Bourbon, from a Geographer’s Perspective

Growing up, I was not a young man who participated in drunken, hedonistic high school parties. Very little experience with beer or any liquor, for that matter. My nights were spent reading, writing, and drawing. Some nights, I spent building models, tanks, aircraft carriers, or aircraft. Weekends, I might play Atari 2600 or my Atari 800. Far better and more interesting things to do than try to sneak out behind my parents back and discover what kind of stupid trouble I could get into.

My father was probably an alcoholic; he drank every night after dinner. His beverage of choice was Coors with some brand of whisky chaser. Sometimes, he mixed Coors with V8 or some generic tomato juice. His friends were pretty much the same, and some were worse. I remember one weekend I came home from college and mom was in a rage. My father had a post-football game party at the house. He had invited people from work. One activity drunk people are really good at is provoking fights, and my father’s co-workers were Level 90 Drunken Fighters. On this weekend, though, Level 100 Paladins arrived, aka “the police,” and carted a few football fans off to dungeons.

“So, you’ve played your Drunken Fit of Rage card. Hmm… I’m going to tap 5 mana and play my “Bonds of Incarceration. Ta da – you lose.”

I remember sampling Coors when I was a kid. No way, this stuff is putrid, I thought. I don’t care if it is from a mountain stream; it must be from downstream of deer piss. Yike. Never developed a taste for alcohol until later in life.

A few lessons can be taken from my tales. First, drink good beer. If you are going to drink, drink something with some character, some flavor, that people have taken some time to actually think about and craft. To do this pretty much eliminates most mass-produced and mass-marketed beer. Sorry. I’m a beer bigot.

Second, if you are going to drink, don’t be a douche-bag. Douche-bags are a drain on society, you are not cool, people don’t like you no matter how much you think they do. They are laughing at you, not with you. If you drink and provoke a fight, or fight, see above: you are a douche-bag and a drain on the lives of your family and friends. Also, if you become abusive in any way, you are a douche-bag. Don’t harass your kids, wife, husband, or any of your friends. When you see a sign that says, “Drink Responsibly” the request is not simply about giving up your car keys. You are being asked to not (a)

  • regress in age to that of a petulant 4-year old in an adult body; (b)
  • know your alcohol limits; (c)
  • not be an emotional drain on the people around you; (d)
  • be somewhat aware the people around you are just as valuable as you are; (e)
  • don’t become abusive of family, friends, or strangers, (f)
  • don’t use alcohol to take advantage of anyone, (g)
  • don’t drink if you can’t perform ALL of the above functions simultaneously.

These anecdotes are meant to push a dose of reality and to provide some basis for my commentary on bourbon below. I like bourbon, I know my limits, and I am not going to advocate drinking bourbon without providing some commentary on appropriate behavior. My list is not inclusive, I’m sure; just a few thoughts about “responsible drinking.”

Bourbon is nice beverage suitable for a nightcap, or sitting around in the evening with friends debating all of the things wrong with the last Hobbit movie. When I share my enjoyment of bourbon with people I often am met with some form of squinting and squishing of face, like after someone ate a lemon while simultaneously being punched in the genitals.

“What?” I’m confused.
“Bourbon is nasty.”
“Probably the brand you’ve drunk is. But, you are hardly a connoisseur of fine alcohol. You drink shitty tequila and vodka, so you’ve eliminated yourself as being a trustworthy bourbon critic,” I respond. Yeah; I am a bourbon snob in addition to being a beer snob. But, the folks in my circle know how to take me.

Actually, I’m not much of a bourbon snob. I’ve learned a little about how bourbon is crafted, and have sampled 50 or so brands. I’m no expert. I will never be an expert for a couple of reasons. I won’t be an expert because of allergies, my first reason. As with pretty much all foods and beverages, scent and aroma plays a key role. Allergies and chronic swelling of my sinuses prevents me from really appreciating most food and beverages. People who have chronic sinusitis and allergies cannot sense odors, smells, and aromas as well as people who don’t have allergies. Just the way it is. My second reason is I can’t afford “top shelf” bourbon. For me – and this is my definition only – a “top shelf bourbon” is any bourbon over $50. I’m not sure that is a fair definition. I have been to many bars where the “top shelf” bourbon is a $30-$40 bottle of Basil Hayden, which I buy once in a while. So, sinus/allergy problems and finances prevent me from taking my appreciation of bourbon to the next level. I would also like to tour some distilleries. Since I live in Kentucky, this should not be much of geographic problem. Also, as gas prices have essentially collapsed, the financial obstacle of visiting a few distilleries in the summer of 2015 appears to be navigable now.

The original Bourbon County, Ky.

The original Bourbon County, Ky.

“Bourbon” is not really a Kentucky invention. Kentucky certainly has leveraged its geography to avail itself to making bourbon, however. Bourbon County, Virginia, is the true source of the bourbon, at least in name. When Virginia counties were granted to Kentucky, Bourbon County and pretty much every other county in the new Commonwealth  were born. Kentucky can trace the creation of many of its counties back to being a former Virginia territory. Somewhere on the internet is a better map of Bourbon County.

In the near-original version, parts of Bourbon County belonged not only to Virginia but also Ohio and Pennsylvania. Today, Bourbon County, Kentucky is a shadow of its former self. While previously occupying perhaps 1/4th of the entire Commonwealth, Bourbon County in 2014 is a little shy of 290mi2 and home to about 20,000 residents.

bourbon-county-ky-2014

Bourbon County, Kentucky (shaded; 2014)

Kentucky is the home of bourbon today. All of the best bourbon call Kentucky home, and some of the really bad ones, too. I’m only going to focus on the good ones. Not the great ones, but some good ones. I’ll provide some labels to try, and some locations to visit should travel bring you into this fair state. Also, I cannot claim Kentucky home to be clear. The “rule” to call Kentucky home is a person must have three generations in the ground. As I travel around the U.S. this seems to be a commonly applied rule. For me, I could call either Kansas or Nebraska home, except I was born in Kansas, but only lived there for about 4 years.

Bourbon is crafted by bringing together mixture of corn, other grains, and yeast and allowing those basic ingredients to ferment. Bourbon is a type of whisky, a special type. The bourbon “mash” of corn and other ingredients must contain no less than 51% corn. Anything less than a 51% corn mash results in a whisky. More than 51% corn mash results in a whisky bourbon. If anything else, just remember more than 51% of the whisky mash must consist of corn for it to be considered as a bourbon.

Also, to be a bourbon, the alcohol must be distilled in the United States. That’s the rule. France gets champagne; the United States gets bourbon. That’s why the United States gets “sparkling wine;” pretty much the same thing as champagne but under law, no distillery can claim champagne but France. France also has ties to bourbon. Bourbon does not get its name from Bourbon County. No; bourbon traces its name back to the French House of Bourbon (wikipedia), an assortment of kings who held sway over a good portion of Europe from the 13th-19th century. I get tickled every time someone starts bad-mouthing the French simply because they have been part and parcel of our country since the very beginning.

Interesting to note, Scotch whisky is uniquely Scottish, Irish whisky is uniquely Irish, and Canadian whisky is uniquely Canadian. I hear tell of a Russian whisky and I am pretty sure it is uniquely dreadful. Send me a bottle and I will review it, though. Unless it leaves me blind, or dead, in which case shame on you for poisoning me.

The “Bible Belt” of the United States (wikipedia)

The world’s vast share of bourbon comes from Kentucky. According to U.K.’s Guardian and U.S.’s Wall Street Journal as of 2013, 95% of the world’s bourbon comes straight from the United States “Bible Belt.” No, these news serves don’t mention “Bible Belt.” I added that. I also find it humorous the regional bastion of traditional Christian values also holds claim to the moonshine, bourbon, NASCAR (which lends its roots to running from the police) and hard-drinking. In fact, one of the more interesting distillers of bourbon, Elijah Craig, was a Baptist preacher, educator, and founder of the Christian-based Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky.

To bring a more global perspective to the conversation, a Japanese company now owns U.S. distillers. Japan’s Suntory bought Jim Beam in January of 2014. Suntory (website) now owns Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Bulleit Bourbon as part of a $16 billion dollar transaction. (Guardian, 1-2014)

Karst landscapes around the world (wikipedia)

So, what makes Kentucky bourbon special? Bourbon could be crafted pretty much anywhere except for one geographical advantage: water. Kentucky is crisscrossed with thousands of miles of underground tunnels and caves. These tunnels and caves create a literal hydro-vascular network, referred to as “karst topography,” is the result of millions of years of limestone rock being dissolved away in solution from percolation of surface drainage into the underground geology. This naturally filtered water is reached by well, pumped into tanks and used to create one of the world’s most admired alcoholic beverages.

A few places around the world have condition suitable for crafting bourbon, though they would not be able to call it such, remember? A few places are found in Europe and western Russia. The Middle East and North Africa have some decent karst landscape. Islam commands Muslims not to imbibe in alcohol, however, so that entire realm is pretty much out of the question for distilling any sort of alcohol. Funny, since “alcohol” is an Arabic word: “al-kuhul.” Muslims usually visit Europe or the United States to drink their whisky. Southwest China and Japan, though, have some favorable geography for crafting bourbon. Each has access to limestone-filtered water, the potential to grow corn, and populations who enjoy bourbon. Yet, should either decide to distill whisky, the label will declare “whisky.” The buyer will have to decide based on proportions noted on the label if the whisky might actually be a bourbon.

The way to tell a true bourbon snob is pretty easy. He, or she, will tell you, “You can’t add water to bourbon. It must be drank neat.” False. True; this is a dead-giveaway the person is a bourbon snob, and false, there are several ways to enjoy a good bourbon. Whenever drinking a bourbon for the very first time always start “neat.” Neat means to drink the bourbon unadulterated with any other fluid and consume at room temperature. Every new label of bourbon I always begin with a shot glass full of room temperature bourbon. To me, this is the best way to gauge the flavor profile of a bourbon. Not a bad way to taste a new wine, either. Some beers work this way, especially if from overseas.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not a good taster for bourbon. Allergies and sinus issues complicate my impressions of bourbon. I get impressions of flavors, still, and a room temperature bourbon is when those flavors are most powerful, and easiest for me to evaluate. I’ve also adopted another simple trick for assessing a flavor profile. After tasting, dip a finger in your bourbon and wipe the fluid on the back of your hand. Then, sniff. I’ve discovered I can detect a few more aromas this way than merely sniffing the glass.

When selecting a bourbon, many shelf tags will entice buyers with tantalizing descriptions evoking wonderful imagery.

The whisky suffers from no bitterness or harshness, with tones of cherry, honey, and caramel. From the onset, a woodiness pervades, followed by a subtle melody of vanilla with a hint of oak, and finishes with a peppery spiciness.

Who would not want to buy that? Sounds marvelous! Except so many things can go wrong. Setting aside allergies for a minute, a human’s tongue is never the same from person to person, and what we taste and how we interpret tastes varies over our lifetime. Our tongue is a really fascinating organ. The human sense of taste is most adept in infancy, when we are babies and small children. Over the span of our life, our tongue gets hammered by a continual onslaught of food and beverages – and age. Over time, our sense of taste diminishes. The 20-year old guy buying the same bottle of hooch you are buying is not going to taste the same thing as you. In fact, the 20-year old “you” is not going to taste the same thing as the 50-year old “you.”

eagle-rare-sm

Eagle Rare. A great bourbon on the high end of my price range.

The scores given to liquors can help. These are composite scores, developed from a number of educated and well-schooled people, providing their experience to arrive at reasonably competent assessments. However, do not be too surprised if you decide a bourbon rated at a 92 is not to your liking.

Some bourbon I enjoy may not have a score, like Jim Beam’s “Devil’s Cut.” If you desire a bourbon with a very robust flavor, try Devil’s Cut. A warning: most people I know who try the Devil’s Cut bourbon do not like due to its very strong bite, going in, going on the tongue, going down, and maybe even going out. Never had that experience so I cannot comment.

I like the strong flavor of bourbon, in general. I’ve tried a number of Canadian whiskies, and a few brands of Scotch and Irish whiskies. I can’t get comfortable with them, though. They have such a mild flavor, bordering on water. The sensation of drinking a Scotch or Irish whisky is that of drinking a very dilute bourbon. And if one were to enjoy a Scotch and water, well, that is pretty much watering down a watered-down whisky. My opinion.

Water and bourbon, by the way, is another way of drinking bourbon, and perfectly acceptable. Some bourbon aficionados will recommend not using tap water but distilled or spring water to cut your bourbon. I use filtered water from my refrigerator. A variation of water and bourbon is over ice. Again, the recommendation is to use ice made from filtered water. The idea is chlorinated water destroys the flavor profile of bourbon. Honestly, I cannot say I have noticed much difference when I’ve had bourbon with water or ice, with one exception. If you have hard water or soft water you may taste a difference depending on how hard or soft your water is. A popular request at a bar would be to order a “Weller and water,” W.L. Weller bourbon with water.

Once in a while I like to have a bourbon and Coke, or a bourbon and Dr. Pepper. Mixed drinks often use bourbon, and not the top shelf variety. Dumping a top shelf bourbon into a glass topped with Coke or Dr. Pepper doesn’t make much sense according to some. But…you can taste a difference when the bar uses the house bourbon. Once, at a local eatery, I was having dinner with bourbon for a beverage. The fellow beside me was bad-mouthing his drink to the bartender. I asked what the fellow was drinking. He said, “bourbon.” Yes, but what kind? “Oh, I just said to give me a bourbon.” OK, well that was a mistake, I said. “What did you pour this guy?” I asked the bartender. He handed me the bottle. The label clearly stated “Kentucky Bourbon” in big bold letters. I try not to be fooled so I looked for the location of the distiller. Ohio, some little town I had never heard of was given as the location of the distiller. Holding the bottle out for the bartender to examine, I said, “See? This bourbon isn’t from Kentucky. It’s from Ohio.”

This bourbon might have been fine for a mixed drink, but not for drinking neat, over ice, or with water. Always remember to ask for your preferred alcohol. Otherwise, you will get the house vodka, or the house whisky, and while you may have better luck than drinkers in Russia, you will not be happy.

Willie Nelson has a signature bourbon, Whiskey River

Willie Nelson has a signature bourbon, Whiskey River

Above, I include one of the best bourbons less than $50, Angels Envy. All of the Bourbons from here below I recommend. As you might suspect, these bottles are from my own collection – my bourbon resumé, as it is. I keep the bottles, thinking I will use them later for some project. All they have managed to do is remind me of the bourbons I’ve tasted.

Willie Nelson’s signature whiskey, Whiskey River, I found very pleasant. He also attached a signed guitar pick to his first batch. Thankfully, I have one of these. He did a nice job picking out a decent whiskey.

You may also note whiskey is sometimes spelled with and without an “e.” The difference is whether one wants to follow the Scottish Gaellic spelling and omit the “e” or follow the Irish Gaellic spelling and include the “e.” Both spellings are correct. The spelling does follow some regional geography. Ireland, the United States tends to prefer the Irish spelling. The rest of the world tends to prefer the Scottish spelling.

bourbon-four-roses-sm200

Four Roses

bourbon-jeffersons-sm200

Jefferson’s Bourbon

bourbon-bulleit-bourbon-sm200

Bulleit Bourbon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bourbons above, from Four Roses (site), Jefferson’s (site), and Bulleit (site) are all very nice and inexpensive. All of the bourbons featured are distilled in Kentucky, with the exception of Jefferson’s. This bourbon is distinctive, being so because it is a blend of bourbons, some of which may not come from Kentucky. Jefferson’s is a good bourbon, but is an example of making sure one knows what one is buying. As a matter of trivia, Skyy vodka is a product of Kentucky, too, not a product of Norway, Sweden, or any other cold or glacier-covered country. Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, home of Skyy, is also the epicenter of bourbon.

Kentucky realizes bourbon creates a bit of a tourist attraction. Distillers will work together to promote tourism. For instance, if you enjoy biking, a Bike Tour (site) of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country is possible. I’m not sure how such a bike ride works out after a night of imbibing bourbon, but I’m only setting it forth as an option. The region offers typical hotels and many great bed & breakfasts. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail (map) includes some notable distilleries. Bourbon Trail Tours (site) offers convenience conveyance from tasting room to tasting room. Finally, as an example of how bourbon is distributed across Kentucky, the folks working on Kentucky’s GeoNet developed an ArcGIS StoryMap. The Bourbon Trail StoryMap (map) demonstrates both a fascinating web-based mapping application suitable for showcasing literally thousands of geographic topics and the geographic distribution of distilleries in Kentucky.

Bourbon, in some respects, helped build America. While it might be easy to say, “No, it didn’t. How can you say the Devil’s Water helped build America?” the history and culture – the geography of bourbon – tells a different story. I have not included every label of bourbon, just a few I’ve enjoyed.  Some are smoother than others. Some have a serious back-bite, that burning sensation like someone just pepper-sprayed your uvula. Some bourbons taste soapy to me, and those are ones I avoid. Not a fan of soapy bourbon. I believe this is a result of using very soft water in the dilution process necessary to get a desired proof for a whisky or bourbon. Most bourbons ranging in price from $30-$40 are really very good. In my opinion, picking a bourbon from the 2nd shelf usually works well. Most liquor stores have Basil Hayden, Jefferson’s, and Rowan’s Creek on the top shelf in spite of being about $40. Also, paying $75 for a bottle of bourbon does not guarantee a fantastic bourbon. Like wine, the cost of a bourbon can be a reflection of batch size, not quality, or even age. A very small batch can bring a high price simply based on scarcity. In a case such as that, ask your local bourbon taster. A good liquor store will have a staff person or two who may be a bourbon judge or master taster. Find out and ask them about their bourbon selection.

PAX

 

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