Read an Excerpt
"Sip it and dream—it is a dream itself. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey."
—J. Soule Smith’s "Ode to the Mint Julep," written in the 1890s
[VR did you query this by any chance?]
Bourbon is truly an American spirit. Only in the limestone rock formations of central Kentucky and north-central Tennessee can the water be thus flavored: As it filters through the stone, it grabs just the right chemical balance to make the distillers’ yeast robust and vibrant, which produces the dark-honey-golden fluid. Nirvana. Bourbon, named for Kentucky’s old Bourbon County, and its close cousin Tennessee whiskey are related to the whiskey-making business in Ireland and Scotland only by generalities. Corn is the grain of choice for American whiskey, from which either a mash or a sour mash is made to kick off fermentation. But that color and smoky-sweet nose with hints of vanilla, caramel, and clove come from freshly charred white oak barrels and the length of time they are allowed to hold the liquor. In Tennessee, the whiskey takes one more step with a charcoal filtration, which some lovers[AU word choice? Admirers?] of a man named Jack Daniel or George Dickel believe smoothes out the flavor.
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have strolled out of their Southern heritage and left their spiritual homes of Louisville, Bardstown, and Lynchburg to be enjoyed throughout the country. Like another Southern export, NASCAR, bourbon is exploding in consumption and demand. From New York City’s hottest bars and restaurants to the hip Mission District of San Francisco is heard the lament "We can’t keep bourbon in stock." Also heard: "Our bourbon cocktail sales are up 30 percent." With the reserve, small-batch, and single-barrel bourbons now becoming "top-shelf," there is even more interest in bourbon.
Other factors have also created this demand, according to bartenders around the country—the trend back to classic cocktails and bourbon’s appeal with American foods. Barbecue (the noun), one of America’s biggest food fascinations, is hard to pair with wine, but the smoky sweetness of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey play on the palate in an enriching way that blends with rather than disturbs the food’s essence. A little bourbon and ginger ale sit communally with fried chicken, too. America’s newfound interest in Southern foods makes bourbon and Tennessee whiskey the perfect before, during, and after mealtime beverage. America’s "native whiskey" seems to prepare your taste buds for big flavors. It is an outstanding pre-dinner quaff, even when followed by wine.
And can you even imagine listening to the blues with Scotch or vodka? America’s signature music certainly deserves America’s signature spirit.
Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have even transcended the borders of our country. In 2007 America’s spirits exports topped one billion dollars, almost all of that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. You can easily find Jack Daniel’s and Maker’s Mark in the grocery stores of Italy. They covet Jack Daniel’s in Japan, and it is a welcome gift when doing business there, as I discovered a few years ago while on a consulting job in Tokyo. More than 100 countries import American whiskey, including Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Australia, and Japan. China, Vietnam, Brazil, and the old Eastern Bloc countries are new, fast-growing markets for our whiskey.
With small-batch and single-barrel varieties and the almost cult status of some bourbons, the legend continues to grow. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are American stories and spirits that deserve their place on the top shelf of our drinking repertoire.