WILD TABLE – Billy Reid:
Bourbon, Branch and a Splash of Southern Lore
by Warren Bobrow
Back in the eighties I bartended a bit, drank a fair amount of good bourbon in carefully learned, hand-crafted mint juleps, and cooked the line in a fine, white tablecloth restaurant near the historic waterfront area known as Ansonborough in Charleston, South Carolina.
That restaurant was named the Primerose House. Here at this very early proponent of locavore cooking I was introduced to the culture and mystique of the oft mentioned, never tasted branch water. After Hurricane Hugo set us all asunder in 1989, Charleston changed, but her charm, as a graceful Southern city has never faded.
Many moved on to other places and culinary careers, myself included. But the manners that I was taught in Charleston have stayed with me. I especially cite Martha Lou’s Kitchen for teaching me the value of listening under pressure in her non-air-conditioned kitchen. In the Soul Food restaurant she owns in Charleston, Martha Lou let me watch her cook. Once she trusted me after several months of my begging, she let me cook alongside her for a few lunches. Martha Lou also gave me another gift, the palate for all things hog, Southern culture and a glass of Bourbon Whiskey.
I was reading a food article in the New York Times by the noted Southern cultural raconteur named John T. Edge. He wrote a piece on All-American, Mexican Hot Dogs. His web presence begins with these words: “Eater, Writer, Educator.” As one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a contributing columnist of the Oxford American Magazine, John T. Edge has a passion for bbq, clothing and fine Bourbon whiskey. I admire his pen and have learned much from his unforced, open ended- writing style. He has championed the work of Billy Reid, the 2001 CFDA Award winning clothing designer in his unique style of prose and Billy Reid in turn has created a carefully constructed shirt in honor of his friend John T. It sits amongst other bits and pieces of Southern vernacular clothing, not shouting, but gently calling out…put me on. Wear me home. This shirt is simply known as the John T. The shirt has a nice muted check, is narrow in length and is made, like many of the pieces of Billy Reid’s clothing designs, in Italy. This is clothing is meant to complement an afternoon of tasting ancient bottles of Bourbon or working in the corporate canyons of NYC. Billy Reid is known to most Southerners as their native son-their home-spun answer to Ralph Lauren.
While reading John T. Edge’s writing on his web page, I noticed that it immediately references bacon, one of my passions. This piqued my interest in Edge and his alliance with his clothing designer friend, Billy Reid, both modern day cultural icons of the New South.
Reid’s clothing store in NYC is sandwiched between renovated former industrial buildings on a rag-tag cobblestone street in Lower Manhattan. Here in the basement of a former manufacturing space, the gracious interior elegant as a fine gentleman’s bar room and open to the street through large sun filled windows, was the perfect venue in which to taste a series of three, half-century old bottles of Kentucky Bourbon whiskey. I sat with some of the friendly and eager staff and we discussed at length the concept, unknown to most Yankees (of which I am one) of branch water. Branch water, I learned is a direct connection to the cultural and culinary definition of Southern drinking heritage. Webster’s Dictionary defines branch water as: “Pure natural water from a stream or brook; often distinguished from soda water.”
I’ve found from my very short time living in Charleston South Carolina, somewhere out there in the steamy ancient forests-thick with blood-sucking ticks, leeches and poisonous snakes, (they wear those thick leather leg chaps when walking in the woods for a reason)–lays a Valhalla or holy-grail in “Bourbon-speak.” A pristine spring bubbles up sweet water, pure as the dew that lights up in sunlight shining on the elegantly dripping strands of Spanish moss. Vanilla-tea-colored water rises from the depths-situated directly in front of the roots of the almost mythical in proportion, ancient Southern Live-Oak tree. The sweet water found here is known as branch. It is one of the defining elements of Bourbon understanding, the physical act of discovering for the first time…spring of water bursting from the ground, the essence of purity and grace, danced simply over a glass of the brown liquid. The next act in appreciation of the past is by making a perfect drink with that branch. This physical interaction of adding branch to Bourbon binds hundreds of years of Southern culture and drinking lore.
I offered to bring the employees at Billy Reid, a bottle of locally sourced branch.
Near where I live is the Morristown National Historical Park. There is an ancient artisanal well somewhere out there in the deep woods. (Historically, it was used by George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War.) This source of branch, sweet and alive with minerals, is from the pure spring located at the foot of a long forgotten rotted oak. The sweet water bubbling up from the depths remains to this very day. Its secret location is just up in the woods from me apiece.
I know they’ll smile at Billy Reid because finding a previously undiscovered source of real branch water is a rare experience. It is my desire to put the bottle of this geographically specific Yankee Branch water into the hands of Billy Reid himself drawing a modern connection to his upbringing as a Son of the NEW South.
Some may say that they rue the day that a Southern cocktail would even allow the introduction of Yankee Branch water and call it a nip. I say create your own history by using what is available and that branch should speak clearly of the earth from which it arose.
It only takes a few drops of branch to liven a brown elixir in your great- grandfather’s unwashed crystal tumbler. An antique bottle of branch water may last a lifetime. Branch is not used casually; but the simple act of using the branch is a specific connection to Southern lore and Bourbon cocktails.
Branch water, when used correctly, is metered out in small portions, only use a small amount! Just what fits between your bare fingers. It was described to me on an ancient plantation somewhere east of the Cooper River, as gently snapping your branch water-moistened fingers together over the glass. There is a specific sound, one that was made by moving one’s fingers together. I would imagine snapping my fingers underwater to approximate the feeling. This pure liquid entering the glass, scattering over the top of the glistening- 55 year old Bourbon was in my experience, a physical bond to a bygone age.
This specific act of making a Bourbon and branch cocktail hasn’t changed much in several hundred years.
As we sipped our whiskey in the former basement industrial space-its original inhabitants long gone-standing over hand-hewn barn-wood floors, surrounded by the casual, unforced elegance of bespoke Southern gentility clothing we tasted our way through 3 unique bottles of Kentucky Bourbon dating from 1952 to 1959. The flavors unleashed from the long sealed bottles linger on in my mind.
The Historic Bourbon:
Old Forester 100 Proof/Bottled in Bond
Set into oak: Spring 1952-bottled fall 1957.
Warm treacle tinged molasses. Sun-dried walnut butter, melted then smeared on crunchy, fire-toasted cornmeal Hoecakes.
Exceptionally long finish with exotic Jungle Curry undertones. This liquor tastes as fresh as the day it was bottled. Bottle looks like a sputnik. Space Age stuff!
Old Forester 100 Proof/Bottled in Bond
Set into oak: Fall 1954-bottled fall 1959
Sweet tobacco cream and freshly dug peat. Caramelized yams in the mid-palate. Dry, country ham finish with a whiff of pit-roasted Hog Cracklins’ at the end. Bottle is modern in design and interesting looking, with the real surprise contained within, a history lesson of the way Bourbon used to taste before modern innovations changed the way Bourbon is made. Crafted by artisans long gone.
Old Grand Dad 100 Proof/Bottled in Bond
Set into oak: Fall 1954-bottled fall 1958
Creamy, sweet vanilla fire gives way to a pecan brittle mid-palate. Long mouth filling finish with sharp hints of Southern blackberries and brown butter coated and roasted-hazelnuts dipped in crushed dark bittersweet chocolate pastilles. Hints of those slushy mint juleps enjoyed in Charleston, South Carolina*with Booker’s Bourbon* under the piazza at the Primerose House. This bottle looked like a Baccarat Crystal decanter.
All whiskeys served without ice in a unwashed glass with the sweet soulful drones of Greg Spradlin tearing it up on the stereo, serving as background music for our tasting and deeper conversations.