bourbon into barrels with liquid flavors of wine infused into the wood fibers.  What if someone stored liquid cinnamon flavor in an oak barrel for a year then emptied the barrel and put bourbon in it for a few weeks?  Would that be different that just adding cinnamon liquid flavor to the bourbon?
To my palate, bourbon that has been aged in barrels used for port, sherry, rum or anything else do not add anything to the flavor that I find especially appealing.  Adding flavors from these other spirits or wines does add a different dimension to flavors of bourbon drinkers should decide whether those added flavors contribute to their enjoyment of the spirit. 

To my taste, the red-headed bourbon aged in French oak is among the best of the double casked bourbons but I honestly prefer the excellent regular edition of the wonderful wheated bourbon, especially the cask strength.  I find the experiments being done by the distillery with a large grazing herbivorous land mammal on the label are the most interesting.  They are aging bourbon in white oak barrels from different places in the tree.  Since botanical chemicals are stored in the xylem tissue (wood) in different places, this research could give distillers and coopers some information on selecting the best barrels for aging bourbons of different mash bills.

When I have had some “double oaked” bourbons, I have liked them but found that the regular offering from the distiller was better.  One bourbon associated with a race in Louisville offers a very good double oaked bourbon.  However, their regular bourbon is pretty darn good.  The double oaked is different but not, to my taste, better.  The extra barrel aging seems to make the make the bourbon to “oaky smoky” for me.  To my logic, if you can make some of the best bourbon in the world by aging in one barrel then why mess with success?  Of course, the double barreled costs a little more.  I won’t pay more for a bourbon that I don’t like as well.

As stated earlier, these are my thoughts based on what I like in bourbon.  Readers of this post will have very different tastes.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Neat, ice, water or mixed

Disclaimer: The opinions in my posts are my thoughts and not for everyone.  I can only identify what is right for me.  You may have very different thoughts.  I will enjoy reading replies of dissent or agreement.

I like my bourbon straight.  Master distillery have very discriminating tastes and bottle their products in strengths that they believe will best present the drink to the consumer.  I usually agree.  My evening routine, a Glencairn glass with two fingers of good bourbon while sitting with my wife doesn’t usually involve mixers.  I buy good bourbon and I want to taste it.
I do have a few exceptions to my straight up routine.  When friends are up who are new to bourbon I like to have them take a sip then add a few drops of filtered water to the glass for them to see how the nose and taste can evolve.  The addition of water can drive different odors and flavors to the front.  A few friends ask for their bourbon on the rocks.  I shudder a bit and ask if they are sure that they don’t want to try it straight or with a little water.  If they insist on rocks I smile and accommodate.  I try not to judge because I strongly believe that the best way to enjoy bourbon is the way that it is best for each individual.
Now for mixers and bourbon.  A dear friend and I were working out of town several years ago so I picked up a very good single barrel bourbon to share with my friend.  As we settled in for the evening I proudly took the bottle from my bag and poured us each a drink.  I nearly passed out then he dumped the expensive and wonderful bourbon into his diet cola!  I guess he saw the look of shock on my face and said that he just couldn’t take the roughness of bourbon.  When I asked him which bourbon he has had the names he gave me were all bottom shelf offerings.  Now this fellow is one of the most brilliant people I know.  He is a renowned scientist in his field and has traveled all over the world but he had never tasted a good bourbon.  I made a deal with him.  He had to take one taste of my bourbon straight, no water, no ice, no diet cola.  If he didn’t like it I would promise to never give him “a look” for mixing his bourbon.  Of course, he loved the bourbon and always offers a glass of it when I come to his house.  One funny note is that he continues to buy that same bourbon that I shared with him that evening.  I have tried to convince him that there are many excellent bourbons available but he tells me that he likes that one and that there is no need to look further.
Not all of my attempts to convert friends to good bourbon have been successful.  Some friends still prefer their bourbon with a mixer.  Since I love these friends and would never alienate them, I will bite my tongue and make a mixed drink.  That being said, I will not make the drink with my better bourbons.  I keep a 1.5 liter bottle of a decent middle shelf bourbon on hand to make drinks for my pals who want to mix.  A have to confess that a 50-50 mix of Kentucky bourbon and Kentucky ginger ale is pretty darn good.  Of course, I make some pretty special mint juleps on the first Saturday in May and I use a better middle shelf bourbon for these drinks.  I justify my love of juleps because there is little, other than the mint, to detract from the complex bourbon flavors.
On the rare occasions when we make mixed drinks I usually use a clear spirit.  Since the taste of the spirit is so covered up, why us good bourbon when a flavorless vodka is certainly adequate to put in some fruity concoction.  I keep rum on hand to enjoy a mojito (my wife’s drink of choice) on a summer day.  We will make tequila margaritas when we have friends over for grilled fish tacos.

I believe that there are no wrong ways for you to enjoy your bourbon, I can only tell you what is right for me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Flavored Bourbon

Disclaimer: As I mentioned in my introduction to this series of posts, these are my thoughts and do not apply to anyone but me.  I am not seeking to offend anyone only to share my thoughts after enjoying good and not so good bourbon for 40 years.
Let me start by saying that I believe that bourbon should taste like bourbon. 
I do not like flavored bourbon.  A good bourbon should stand on its own and not need to have maple, honey, cinnamon, apple, berry or other flavors added to make it palatable.  A bourbon should have the right mix of flavors from the grains and especially from the oak barrels.  I like to sit with a Glencairn glass filled with two fingers of good bourbon warming in my hand and just smell the flavor coming into my nose.  As the bourbon warms, a different set of delicious odors comes up.  While I sip from the glass my nose is as happy as my tongue.  I don’t want anything to interfere with my enjoyment of the bourbon.  I only have my two fingers each evening but as the bourbon warms and breathes, I get several unique drinking experiences in the same glass.
Flavors added to bourbons take the complex and multifaceted bourbon and turn it into a one dimensional booze.  When I have had a flavored whiskey I can only taste the added sweet flavor.  I can honestly say that only one of the flavored whiskeys that I have had was actually bad but none was just exceptionally good.  Most were very “drinkable” whatever that means but none gave me the bourbon experience that I crave.  I could taste little of the oak and grain much less the more subtle flavors of spice, fruit, caramel and toffee that are so characteristic of the bourbon that I love.  All I could really taste was the added flavor.
As I said earlier, I can only state my opinions.  I have nothing against flavored whiskey if that is what you like.  Friends had told me that flavored spirits are a good way for non bourbon drinkers to make the transition from clear spirits to bourbon.  I can see that.  I even recommended a honey flavored bourbon to a friend who wanted to make the move over to bourbon from mixed party drinks.
For me, I want my bourbon to taste like bourbon and will continue to buy and enjoy my favorite bourbons.  I will leave the flavored choices to those who appreciate them.