“The harsh, useful things of the world, from pulling teeth to digging potatoes, are best done by men who are as starkly sober as so many convicts in the death house, but the lovely and useless things, the charming and exhilarating things, are best done by men with, as the phrase is, a few sheets in the wind.” — H.L. Mencken
We’ll give away a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 YR Bourbon tonight at 9 PM EST. We will announce the winner LIVE on our Facebook Page and post the video to our pursuitofpappy.com afterwards.
More Pappy Resources
The Pappy Raffle/Lotteries/Auctions Page (Keeps you in the know about Statewide, Store-Specific or other opportunities to locate a bottle of Pappy.)
The Pappy Events Page (Makes you aware of Tasting Events, Whiskey Festivals, etc. that offer and opportunity to taste some Pappy Van Winkle.)
Also, the Pappy List is now categorized by State. (Bars and restaurants do run out so it’s always a good idea to call and ask if that’s the only reason you’re going.)
I order my whiskey two ways. Neat, with a couple drops of water, or if I’ve selected an Abunad’h or something similarly cask strength, non-chill filtered, or gloopy, I’ll add a small splash of water. Although this is right out of the Whiskey Snob Handbook (yep, there’s a book, there are several) my reasoning has nothing to do with the misnomer that mixing good whisky is blasphemous.
Bar patrons are increasingly requesting top shelf whiskey in their cocktails because they are becoming more familiar with it. This is awesome for the whiskey industry and I don’t foresee the spike in sales mellowing within the next twenty years. People who still tsk-tsk mixing top shelf whiskey are dinosaurs. Even though I personally order nothing but whiskey and water, that has more to do with my own neurosis and rejection of trendy craft cocktails.
More on that later.
Jeremy Allen manages Minibar Hollywood, a singular gem that is elegant, boisterous, and just secretive enough to feel cool bringing a first date there. Most pertinently, Jeremy has amalgamated a whiskey selection with serious street cred. I asked him what he thought about mixing expensive whiskey in cocktails.
“There is an undeniable difference a great whiskey can make in a drink,” Allen said. “A Manhattan is cool, tastes good, but a Manhattan made with Willett Rye is alive– and now you’ve turned a drink into an experience.”
The only way to enjoy whiskey is, logically, however the heck you want. I prefer my whiskey neat, however, for several reasons:
- I love the taste of whiskey on its own. I want to taste it. Unencumbered. That is the simplest explanation.
- I worked in bars for years. It stresses me out to see a bartender make a tedious drink at a crowded bar.
- What I prefer to drink is expedient to make, thankfully. Even if there was a unique and innovative cocktail on the menu that piqued my interest, I am too impatient to wait while the bartender grinds up some birch tree twigs in a mortar and pestle.
Craft cocktails have been sullied for me since 2011. First, the pretentious bartenders ruined them with their attitudes, mustaches, and delicate tattoos of the Pythagorean theorem and/or the outline of their home state. Then came the wave of new bars that beat us senseless with their predictable “ambiance” until you felt like shouting “Ok! We get it! You’re RUSTIC! I just backed into an antique rooster figurine and probably got tetanus!” These bars all have twee names involving an animal (Polished Goose Ale House, Turquoise Fox Den, Kettle and Wasp!) and they all need to chill out with the mason jars. And how many kinds of bitters do you really need to display?
Then came the restaurant groups, the hoteliers, the consultants running their craft cocktail training programs in sterile chains to luxury lounges, the Drinkstagrammers, the influencers—I am officially sick to death of craft cocktail culture. We have watered down the concept of craft cocktails so much that it now holds as little meaning as the terms “natural ingredients” or “farm to table” or “artisanal.” The formula that everyone feels they need to feature on their drink menu has been popularized, Xeroxed, and bandied about to the point of redundancy. Just a few years ago, the word “mixologist” invoked feelings of creative ingenuity, now it’s only used in contemptuous condescension.
I caught a movie at an iPic cinema recently, where there is dinner and drink service at your seat. The cocktail menu featured a charcoal and basil infused vermouth. No one needs a charcoal and basil infused vermouth while they’re watching Transformers 17. “Craft” has become corporate jargon, so I have become bored.
This is why dive bars are so beloved—they are simple, they don’t put on airs. I enjoy the craft-less specials, like a cheap beer and a whiskey. I will never get bored with whiskey by itself. Even the economic well whiskey that tastes like Banana Boat sunblock has something to offer on its own. I don’t need to jazz whiskey up with frothy egg whites or cascading dry ice.
Whiskey will always be interesting just the way it is.
Twenty years after being distilled, most bourbons have long since been bottled and, hopefully, consumed. If the whiskey is still in the barrel and hasn’t completely evaporated or taken on the flavor profile of an oak stave, it’s a small miracle. Yet the appeal of the high age statement endures, embodied by the most desired bottle of all, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23 year old. And, despite Pappy’s recommended retail price of $270, its actual shelf price is almost always several times more than that.
Accordingly, more and more super-aged bourbons have hit high-end back bars and store shelves in recent years, with prices to match their age statements—from the increasing series of ages for Orphan Barrel Rhetoric ($140 for the 25 year old) to Heaven Hill 27 year old ($400) to Michter’s 20 year old ($700) and 25 year old ($800). Boutique independent bottler The Last Drop sourced a Buffalo Trace bourbon that was distilled in 1982 and aged for 20 years before being transferred to stainless steel storage tanks, charging $4,000 for each of the 44 bottles available. And Redemption Whiskey offered 18 bottles of an MGP-distilled bourbon that had been in the barrel for a whopping 36 years, each of them available for $1,200.
If the proliferation of super-superannuated bourbons proves anything, it’s that the older the age statement and the fewer bottles available, the more people will pay for it (or, at least, the more companies will charge). But is the bourbon itself benefiting from that extra aging? Not necessarily; the Whisky Advocate blind tasting panel, reviewing Heaven Hill’s 27 year old, scored it 90 points, but also advised that “this elder statesman deserves respect, but is nonetheless past its prime.”
Even the people who make it tend to put a ceiling on bourbon’s quality past a certain age. Distillers for several different brands, by and large, all said their personal “sweet spot” for bourbon was anywhere from 5-12 years old. As Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace, says, a bourbon in that range has “a good balance of time in the barrel and freshness from the recipe. It’s flexible with drinking on the rocks or in a cocktail.”
Beyond 12 or so years, however, the prospects get dicey. “When barrels age longer than 15 years, the bourbon picks up a sour or bitter taste from the barrel,” says Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell. Brent Elliott, Four Roses’ master distiller, says that as bourbons age into their teens, “you can still find some incredible barrels, but they get harder to find. You’re taking more of a chance. They’re more likely to become harsh and astringent, and they’re going to lose those lighter floral notes.”
WHY OLD BOURBON ISN’T EQUIVALENT TO OLD SCOTCH
Whiskey novices might equate the aging process of bourbon to that of scotch, which often boasts age statements at 12 years old and higher. But the climate in Kentucky is more extreme and changeable than in Scotland—hotter in the summer, colder in the winter. Those temperature shifts cause the barrels to expand (when hot) and contract (when cold), pushing the liquid in and out of the wood and resulting in a quicker and more pronounced maturation process than in Scotland, where the relatively stable temperatures create much less dynamic aging conditions. Bourbon must also age in new charred oak barrels, while scotch, for the most part, employs used barrels, with an effect similar to reusing a teabag. Bourbon gets more flavor in a shorter time from the virgin, charred oak, meaning a 20 year old bourbon and a 20 year old single malt scotch aren’t comparable at all.
The longer a bourbon stays in the barrel, the more the barrel’s influence comes through in the flavor of the final product, ranging from sweet vanilla to peppery spice. All bourbon should have strong oak flavors, but there’s a fine line between a well-oaked bourbon and one that tastes like a piece of wood; it’s a test of the expertise of the distiller and his or her team of tasters to determine when a whiskey is ready to bottle—and when it’s past its peak. Andrea Wilson, master of maturation at Michter’s, says, “We have a rigorous maturing management program where we take samples at least twice per year, and if we find a barrel that has reached a peak, we don’t just leave it in wood. We will remove the barrel from the warehouse and hold the liquid in steel tanks [until it’s time to bottle].”
It’s sometimes difficult, with a bourbon that old, to add enough to the blend that it contributes in a positive way without creating any astringency or flat character. It’s a balancing act. – Brent Elliott, Four Roses master distiller
What happens when a bourbon does cross the line from old to too old? “The whiskey takes on bitterness and astringency, as well as too much wood character,” Wilson says. “Essentially, the oak overshadows any of the beautiful notes that took years to develop.” Fortunately, the results can—with some creativity—be salvaged. “You could blend it slowly into a younger whiskey,” notes Wheatley. “You lose the [ability to include a high] age statement, but some of the components could actually help a younger bourbon.”
When putting together Four Roses’ 2017 Limited Edition Small Batch Al Young’s 50th Anniversary bourbon, Elliott used some extra-aged bourbon in the mix. “We had 23 year old whiskey in there,” he says. “Al said he wanted some older barrels in there, and we found 20 barrels of 23 year old.” However, it was a challenge to blend. “It’s sometimes difficult, with a bourbon that old, to add enough to the blend that it contributes in a positive way without creating any astringency or flat character. It’s a balancing act.” As a result, the 23 year old whiskey made up only 6% of the blend.
THE PRICE YOU PAY FOR AGE
As the demand for long-aged bourbon grows, distilleries are experimenting to find out how far they can push the boundaries of age. Most distillers rely on cooler spots in their warehouses, less subject to temperature swings, to get a few extra years of wood aging without overwhelming the whiskey too much. But some are taking it even further. In 2018, Buffalo Trace created a special climate-controlled warehouse where they’ll attempt to age bourbons for up to 50 years, comparable to the oldest whiskies aged in the much cooler climes of Scotland. Wheatley describes the process: “We are in continuous testing mode to monitor the bourbons and whiskeys as they age. We are aging the bourbons at a reduced temperature and a set humidity to determine how that affects the aging process.” Check back in 2068 to see if the experiment works out.
Even though super-old bourbon can often be astringent and over-oaked, there are exceptions—and they’re usually superb. “I’ve seen barrels that I thought, ‘This is past its peak,’ and after about 11, 12, 13 years, they wind up getting really interesting,” says Elliott. “The bourbon can take a left turn and take on some light berry notes, which you totally wouldn’t expect.”
In the end, for those that spend the money on them, the appeal of old and rare bourbons doesn’t necessarily hinge on how they actually taste. “I certainly believe that some of the increase in super-aged bourbon is driven by status, prestige and rarity by those looking to collect or invest,” says Wilson. Elliott adds, “When I’m showing people around the distillery, they’ll ask, what’s the oldest bourbon you’ve got? And I’ll taste them on a 23 or 25 year old, and I’ll tell them, this isn’t gonna taste very good. But they don’t care—they just want to taste a really old bourbon. And some people are willing to pay a lot of money for that kind of experience.”
There’s no spirit that’s quite like bourbon. Made primarily in the US and aged in special barrels, this type of whiskey is a popular ingredient in cocktails like an old fashioned or mint julep.
Those who love bourbon are in luck — a lot of places around the US host special festivals and run specialty bars in its honor.
Here’s a list of cities you may want to visit and events you might wish to attend if you’re a huge fan of bourbon.
If there’s one destination that belongs at the top of any bourbon lover’s list, it’s the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Travelers can start anywhere along the famous route and embark on a self-guided tour throughout the Kentucky countryside to visit 16 major distilleries.
Some well-known stops along the way include Bulleit Frontier, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and many more.
Each facility offers guests a tour through their picturesque grounds, a bit of a history lesson, and a tasting of their signature bourbon. Some places even give you an interactive experience in which you can bottle your own bourbon.
Thanks to the mix of newer bourbon brands and multi-generational, family-owned operations along the route, your journey will include plenty of unique experiences at each stop.
If you’re interested in exploring smaller brands, you can also follow the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, which highlights 13 micro-distilleries in the region.
Louisville, Kentucky, is a must-visit place for bourbon lovers
In addition to being the home of the Frazier History Museum, the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail welcome center, Louisville has a lot of bourbon-themed fun to offer visitors.
Louisville is where you’ll find a city-dwellers’ alternative to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, aptly named the “Urban Bourbon Trail.” Visitors who follow this self-guided excursion can explore a variety of acclaimed restaurants, hotels, and bars throughout the city that offer special bourbon cocktails and foods that contain bourbon.
Stops on the journey include historic outposts like the renovated Old Seelbach Bar that once reportedly served drinks to literary-legend F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other spots include craft bourbon bars, saloons, and restaurants that serve creative dishes that incorporate the spirit, like Down One, which serves brisket tacos topped with a citrus-bourbon BBQ sauce or Bourbons Bistro, which serves a bourbon bread pudding.
If you visit this city during the autumn and are over the age of 21, you can participate in Louisville’s official Urban Bourbon half marathon. The 13.1-mile race takes runners through the heart of the city and culminates in an epic Urban Bourbon Bash that features food, live music, and of course, bourbon samples.
Louisville also hosts The Bourbon Classic, an upscale food and wine festival that invites some of the biggest names in the bourbon industry to speak on its panels every year. The eventalso features tastings of special bourbon varieties from distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Bulleit Frontier Whiskey.
And if that’s not enough, in the summer, Louisville offers a five-day “bourbon fantasy camp” called the Kentucky Bourbon Affairin which campers can go behind-the-scenes of distilleries and learn from world-class mixologists.
Finally, who can forget the famous Kentucky Derby? If you’re lucky enough to attend this famous horse-racing event, you’ll have the chance to sip on premium versions of the event’s official bourbon cocktail, the mint julep.
WhiskyFest is a nationwide event for bourbon lovers who can also appreciate other types of whiskey
Although the event doesn’t exclusively focus on bourbon, it’s an opportunity for connoisseurs to meet big names in the bourbon business. A general admission ticket grants you a tasting experience and entrance to seminars where you can learn a bit about this famous spirit from seasoned whiskey and bourbon experts.
WhiskyFest currently has events planned in a variety of major US areas including San Francisco, California; Chicago, Illinois; Washington DC; and New York.
Bardstown, Kentucky’s bourbon festival hosts a week of festivities for both amateur and seasoned bourbon connoisseurs
This festival has just about everything your bourbon-loving heart could desire from tastings to expert-led workshops. There are even highly competitive barrel relay-races.
You might be impressed by New York City’s variety of bourbon-centric cocktail bars
Given the city’s reputation as a trendsetter in the craft cocktail and premium spirits business, New York is definitely somewhere bourbon lovers should add to their list.
For starters, anyone who’s a fan of premium bourbon might want to make at least one visit to The Flatiron Room. Its jaw-dropping collection of premium whiskeys and bourbons includes rare selections like Jefferson’s Presidential 25 year, among hundreds of others.
The Flatiron Room also hosts several levels of spirits classes for anyone who wants to better understand how to taste and appreciate the complexities of whiskey.
In addition, both NYC’s Maysville and The Brandy Library boast huge collections of the spirit that will keep you coming back for more. Of course, these places are just a small sample of what the Big Apple has to offer for bourbon aficionados — the city has dozens of impressive whiskey bars.
San Francisco, California, can be a great place to order cocktails made with high-quality bourbon
California may seem like its a ways away from bourbon country, but it’s actually home to some of the most prestigious bourbon bars in the world.
For example, just steps away from the San Francisco Bay is Hard Water, a one-of-a-kind, modern whiskey bar that offers a massive collection of more than 200 bourbon varieties.
In San Francisco, there’s also Bourbon & Branch, a brick-walled bar with a hidden, underground speakeasy that you’ll need to give a special password in order to enter. If you make it inside, you’ll have the opportunity to order rare bourbon varieties, like the hand-numbered Rittenhouse 21 Year.
But if you’re looking for something a little more open and lively, check out Rickhouse. This craft-cocktail hotspot is named after the storage space that whiskey barrels sit in as they age. Patrons who spend the evening here can gather around these special barrels and enjoy artfully crafted bourbon cocktails and whiskey from around the world.
In Chicago, Illinois, you’ll find a handful of bars that seem like they were made for bourbon drinkers
Sophisticated spots like The Berkshire Room will delight aficionados with their rare collection of vintage varieties of bourbon. The bar also offers specialty cocktails that are aged in whiskey barrels before they are served.
A visit to The Office will leave you feeling as if you stepped on the set of a noir film from the 1920s. To enter this exclusive speakeasy, you must be invited or reserve a spot in advance. While there, you can sip on many rare varieties of bourbon.
Another spot bourbon lovers are sure to enjoy is Delilah’s, a lively bar on the eastern section of Lincoln Park. The bar boasts an outstanding collection of more than 800 whiskeys, including decades-old bourbons like the A.H. Hirsch 20 year reserve, which can retail for $135 per ounce.
New Orleans, Louisiana, attracts thousands of bourbon fans every year thanks to its bourbon festivals and whiskey bars
According to Bourbon House, it’s believed that the high demand for bourbon in New Orleans during the 19th century inspired the spirit’s aging process that many distilleries use today. As a result, the city has a rich connection with the famous Kentucky spirit, making it quite a hotbed for bourbon-heavy bars and bourbon-centric events.
Once a year, you can even attend the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, which showcases well-known bourbon distilleries from around the country along with local, Louisiana cuisine. Throughout the weekend, festivalgoers can attend seminars about bourbon and cigar pairings, feast at exquisite dinners, and hear from key influencers in the bourbon industry.
During any other weekend, bourbon lovers are still sure to find a spot they’ll love in New Orleans. You may also want to check out Barrel Proof, a charming bar and kitchen with a notable collection of more than 300 whiskeys.
Or head to the previously mentioned Bourbon House, which is conveniently located on Bourbon Street. In addition to offering an extensive selection of bourbons to pair with their Cajun dishes, the eatery is currently home to the New Orleans Bourbon Society, a special club for that regularly meets for bourbon tastings. It’s free to become a member and, by doing so, you can score invitations to special seminars and events.
There are only three basic decisions to make on Kentucky Derby Day: what horse to bet on, what hat to wear, and what new whiskey to try.
And in my experience, if you choose right on the third category, the other two decisions won’t matter as much. (Really.)
So to prepare for the 145th Run for the Roses (in addition to looking at which horses to bet on) I reached out to Kentucky native Robert Cate—the food and beverage manager at Hotel Covington in Kentucky. The man oversees the property’s three dining and drinking places—Coppin’s, The Patio, and The Walk Up—and is beyond enthusiastic when it comes to bourbon and rye, as many Kentuckians are. (It is their birthright, after all.)
Cate so very generously curated 19 of his top picks to enjoy during Derby Day. And his list is diverse and wide in its range, including easy-to-find liquids (such as Four Roses Single Barrel, Noah’s Mill, and Rittenhouse) as well as more elusive bottles (like Colonel E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood, Cream of Kentucky, and Savage & Cooke’s The Burning Chair). So there’s really something for everyone in this roster—not matter where you’re based. Unless you live in a dry town. And if that’s the case, neither Cate nor I can help you.
Not a big bourbon or rye drinker? Think about going for a mint julep. There’s no shame in that. But make sure to make it with quality bourbon.
“Former Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge struck gold with the revitalization of this brand,” Cate says. “Vanilla and caramel candy with subtle spicy oak notes and a long smooth finish. If you can find a bottle (or a pour) buy it.”
“This is my number one bourbon of all time. Bottled in Bond like all E.H. Taylor products, this is like subtle fireworks on tongue and caramel gold on the finish.”
“You can’t talk about bourbon with someone in Covington, Kentucky without talking about George Remus, King of the Bootleggers,” Cate says. “Caramel and vanilla notes make this bourbon sing and would make the king himself very proud.”
“This is my go-to. Mix it with cola, make an old fashioned, whiskey sour, drink it neat, or on the rocks. This is an all-around star.”
“Wow. Dave Phinney is known for his wines—most famously The Prisoner. But this bourbon raises eyebrows in a good way. It is finished in The Prisoner wine barrels, giving a little interest with its baked dark fruits finish.”
“This brand, with ties to Pappy and Weller, has a unique smoke characteristic that builds through the palate and onto the finish. This bourbon really opens up on the rocks.”
“One of my favorites of all time. Every time I drink this, I can’t help but think about chocolate. The perfect after dinner sipper, if you will.”
“I fell in love with Russell’s after tasting the 2002 batch. The 10 Year pales in comparison, but is a mighty fine whiskey to sip on the back deck.”
“One of my dark horses. A barrel strength bourbon with a very unique nutty finish.”
“At 128.8 proof I was expecting an immediate burn, but there wasn’t any,” Cate says. “Packed with flavor, spice forward, but with honey and dried cherry on the finish. This is a flavor bomb. Do not hesitate with this, it’s worth every penny.”
“An easy sipper with beautiful oak notes and a cherry finish.”
“A new distillery in Newport, Kentucky,” Cate says. “Amazing branding and even better juice. It’s very well balanced and full of flavor. Try the single barrel picks too!”
“This is a hidden gem. Just barely meeting rye standards at 51%, this is like a spiced cherry cola. Something to really cool you down on a hot day.”
“This is human catnip if I’ve ever tasted it. Proofy to start, smooth as butter on the finish, and packed with flavor.”
“This should be staple for everyone. Perfect for manhattans, Sazeracs, neat, or on the rocks. Rittenhouse is a true crowd pleaser”
“This is a southerner’s dream bourbon,” Cate says. “Honey, peaches, and brown sugar round out the rye spice. A super long finish makes this bourbon a true winner in my books.”
“This one is special to me. [While being neither a bourbon nor a rye] this was one of my first whiskeys. Lots of caramel and super smooth. The price tag isn’t bad either.”
“A new distillery in Danville with a unique flavor profile,” Cate says. “This is a very young bonded bourbon, but it yields an interesting fresh dough flavor. Gives a whole new meaning to ‘chewing’ your bourbon.”
“An amazing straightforward bourbon,” Cate says. “Caramel and vanilla bring out sweet fruit and dark cherry on the finish—perfect for an old fashioned. I like to enjoy this with two cubes.”