Aged for 13 years in Char #4 American white oak barrels
Mash bill: 74% corn, 18% rye, 7% malted barley
Appearance: Broiled apricot orange at the core and resplendent warm gold at the edges. Sunlight reflecting off of burnished copper flashes across the surface leaving iridescent streaks with each swirl.
Nose: Slowly roasted exotic fruits like kiwi, coconut, and Satsuma orange swirled with smoked bergamot tea. Herbed brown butter dripping over toasted brioche and northwest cherry
Palate: Lively and amusing across the palate, the mellow warmth makes this bourbon easy to enjoy. Future sips touch all parts of the palate with broad strokes of thick clotted cream. The glow of the 112.10 proof lurks just out of sight, a welcome but not distracting figure.
Finish: Oven dried stone fruit jam with a hint of citrus oils leads to Caribbean spices. The multi-minute finish is reminiscent of sweet buttered carnival corn.
With a few drops of water
Bright sarsaparilla gives way to gooey apricot bread pudding fresh from the oven topped with rum soaked raisins. Each taste leaves almond oil sticking to the back of your tongue. The cool water spreads nuance and sophistication throughout each pleasurable sip.
Certainly by the end of the year I’ve become a bit jaded on what I consider to be trends for the following year. Everyone wants to know what the “next best thing” is… Or what it’s going to be tomorrow, next week or in the coming months.
It is here that I want to start my list of what I think, as a taste-maker- will be hot in the coming months. I’ll give a list with some explanation- just in case.
Last September I was fortunate to attend the Moscow (Russia) Bar Show. It was enlightening, amazing and educational. I gave a master class on rum and traveled to the other side of the globe to find a country that for all intents and purposes is just like ours- except they speak Russian. They love us- we’d never know that from our press though. The Russians are passionate about American Whiskey.
Want to know where all the Bourbon Whiskey is? Russia. So, I’ll start my list in Moscow.
• Authenticity, Nostalgia, Simplicity. I was sent to the Moscow Bar Show by Mezan Rum. You would think that Russians would be preoccupied with vodka. Not so, they demand authenticity and that “Jerry Thomas” approach to history. Fine aged rum plays directly into this chess game. Rum that hasn’t been colorized, chill-filtered nor any added sugar, or saccharine allowed. Mezan fulfills this purpose and takes you further into the plethora of flavors that speak clearly to the métier of the rum distiller. Get some! I prefer the Jamaican version. There is a certain funk in each sip. Powerful stuff in a Planter’s Punch or even in a Rum-Manhattan. Make sure you use a Vermouth like Atsby, or Uncouth- even Carpano… But use the white one. The red is too sweet for these perfumed rums.
• Whiskey from actual distilleries! What a concept- is it me, or are there more made-up names than usual on the store shelves? I actually had a friend ask me about a Bourbon the other day from a distillery that has never existed outside of a Madison Avenue advertising agency desk. The label appeared to be hand attached and the closure had the look of a cork stuck in the top of a bottle of Moonshine. There may have been leather involved. All it said to me was, stay far away.
Authenticity in Bourbon takes guts these days. But should you find a true craft distillery- then by all means buy their stuff. They deserve your support. The big guys are ok, but cut out the fake-craft labeling. It’s confusing to the consumer! My favorites going forward, Barrell Bourbon, Few Spirits, Catoctin Creek, Hudson… They are my favorites for a reason. They speak the language of history.
• Scotch from Scotland and other places – Ok, so they call them smoked whiskies when they are from other places. I don’t want to raise the ire of Scotch drinkers. Pardon me. Amongst my favorites going forward- Virginia Highland Malt Whisky- yes Virginia, they distill absolutely gorgeous whisky in Virginia. I’ve been making Bee’s Knees with Old St. Andrews Scotch Whisky- lightly aromatic of cut grass and toasted peat. Not overpowering with smoke, but to my palate, just enough. And that bottle! Looks like a golf ball. Brenne from France continues to please and going forward I would say that any releases from this marvelous producer will challenge even the most snobbish of the Whisky drinkers. I had some beautiful Scotch Whisky in Russia that dated back to the mid 1960’s… If you can find any of these, save your pennies… They are worth every cent.
• Rhum Agricole. Certainly you should be drinking Rhum Agricole… Don’t just put a bottle on your bar and forget about it. I continue to wax poetic about the mysterious flavors that appear and disappear in each sip of Rhum Agricole. One of my favorite ways to drink this perfumed slice of Rhum history (yes they use an extra h in Rhum in the French West Indies) is with a chunk of lime (with the skin on) and a couple splashes of Cane Sugar Syrup… This is so simple! Anyone can choose their own demise by making this drink as strong or as weak as they desire. Thank you to Ed Hamilton for teaching me what I needed to know in the first place.
• Flavored Syrups and Shrubs. What is a shrub? My third book, Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails defines a Shrub as an acidulated beverage, historically used as a method of aiding digestion and for refreshment- as an energy drink. In the days prior to soda, a touch of vinegar, sugar and fruit along with cool water would satisfy most thirsts. Flavored syrups make our jobs as bartenders and mixologists much easier. Amongst the very best that you can buy are: Royal Rose… Fruitations (I’m just blown away by their Cranberry), Pickett’s from Brooklyn (yes, that’s a place and their hot ginger syrup is world class) Shrub and Company, Shrub Drinks, Liber and Company. All delicious and lip-smacking. Powell & Mahoney is my go/to for Pomegranate Mixer- yes- even I use a pre-mix for some events.
• Craft Soda… With too many names to mention, but I’ll mention a couple. Q-Drinks- they’re magnificent. The Club Soda has a pinch of sea salt- keeps you thirsty! I’m thrilled by some of the Root Beers that come down from Bar Harbor in Maine… I love to drink Boylan’s and Bruce Cost sodas when I want something even more authentic. Dry Soda is just amazing stuff- the cucumber variety is crisp and refreshing.
• Hard Cider. Possmann’s from Germany is my go/to. This lightly sparkling cider is all apple and just the right amount of fizz and alcohol rolling in at 5% abv. I’ve had it on tap in the New York/Metro area and if you see it, get some… immediately! Farnum Hill from up in New England continues to charm my palate as well. There are some Spanish Ciders that are just so assertive- Burgundy wine comes to mind. Barnyard notes and crushed stones come into view, sip by sip, if you dare! They are just different styles from Spain. I much prefer the German ciders, at least for my palate.
• Tequila. I don’t know what happened to Tequila, but I’m tired of Tequila that tastes like Bourbon. Maybe it’s because they age the distillate in used Bourbon casks? Absolutely, this is why your Tequila tastes sweet. It’s in the cask! I much prefer the rare and usually a bit more expensive versions like Casa Noble- aged in French White Oak. This is a much more expensive method, but worthwhile in my opinion.
• Mezcal… It’s mysterious like a high fever in the middle of Summer. There’s smoke in there- lots of stuff going on in your imagination. If you want to really challenge your palate, in a good way… Taste Mezcal. Of course if it has a worm in the bottle, throw it out immediately. This is not the real thing. It was invented, yes again… by one of those ad agencies. No one eats the darned thing!
• Gin. Stick to what you like and I love Barr Hill from Vermont. The Tom Cat, aged in American Oak is my preference in a snifter- for a perfectly marvelous gin and juice – use nothing more than the raw honey and grain distilled Barr Hill Gin with freshly squeezed- broiled grapefruit in a muddle. A splash of Q-Tonic water and a couple dashes of Angostura to finish… All good. Happy New Year!
It’s been a while since I embarked on this project, known as the Five Questions, and I beg your time to read the questions and drink the highly personal answers from each craft distiller whom I see worthy of your attention.
Without further adieu, may I present Paul Hietko.
1. WB: What do Craft Spirits mean to you?
PH: To me, “craft spirits” means passion for product over all else and actually made by the folks claiming to make it. Authenticity and honesty is the key.
2. WB: Where are you from? What did you do before you became a distiller?
PH: I was born in the Chicago area, grew up in Michigan, spent time in Northern California, and have lived in Chicago now for over 20 years. Prior to becoming a distiller, I pursued several creative passions, and played guitar professionally, as well as running a record label, building custom guitar effects pedals, and more. I also had a desk job for many years, but always strived to pursue dreams.
3. WB: What is your favorite food? Which of your spirits go well with that dish?
PH: My favorite food depends on my mood. I’m currently a bit obsessed with banh mi, as well as working on some homemade curries. I’m really digging the bourbon with the banh mi, as the spiciness of the bourbon plays well with the spices in the sandwich.
4. WB: Is there anything you’ve eaten or sipped that brings a tear to your eye when you taste it? Why?
PH: Some of the favorite things I sip are products that my friends make, as I know what it takes to bring it to life. Food and drink can have such a dramatic affect, and eating various foods can really bring me back to various places. I can’t eat matzo ball soup without missing my grandmother. I can’t think of Spätzle without missing my grandmother’s!
5. WB: Social Media brought us together originally. What are your thoughts on Social Media? Do you use it? Do you have time to Tweet?
PH: I love social media – it’s the best way to communicate with the people that actually consume what we make. All that we do, we do for the spirit that is in the glass so that we can hopefully be a part of peoples enjoyment of life with their family and friends. That means a lot to us, and this connection with our fans is truly amazing.
My tasting Notes for these gorgeous spirits…
FEW Bourbon Whiskey
Spanish Leather, sweet cream and wet stones give way to a bit of heat and that long finish that says CRAFT. This is very drinkable stuff, worthy of your finest glassware
FEW Rye Whiskey
If I could drink a corned beef sandwich, this is what I’d be enjoying for lunch! Smoky notes of charred earth, tangy and cinnamon tinged rye bread with a zingy finish that goes on and on!
FEW Single Malt Whiskey
Is this whiskey from Scotland? Nope, it’s all American! Licks of wood smoke give way to sweet grains and a haunting finish punctuated by toasted citrus zest and salt crusted stones. This is sophisticated and worldly. Class act!
FEW Barrel Gin
Sweet notes of long cooked grains enrobed in dark (70% or more) bittersweet chocolate, cooked slowly with the aromatics of Juniper Berries and slowly cooked stone fruits, like quince and peaches. A Ramos Gin Fizz with this slurp would take you to places not yet discovered!
Can Buffalo Trace Put Pappy on the Shelf?| On Whiskey
WARREN BOBROW (this article was originally published on April 2, 2012)
On Whiskey is a monthly column on whiskey and whiskey drinks by Warren Bobrow.
Johnny Dodds is on the short wave radio, crooning to me from another world.
“After you’ve gone, after you’ve gone away.”
What better series of words are calling out for a restorative sip of Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey… This venerable bottle has graciously rested over there on the shelf, alongside many other bottles, and it remained under-sipped and under-appreciated until now.
Music from the 1920s makes me want to drink good bourbon whiskey like Buffalo Trace. Maybe it’s because Johnny Dodds left New Orleans in 1920 – never to return; yet his music is firmly grounded in the essence of New Orleans. This passion for the whiskey seems to ooze out of my pores even more intensely when I listen to music from this man. Enjoying a bottle of Bourbon in New Jersey is, to me, at least akin to Johnny leaving New Orleans. Once this bottle left Kentucky, it would never return.
Buffalo Trace is not a mass-produced liquor. Nor is it overpriced for a spirit being produced in such small batches.
Most importantly a bottle of Buffalo Trace shouldn’t set you off by more than $25 a bottle or so. That makes it a good deal in a market clogged with expensive expressions of Kentucky bourbon.
Whiskey this well made usually costs double or even triple the price.
There are flavors in the Buffalo Trace that harken to Pappy. And that would be correct, because the same distillery makes Pappy.
Which Pappy are you speaking of? That Pappy is Pappy Van Winkle!
Of course the recipe is different. That’s what makes Buffalo Trace so unique!
Buffalo Trace is made from Corn, Rye and Barley. In order for them to call it bourbon, the product must be 51% corn. There is certain spiciness to each sip from the rye and a creamy quality from the cask.
I like it a lot.
So, I’ve been up to my ears in Pappy. I brought a bottle of the 15-year Pappy down to Charleston for the Wine and Food Festival. It was much less expensive to drink my own rather than someone else’s Pappy at $30 per GLASS! Why drink anything else? If you have it, drink it. That was until I opened this bottle of Buffalo Trace. I cannot believe that this expression has rested so long without even being sipped.
The aroma of dark maple syrup permeates the room almost immediately upon opening the cork-finished bottle. I have a wood stove fire going and the wind is howling outside in more of a shriek than a mere whisper- but this shouldn’t make the situation any less conducive to enjoying a few nips of this lovely hand-crafted bourbon whiskey. Given the fact that it is suddenly frosty as winter outside, what better reason than to breathe in the sweet aroma deeply? It is woven into the smell of the earth, the fire and the wind all at once. This is good stuff!
Pappy, go back up onto the shelf. I think I’m going to enjoy this glass of Buffalo Trace!
Nice hand-torn-looking label and natural cork finish! Very nice touch.
Photo by Warren Bobrow
The memorable aromatics of freshly tapped maple syrup fills the room almost immediately along with notes of sweet toasted corn and charred cinnamon toast slathered in freshly whipped butter. There is the warm underpinning of scraped nutmeg along with a deeper backbone of sweet molasses. I love the scent of this elixer and I jam my nose deeply into the glass, breathing the toasty flavors aggressively into my nostrils.
On the tongue, flavors of Asian spices predominate with vanilla and caramelized peaches.
The sharpness of the alcohol is in the background of the almost juicy mouth-feel. This would be the perfectly marvelous mixing bourbon. There is so much going on in my mouth, across my tongue and down my throat. It’s quite remarkable to taste. There is a certain density to this bourbon. It is not thin or cloying in any way. The sugars reveal themselves slowly and the finish just goes on and on. There is a certain dusty quality to the finish as well as unmistakable flavor of the earth. The unique terroir of this whiskey differentiates it from all other liquids on earth. This terroir is unique to the place.
Weighing in at 45 % ABV, Buffalo Trace has all the stuffing to lead in a mixed drink, not play follower.
Think about Sazerac cocktails, Manhattans, and of course my favorite, a Bourbon Hot Toddy. All are perfectly suited to Buffalo Trace’s full-bodied approach and long finish.
I’m going to err on the side of craftsmanship. This bourbon needs creativity- but it also needs simplicity.
This afternoon I’m sprinkling a bit of branch water over the top of a little hand-blown Murano glass from Venice to release the secrets held deeply within.
This is truly delicious stuff. Now go grab yourself a bottle and share it with your friends! You don’t even have to tell them how much you (didn’t) spend.
There is an easy going congeniality in Charleston, South Carolina.
I lived in Charleston during the 1980’s, started a fresh pasta business, attended Johnson/Wales- cooked and bartended at the Primrose House and Tavern- then left after Hurricane Hugo crashed the party.
I never returned. There were many ghosts that I had to deal with intermixed with feelings about the this town, like no other that I’ve ever lived. My dreams of Charleston from the past have haunted me for years.
It’s that kind of place.
From the dripping Spanish Moss to the whisper soft voices of the way people speak down in Charleston, I’ve felt like it was a part of me for longer than I can imagine.
I drove non-stop from Morristown to Charleston. Food and fuel the only real stops.
This gracious lady of the New South, is as elegant as ever. She has been recreated with pleasure as her first name.
All ravages of Hurricane Hugo have been erased like the rapid progression of the Kudzu vine across the Low Country landscape. Erasing the past in a swath of green.
I discovered a city that had grown up, yet still retains her “village by the sea” appeal and candor.
There is serious food here now and serious drink.
The chefs are filled with a passion for local, fresh, terroir and the brilliant flavor of the ocean. There is something about the nature of the pluff mud, tidal flats that makes the water alive with possibilities.
In a former life I lived in Portland, Maine. Portland was similar in my imagination to Charleston from a perspective of friendly to really great seafood. It’s just freezing there! Too cold for me!
Oysters in South Carolina taste like no where else in the world. They are just about ravishing with a crisp glass of Rum! While in Charleston I was fortunate to snag a mini-bottle of Striped Pig Rum. This is the real thing. I would drink it with a splash of Perrier Sparkling Natural Mineral Water and a slice of Meyer Lemon. Maybe a splash of Sweet Iced Tea- but that would cover up the sublime freshness of Striped Pig. This rum is redolent with the flavor of the place. It’s creamy-has a lovely finish of cane juice to heat to spice. I’m tasting it straight from the mini-bottle. No mixer but air.
This is fabulous Rum. I simply cannot wait to enjoy another cocktail with Todd Weiss, the owner of the Striped Pig distillery. The Gin Joint was, as you said… World class. There’s just something about cocktails down here. Maybe it’s the air, soft and laced with salt.
2 Shots of Striped Pig to a shaker filled 1/2 with ice
1/2 Shot Tenneyson Absinthe
4 Tablespoons of Royal Rose Simple Syrup of Autumn Plum
1 Medicine Dropper full of the Figgy Pudding
Shake and strain into a tall glass with some ice made from Coconut water
Charleston is a place of all kinds of possibilities. They embrace their history and catapult into the future. It’s like a living museum.
The Belmont Lounge is located on a part of King Street that one would not venture to in the 1980’s. Visually I remember a mostly bombed out area, nearly void of soul and life.
You would not want to walk there during the day and at night, well, I never did.
I lived on Charlotte Street and spent Hurricane Hugo in a kitchen house at #29. It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced.
Now upper King Street is buzzing with activity. I must admit that the first time I ventured above Calhoun Street, I was a bit concerned for safety. No more. The Charleston PD don’t just drive the streets, they walk them, bike them and make sure the area is very well observed. I’m impressed.
I wandered in off the street to find a cocktail lounge worthy of New York or even Barcelona. The groove was apparent in the lighting and the screening of “The Big Sleep” in glorious Black and White on the wall. The lighting, low and sensuous- the music not overwhelming. People spend more time talking than using their smart phones. They interact with the extremely congenial bar staff who genuinely have the knack and gift of gab. There is an Italian machine meant for slicing Salumi and a very high quality espresso machine for turning out perfect Irish coffee, topped by a thick mantle of cream. The bartenders are shorn in crisp white shirts with skinny ties. A bright red B for Belmont graces the bottom the tie.
Even the cocktail napkins are emblazoned with the B. Nice touch. I wanted one, but thought it better to ask first. (I didn’t take one)
The salumi is brilliant, the cured pork redolent of fat and smoke, a perfect panini of melted tomato and mozzerella cheese delights! Too much food! Pickled vegetables abound, was that pickled okra? I really must be showing my Yankee inclinations now!
Yes, judging by the bar, I felt right at home.
I met Joey Ryan at the bar. He has an easy-going style and friendly demeanor that is instructional and kind.
He invented a cocktail known as the Off-Duty Bartender. My friend Federico Cuco down in Argentina would be proud of this drink because of the use of Cynar.
I’m reproduced it here with my complements:
Absinthe Rinse (add Absinthe to a glass with ice and water, then pour out.. preferably into my mouth)
2 oz 100 proof Rye I prefer Rittenhouse
3/4 oz Cynar
3/4 oz Fernet Branca
3/4 Punt e Mes
Stir ingredients in mixing glass while rocks glass is chilling with Absinthe rinse.
Strain ingredients in chilled glass after discarding ice. add large rock, and top with orange bitters.
The Belmont Lounge
511 King Street
Charleston, SC 29403
Joey, Hat’s off to you and the Belmont. I could spend much time in your care.
Yesterday I was contemplating Pimms Cup. The addition of lemonade is particularly inviting. I added to the mix by the inclusion of Absinthe. Somehow the very mention of Absinthe makes me think of two places. New Orleans and Charleston. Two very European cities firmly grounded in the United States.
Woolworth’s Lunch Counter Surprise
Sweet Ice Tea
Freshly made seltzer
Add 2 Shots of Pimms to the fresh Lemonade and Sweet Iced Tea
Add 1 Shot of Lucid Absinthe
Top with freshly drawn seltzer
Garnish with a home cured cherry (essential!)
Swing on the porch swing to make the pain go away
Pluff Mud Cocktail
Snap (USDA Certified Ginger Snap Liquor)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon
Bitter End Mexican Mole’ Bitters
Make a nice cup of Hot Chocolate
Add 2 Shots of Snap
Add 1 Shot of Knob Creek
Add 3 drops of the Bitter End Bitters
Makes two rather lovely cocktails perfect for a cool night or dessert
Sullivan’s Island Smash
2 Shots of Striped Pig White Rum
1 Shot Cane Syrup
1 Shot Freshly squeezed orange juice
4 ozs. Coconut water (sweetened)
Coconut Water Ice
To a cocktail shaker, fill 1/3 with regular ice
Add Coconut Water
Shake and strain into small rocks glasses with Coconut Water ice cubes
Smash the Coconut Water cubes in a towel for maximum extraction of flavor!
Garnish with fresh mint and freshly scraped nutmeg- ESSENTIAL!!!
All Photography by Warren Bobrow with Leica M8, 50mm Summicron F2
My grandfather, a Yankee like myself, truly enjoyed Bottled in Bond, 100 Proof Bourbon Whiskey. I didn’t know about his passion for Bourbon because he never drank it around me and he never ordered it in a restaurant. Usually he ordered an extra dry Dewers Rob Roy. For many years I only thought he drank Scotch whisky. What I didn’t know at the time was that his true passion was Bourbon.
My grandfather owned his own company and one of the things that people would give him at Christmas time were some very special bottles of Bourbon. These bottles remained hidden from me for many years. After he died I learned from my grandmother that there were several nice looking (from a design perspective anyway) bottles of pre-1960 Bourbon in a hidden compartment of the bar.
She went on to tell me that she was going to pour out the contents (the historic Bourbon) and turn them into flower vases, because the bottles were so pretty. I got over to her home as quickly as I could. She showed me the hidden compartment in the bar. Inside there were several bottles of Bourbon from the 1940’s to the late 1950s. These bottles of Bourbon had rested, in the dark, away from my youthful fingers since he placed them there and forgot about them.
These remaining bottles are a liquid history of the last of my grandfather’s Bourbon collection.
Photo: Warren Bobrow
Truth be told, as a “damned” Yankee, I know the true value of these ancient spirits. Not as an investment in dollars, but as a flavor-driven window into my family’s past. The bottles that I hold in my hand are a history of flavor. This is a specific type of history that could never be duplicated today, primarily because the people who crafted the contents of these historic Bourbon bottles are now long gone. The ingredients used today are similar, but the Whisky is different because each sip holds liquid ghosts belonging to the past.
Old Forester “Bottled in Bond” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. 100 proof. This bottle has been filled and stamped under the provisions of sections 5008 and 5243 of the Internal Revenue code.
Set into wood 1954. Bottled 1959.
A gentle, almost cedar nose gives way to candied orange peel, sweet jasmine flowers and caramelized pecan. The brooding heat burns the tongue. With a texture almost as thick as maple syrup, the freshness and liveliness of this Bourbon hasn’t changed a bit since entering the bottle over fifty years ago. Charred notes of Anson Mills stone ground grits stuck to the bottom of an ancient cast iron pan is the next thing tasted as I rolled a few precious drops around my mouth. The soft, mineral finish goes on and on, revealing itself with another slow burn as if the bottom of the glass was aflame. This Bourbon, when served with a bit of Kentucky Colonel mint from the garden, awakens ghosts from one’s grand-pappy’s generation.
Ancient Age. Date uncertain due to the loss of the tax stamp, estimated somewhere between 1945-1950. Space Age in design, this Mid-Century modern bottle is filled to just over a pint in liquid. Marked straight Bourbon Whiskey. The bottle reads: carefully distilled according to the finest old traditions. 86 proof. Marked Full Six Years old. Distilled and bottled by Ancient Age Distillery Co., Frankfort Kentucky.
Warm aromas of sweetly delineated, hand-hewn oak- remind me immediately that Bourbon Whisky is not Scotch Whiskey or Tennessee sippin’ Whisky. One reason for certain is the lack of smoke, peat and saline in the nose. Normally, I find these flavors to be overpowering. I suppose I just don’t understand Scotch. The nose of this Bourbon Whisky resembles a liquid caramel candy. A burst of fire from the nearly 90 proof alcohol makes itself known then a finish of fleur du sel and freshly cut herbs like thyme and tarragon. This Bourbon, although “only” 86 proof, acts on the palate like one almost double the potency. In fact it resembles in many ways the potency and grip of some un-cut corn whiskies I’ve tasted recently. Each slurp reveals sharply aromatic Asian spices with a razor sharp finish that exposes itself on the back of the tongue; with a nearly 2 minute long finish! This Bourbon tastes nothing like the roughness of the neither 1952 Old Forester, nor does is resemble the overly oaked “modern-style” of the 1955 Old Grand Dad. With a crumbled leaf of Kentucky Colonel spearmint this Bourbon really opens up, revealing its wood-driven flavors as a contender for a (very rare and expensive) mint julep. This Bourbon has all the stuffing for a drink made with its primary ingredient over a half-century old!
Old Forester 1952. Bottled in Bond in 1957. Freshly baked charred- corn “hoe” cakes are smeared with melted, sweet strawberry butter. The first flavors take a bit to get used to. Sweet is usually a flavor more akin to Canadian Whisky or Irish Whisky. Freshly brewed sweet iced tea reveals itself- then flavors of caramel corn and cinnamon laced red-hot candy folded into a mug of boiling hot water, Asian spices and sugar cane lurk in the background. The backbone of alcohol is a sudden wake up call to the throat. It BURNS! A glass of this Bourbon has amazing heat for spirit almost sixty years old! The 1952 taste as lively a drink in the glass as a 2002 bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon! It’s just amazing how little the alcoholic power has diminished over the past half century!
Old Grand Dad “Head of the Bourbon Family” 1955. Set into bottle 1959. Part of a more modern and new style of Bourbon Whiskey, this is a roughly hewn, heavily oaked version of the classic drink. It’s just amazing to me how much Bourbon has evolved during the late 1950’s. The soft almost billowy quality of the Bourbon is ever-present, yet the finish is much sharper, but it lingers on the tongue for several minutes. The 1959 bottling is more akin in many ways to Four Roses or Pappy Van Winkle with an almost lemon oil, citrus tinged mouth-feel. The oils from the cask rise to the surface creating an illusion of a rainbow. Each sip is laced with banana, vanilla bean, toasted corn bread, the char from well- seasoned cast iron pan and brook trout cooked in that pan with a handful of toasted hazelnuts thrown in at the finish. An Amaretto-liqueur nose predominates. The finish is like the first day of golden sunshine, streaming into the windows after a spring thunderstorm. This is serious stuff and it deserves a drop or two of branch water to release its secrets. The next flavors are like authentically seasoned Thai food served Thai spicy. Flavor before heat is the mantra of this Bourbon. A few sips signal the essential drink to take the edge off the afternoon or evening like none of your neighbors have ever imagined or enjoyed.
These bottles are a bit less than ½ full … As much as I want to share them with well- meaning friends, I know that once they’re gone, they can never be replaced.
I’ll be drinking small glasses from these bottles without any mixers from now on. Well, maybe with a few drops of some sweet, local branch water flicked over the surface to connect these liquid history lessons with the flavor driven memories of the past.
I first learned about branch water, or branch as it was called, from my governess, Estelle Ellis. She and her husband were from Georgia. She’s gone now, but my memories of her are quite vivid. She taught me how to cook, not by telling me but by showing. She was very kind to me and I still honor her memory by retelling her culinary stories that I learned in the kitchen of my grandparents’ “big house,” where I spent much time as a child.
She held the tenets of the older and slower ways near and dear to her, evidenced by the smile that came through in the way she spoke about ingredients, the ancient cast iron pans she used in cooking, and especially the way she took a cool glass of locally gathered branch for good health. She believed that branch was life-giving. Everything in her kitchen had a meaning, especially when it came to the flavors and aromas of times gone by. Branch was a part of my childhood as much as her peach pies made with fresh peaches from my grandparents’ orchard.
There was a patient cadence to the way Estelle spoke- the words that she chose and the descriptions of the way things ought to taste have resonated in my mind since I was a boy. In a few words there were meanings for everything in life. She used to tell me that it was time to “put-up” fruits for the long winter months in NJ. The apples were made into applesauce, and some made their way into the winter as Apple Jack. The peaches that didn’t make it into a lard-crusted pie were soaked in strong southern whiskey for a late night nip after the day’s chores were finished. This woman took care of my family in a way that is lost to time. She taught me lessons by using ingredients so fresh that the dew hadn’t even begun to be absorbed by the flesh of the fruit.
She would add a bit of this locally gathered water to a drink- correcting it. Adding a bit of branch to a glass of Bourbon, as I learned in later years, connects that specific drink in your hand to the past.
What is branch and where does it come from?
Branch- by nature of its provenance is sweet water. Perhaps the definition is the nature of the Branch itself. We all idolize the purity of a hidden spring that only exists in our dreams. Branch is the liquid sweetness that flows unhindered from the ground.
Branch can sometimes be seen oozing up and evaporating immediately when it hits the air or it can make a cheerful bubbling sound as it bursts forth. Sometimes the branch erupts from the earth as a gurgle, almost like a belly laugh.
Branch can also be as kind and gentle as a bedtime story.
To truly enjoy branch you must capture it in the place where it comes up from the earth.
The spring up near our home is located in a spirit-filled place formerly inhabited by George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. Estelle told me about this spring, it was where she gathered her Branch. To get to the spring you must walk down the ancient camp roads- it’s over there a bit, by the base of that long gone oak tree. You can tell there was a giant tree at one time by the number of smaller trees emanating out into the forest. Its progeny has spread throughout the woods and their roots still feed a sweet vanilla flavor into the earth.
The water bubbles up to ground level meeting the air in a hushed flurry of activity, for this well is an artesian well.
The branch that flows from this spot tastes as sweet as cotton candy on the first day of the state fair!
How would it taste with a tin bucket of the White Dog? A splash or two of branch in a pail of freshly drawn white whisky is illuminating to say the least. The sweetness it emits meets the fire from the freshly drawn whiskey and makes a carousel dance around on your tongue. Purists may scoff at cutting whiskey with water- but it’s the way I like to drink it. And you don’t use very much.
A Branch Water Cocktail
Take some of that really old Bourbon that you’ve been saving for a special occasion down from the top shelf. Carefully open the bottle and pour it into your grandfather’s favorite glass that you keep away from curious hands. Visit the hidden spring with your bottle and glass in hand and gently scoop a bit of the cool branch into your hand just as it emanates from the ground. Moisten your fingers in this water, feel the minerals in it – rough against your hand. Taste some of the sweet water in its cool, pure state, precious like fine jewels. Now, please scatter just enough of the branch that fits between your thumb and forefinger over your glass of Bourbon.
Contemplate your ancient cocktail, sipping with reverence and passion. Take another sip and roll it around on your tongue. Swallow it slowly, taking in lots of air while you taste it. This is important because certain environmental influences are as important as the flavor of the branch mixing with your Bourbon. If it’s a day in the fall and you’re alone in the forest, crunching your feet through the leaves, you can almost taste this aroma in the air. Aroma absolutely changes the way you perceive flavor through memory so take an aromatic note of the place while you sip cocktail and remember.
Gently slurp this precious brown liquid through your lips and smile.
And after you finish drinking, think of Estelle with her glass of branch and a slice of warm peach pie at the ready.
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.