July 3rd, 2010
The Kentucky bourbon trail is were you learn all about how bourbon is made. But to really drink the stuff, head to Louisville — that’s where the bourbon bars are. Here are some brief reviews of those “urban bourbon trail” bars, as well as a couple spots in Midway and Frankfort that are well worth a visit.
Bourbons Bistro. It’s “bourbons,” plural. Boy, is it ever. You sit at the bar and contemplate a wall of 130+ different bottles. You peruse the lengthy menu, including several of the flights it helpfully suggests. Then you consult your knowledgeable but laid-back bartender, who tailors a flight to your exact desires. You kick back, sip the tawny goodness, and eavesdrop on what everyone else is ordering. You wish you could come back every night for at least a week to sample even half of the bourbons here, soak it up with high-class southern tavern food, and decompress to the tune of Kentucky accents.
The Old Seelbach Bar. A fixture on numerous “best bars” lists, this landmark hotel watering hole has over 40 bourbons on the back bar. The Seelbach is a grand, early-1900s-era hotel whose plush rooms seem like a real value compared to similar accommodations in bigger cities like New York and San Francisco. I splurged on a room there and happily nursed my bourbon hangover with a giant plate of biscuits and sausage gravy in bed. The one bummer about the Seelbach Bar: like Locke-Ober and its sub-par Ward Eight cocktail, this establishment serves the worst example I’ve ever encountered of its signature Seelbach cocktail — too much liqueur, semi-flat sparkling wine, and only a wan expression of bourbon and bitters.
The Brown Hotel Bar. This is in the opulent, marble-enclosed lobby of Louisville’s other grand, old hotel, built in 1923. The comparatively tiny bar nonetheless carries a wide selection of bourbons. I sipped on a Jefferson’s Reserve (a very small-batch whiskey launched by writer and bourbon historian Chet Zoeller) and struck up a conversation with the bourbon drinker sitting next to me. He turned out to be an Australian linguist and alumnus of my daytime employer (MIT) who teaches theater in prisons. This is why I go to bars.
Proof on Main. Proof that Louisville has a hip side. This cocktail bar and restaurant is part of the 21c Museum Hotel — a boutique hotel in a historic, stone building whose lobby houses kick-ass contemporary art installations. I had a delicious Gold Rush — Woodford Reserve bourbon, honey syrup, lemon juice — and would have taken a flight of a few of the 50+ bourbons on the menu had it not been lunchtime. I have to shout out to Bill Samuels Jr., president of Maker’s Mark, for taking me to Proof (and bringing me down to Kentucky to taste the new Maker’s 46). It’s not every day that I get to talk about bourbon and bourbon tourism with a rocket scientist-turned-lawyer-turned-distiller who deserves much of the credit for the reemergence of bourbon as a premium spirit over the last 30 years.
Bistro La Belle. This fine restaurant and cocktail bar in Midway, which is only a 15-minute drive from either Frankfort or Lexington, is soooo worth seeking out. Midway is a) a picturesque town of under 2,000 where a railroad runs smack down the middle of Main Street and b) a gathering place for an international clientele connected to the business of breeding and racing horses. Walt Mates, who became a fan of drinkboston a few years back while he was transitioning from bookstore owner to classic mixologist, welcomed us to his bar and mixed us real-deal Singapore Slings and Palomas before we sat down to an absolutely delicious dinner. Thanks again to Walt and owner Laura Wolfrom for your hospitality (and for recommending a nightcap at the pleasantly dive-y Dragon Pub on the Kentucky River in Frankfort, where we had shots of Buffalo Trace’s downmarket aged bourbon — Ancient Ancient Age, or “Triple-A” — with Bud chasers and listened to the karaoke contest taking place upstairs).
Tags: Bill Samuels Jr., Bistro La Belle, bourbon, Bourbons Bistro, Brown Hotel, Frankfort, Kentucky, Louisville, Midway, Proof on Main, Seelbach Hotel
Posted in Cocktails, Whiskey | 3 Comments »
June 19th, 2010
When Maker’s Mark president Bill Samuels Jr. and his master distiller, Kevin Smith, decided to make their company’s first new bourbon in over 50 years, they could have gone the well-traveled route: an extra-aged, high-proof whiskey with “reserve” in the name (and a price tag well over $50). But their whole philosophy goes against the whopping spice, caramel, smoke and tannic flavors that can come from extended time in charred oak barrels. They’re all about toasty, mellow, vanilla — a flavor profile they get by blending whiskey from barrels that rotate through three-story rickhouses (barrel-aging warehouses) for a “mere” six to eight years, compared to 12-20+ for some boutique bourbons. So, they decided to simply take their regular Maker’s Mark bourbon and amp it up it somehow. But how? Enter the wood chef.
I admit I laughed when I heard that term, too. (Disclosure: Maker’s Mark flew me down to Kentucky to check out the distillery.) But I realized it wasn’t a stretch when I talked to the chef himself, Brad Boswell of the Independent Stave Company. Boswell’s family has been making oak barrels for aging spirits and wine for 98 years. And lately, they have brought a healthy dose of science to their medieval craft. They begin with a thorough understanding of the chemical composition of different species of oak, and of the appropriate length of seasoning (aging oak staves in the open air) for the intended beverage. Then they cook the staves or finished barrels according to a library of recipes that “pinpoint layers of flavor” between toasted and charred, says Boswell. Basically, he can make you a barrel that imparts to its contents the exact characteristics you’re looking for.
In Maker’s Mark’s case, those characteristics were “sweet toasty oak, not smoky. Forward on the palate. Long finish. No sour or bitter aftertaste. A little spicy,” say my notes from a conversation with Smith. But the distiller knew that that particular combo of spicy notes and long finish typically go hand in hand with at least a bit of smokiness, sourness and bitterness. “We were asking for the impossible,” says Smith. In fact, they were asking for something that couldn’t be achieved with any sort of aging regime in the charred barrels that are standard to the bourbon industry. (The wood on the inside of the barrel is literally blackened with fire.)
It took 125 experiments — many of which “sucked,” says Smith — to hit upon the right wood recipe, one that was entirely new in bourbon making. It begins with French, rather than the standard American, oak staves. Those staves are seasoned for a long 18 months, which lowers the wood’s tannins and intensifies its vanillins. Boswell then tried a new cooking technique: he seared the staves on both sides, like a steak, to just short of charred. Boswell catalogued this recipe as Profile No. 46.
Smith arrayed 10 of the staves in an empty Maker’s barrel, then poured the fully matured bourbon back in to rest for about nine weeks. The combination of the seasoned French oak and Boswell’s searing method gave just the sweet toastiness and spicy notes — think cinnamon instead of rye bread — that Maker’s wanted. Samuels and Smith had their new product, and they decided to name it Maker’s 46, after Boswell’s special wood recipe.
This may all sound pretty esoteric, but the result is a bourbon quite different from Maker’s Mark. The 46 has a dry spiciness, a rich texture and a higher proof (94 compared to 90 for the flagship) that are sure to appeal to the bourbon, and even rye, adventurer, without alienating the devoted Maker’s Mark drinker. And it’s reasonably priced at about $10 more than traditional Maker’s, which is usually $23 to $25. Maker’s 46 will be available in Boston sometime next month.
The 70-year-old Samuels, a seventh-generation distiller who is nearing retirement, seems pleased by the new whiskey. He admits that it arose partly out of market demand for something new and exciting from Maker’s, which largely created the premium bourbon category that is now exploding. But he also wanted to be remembered for something other than faithfully reproducing his father’s bourbon recipe from the 1950s. Now his nightmares of a tombstone that says, simply, “He didn’t screw it up,” are over.
Coming up: my tour of the Kentucky bourbon trail.
Tags: Bill Samuels Jr., bourbon, Brad Boswell, Kentucky, Kevin Smith, Maker's 46, Maker's Mark
Posted in Booze in the news, Whiskey | 8 Comments »