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Spirits: Brown is Beautiful | Learning to Love Bourbon

Bourbon is America's own spirit, but many consider it an inferior whisky. A writer who once fed the drink to his dogs learns to love it.

When it comes to strong waters, I have a weakness for the word imported. I like to imagine the distant, rustic vineyard, the voyage. Foghorns in the night. "O for a beaker full of the warm South," Keats wrote.

As a consequence, I've probably overlooked excellent American wines, but this is nothing compared to the mistake I've made with whisky. I assumed that if you wanted fine, regional whisky, you had to cross the pond to Scotland. Yes, I knew about bourbon. My parents drank bourbon, but only to keep warm. The bottle materialized in the fall and vanished after Easter. This was not a respected beverage. I mixed the leftovers with melted ice cream one Thanksgiving to get the dogs drunk.

Now, bourbon has always had its fans. William Faulkner was one of them.

"My own experience," he said, "has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food and a little whisky." Near the opening to his famous story "The Bear," he wrote, "There was always a bottle present." Seems that there always was. In his art and in his life. But then, William Faulkner lived in rural Mississippi. He actually wrote a novel titled Mosquitoes. Say "Yoknapatawpha County" three times fast and you'll need a drink as well.

The word whisky comes from the Scots Gaelic uisge beatha, which translates literally as "the water of life." Apparently the English dropped beatha and wrestled uisge until it came out whisky. Those English sure can squeeze a word. Too bad they never got their hands on Yoknapatawpha.

Fine whisky comes from Scotland. We all knew that. Clinton was a dark-horse candidate the first time I saw a bottle of Maker's Mark in the place once reserved for Scotch. A friend was handing around a squat bottle with a throat of crimson wax.

"Try it," he said.

"Bourbon," I said and shook my head.

"Try it," he said. "It's not what you think." I did. And it was good. Much lighter than the bourbon I'd given the dogs. This whisky looked like clover honey and went down without burning. Even the finest single malt Scotch is harsh. (It's made of barley malt, while bourbon is made mostly from corn mash.) I checked the label to make sure it was whisky. It was. And homegrown.

Where had I gotten the idea that alcohol had to be imported? Strong drink has always been a part of our past. When Pennsylvania was the frontier, the Scots and Irish who settled there found it impractical to transport their rye east for sale. Presto. They transformed their rye into rye whisky. Whisky was easy to transport, and it wouldn't freeze or spoil in the heat. The settlers prospered. They sold whisky to the Indians, of course, but also to one another. Unfortunately, the new nation wasn't doing so well.

The government—does this sound familiar?—was strapped for cash. In 1791 Congress introduced an excise tax on whisky. Hence the Whiskey Rebellion. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered. So George Washington sent out the militia under Light-Horse Harry Lee (Robert E. Lee's father). The insurrection was put down without bloodshed, but some of the distillers moved west to Kentucky. Seemed they'd rather take chances with Indians than with tax men.

Until 1792, Kentucky was part of Virginia, and if you moved there and grew corn for two years, Virginia would give you the land. But what to do with all that corn?

The Reverend Elijah Craig of Georgetown is supposed to have distilled the first whisky using corn mash and the local water. Isn't it perfect that he was a minister? If there are two contradictory elements that run right through American history like the stripes on a regimental tie, they are stern piety and the need to carouse.

One story has it that Craig charred the barrels in which the liquor was transported because he bought ones that had been used for fish and had to toast them to clean them out. Customers liked the whisky from toasted barrels, and the practice caught on. And caught on.

When Americans started paying through the nose for single malt Scotch, bourbon makers were watching. Kentucky distilleries began to take their best output and put small batches of it into barrels for aging. I've got a flask-shaped bottle of Jefferson's Reserve beside me at my desk. It's been aged for 15 years. "A very small batch," the label says. Slightly heavier than Maker's Mark, this potion is also astoundingly smooth.

Booker's bourbon comes in a bottle that looks as if you might put wine in it. I had three glasses of it one evening on shaved ice and wondered why I was having such a good time. Then I checked the label and found that it was 126 proof. I had been fooled. Good bourbon will fool you. But then, if you need to erase the rough spots in an evening, there's nothing better.

Start a party out with bourbon instead of wine, and it's a party sooner. I never go into a bar anymore or sit down at a restaurant without asking what bourbon they have.

I've been to Kentucky; I know how beautiful the land is there, and I can taste the countryside in its bourbons. A beaker full of the warm South, indeed. Attempts to make bourbon outside of Kentucky rarely succeeded. "You're allowed to make bourbon anywhere in the country, but if you want to sell it, you'd better make it in Kentucky," says Ed O'Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association.

"You'd put it up against Scotch?" I asked.

"Scotch is a wonderful spirit, but it doesn't have the character of bourbon," O'Daniel replied. "One of the things that makes Scotch good is that it's aged in bourbon barrels."

Just the names of the bourbon brands are marvelously personal and evocative. Booker Noe is a living man: He's the emeritus master distiller for Jim Beam. Elmer T. Lee is another emeritus master distiller with a brand that bears his name. In 1983 he created Blanton's, the first single-barrel bourbon. Single-barrel Blanton's comes in a bottle that looks like a multifaceted bead with a miniature horse on the cork. We gave a bottle to a friend. My wife liked the look of the bottle. Afterwards he called us up: "Where'd you get this?"

There's Wild Turkey, Old Rip Van Winkle—a family operation owned by Julian Van Winkle III. There's also Rebel Yell, Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace and Maker's Mark. And Knob Creek. Abraham Lincoln lived on Knob Creek, fell in once as a boy and nearly drowned.

I've only been disappointed once, and that brand—which shall remain nameless—had not been aged. If the bourbon costs a lot, it ought to have some years on it. When you buy fine old bourbon, you're buying a tradition. You're also buying time.

Ben Cheever's book Selling Ben Cheever is out in paperback this fall.

Published November 2002
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