by Paul Deines
I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Lived my first 18 years there. Like many of my friends, I made a run for it at college and never returned, save for holiday visits with family. That’s not to say that Louisville is a drag. Even two decades back, it was pretty funky: great theatre scene, alt newspapers, reasonably diverse. For years, it’s been hailed as a gay friendly town.
In the last several years, though, my hometown has become a destination. Louisville joined hip midsize towns like Minneapolis, Portland and Austin in rejuvenating its city-center. Abandoned abattoirs become farm-to-table restaurants; warehouses now house ad firms and art galleries.
What’s more, my friends and coworkers in New York began asking me about Louisville. It had suddenly become the spot for holiday weekends, birthday celebrations and bachelor parties. They wanted to know what museums to see (Speed Art Museum, definitely), which historic sites to visit (can’t miss Locust Grove or Cave Hill Cemetery) and where to see some good music (most of my old haunts have closed, replaced by evidently better spots).
And always, they want to know where they can find a good bourbon.
If there’s one export Kentucky is known for today, it’s that 51%-or-higher corn whiskey, aged to mahogany perfection on first-use charred oak. I appreciate bourbon myself. Every December, my wife and I drive to Louisville for Christmas, and I return with a trunk full of the medicine. While back home, I invariably drop by a low key lounge with one of my oldest friends. There, I enjoy a generous pour of Pappy Van Winkle, that most unrelentingly hyped of spirits. Well, it is a damn good bourbon. Worth a thousand dollars a bottle on the secondary market? No.
Yet, there’s a reason that a cult has developed around dark, spicy single barrel bourbon. Sweet and spicy, warm and layered, it’s no longer just your grandpa’s shortcut to intoxication. It is liquid wellbeing. And Louisville is lousy with cozy bars with unspeakable bottle lists. But it’s a mistake to think you can only find top-quality bourbon in my hometown. Pappy might not make it to your local bars and liquors stores, but here are a few killer alternatives:
Four Roses Single Barrel - Barrel Strength
The Japanese-owned, Lawrenceburg, KY-based Four Roses distillery produces some fine whiskey, and these one-off unblended bottlings are the best. As with any single barrel offering, there’s variation from batch to batch. I’ve enjoyed glasses that went down like honeysuckle, but by and large, though, this whiskey hues hot and dry. I generally douse it with a little cold water, which activates a myriad of zesty notes: campfire and caramel, allspice and peach. It lingers on a note of graham cracker and cherry. An unapologetic, confectionary bourbon.
However, you should pay attention to the age and ABV markings on each bottle. I find that the selections aged a 10-11 years with approximately 55% ABV are the smoothest. In fact, I’d take a Four Roses Single Barrel in that range over Pappy any day of the week.
With its signature red waxed neck, Maker’s Mark is the most recognizable bourbon in the world. The brand originated in 1953, crafted by the Samuels family of Loretto, KY. Bill Samuels Sr. was advised by Pappy Van Winkle himself, and they created a drinkable, candy-forward spirit.
Now, Maker’s 46 is aged with French Oak staves, which impart additional tannic acid. The result smells like pumpkin spice. It tastes like pie crust and vanilla bean ice cream. Seriously, this whiskey needs no rocks and no water. It’s delivered from the bottle at a manageable 94 proof, but its body has heft and fullness. As a bonus, it retails pretty cheap. A perfect anytime standby.
Willett Pot Still
It’s a shade brighter than a Van Winkle, and its nose is a tad astringent. Still, Willett sips smooth and smoky, with a taste that falls midway between cinnamon toast and chai tea. Viscous, warm and comforting, this is a bourbon to end a good meal or sip with a leather-bound tome. Headquartered in Bardstown, KY, Willett has been producing bourbon since the 1930s (their Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill brands are also fantastic).
I’ve noticed fewer and fewer of these distinctive whiskey-still-shaped bottles on the shelves in Kentucky; so the secret is nearly blown. Such is the way with bourbon these days. Once upon a time, you could easily find Pappy year-round. Now even Old Rip Van Winkle disappears as soon as it hits stores. At this point, even Weller 12 moves fast because it has a similar mash bill. As I said earlier: not your grandfather’s drink.
First things first: visit Louisville the next time you have some available vacation. It’s a genuinely bitching town. Next, you should make note of the bourbons above and order one before or after (or both!) your next nice dinner out. No promises that they’ll all be available, but I bet one will.