WARREN BOBROW grew up on a biodynamic farm in Morristown, New Jersey. He is a reluctant cocktail/wine writer who just completed an entry for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America Ed., 2 on the topic of biodynamic and organic wine/spirits/food. He’s also a former trained chef/saucier.
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.
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.