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What makes great bourbon. August 17, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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What do great caves and great bourbon have in common?

Give up? It’s limestone-filtered water.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just got back from a road trip from Pennsylvania through Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and back through Maryland and West Virginia to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in scenic PA. This is on the whole a beautiful route, with lots of mountains and lots of water. But not all the water was beautiful, to say the least. In many of these states, it resembled red sludge.

Not so in Kentucky’s bluegrass country, home to our friend Ben’s maternal Simms family, to thoroughbred race horses, and to bourbon. And also home to many wonderful caves, the most majestic being Mammoth Cave. As a child, our friend Ben spent many happy hours touring the caves, oohing and aahing at the giant stalactites and stalagmites, and stopping at roadside stands to buy smaller versions for my rock collection. (A practice now strictly forbidden.)

But it never would have occurred to me that the action of water on limestone that created the great caves of Kentucky would also have made it possible to produce bourbon, America’s only native spirit. True, the streams Silence and I saw on this part of our trip were crystal-clear. But it was only while viewing the excellent and informative displays at Bardstown’s Bourbon Heritage Center that I finally made the connection. (Thank you, Heaven Hill, for a truly marvelous museum.)

As the label on my prized bottle of Wathen’s Single Barrel Straight Bourbon Whiskey explains, “Pristine water, naturally filtered through Kentucky’s underground limestone deposits, is used exclusively in the 100% copper distilling process. The finest cereal grains—corn, rye, and malted barley—are selected, milled and proportioned to exacting standards to produce a mash that awaits the magic of the fermentation process. The Medley family yeast, a zealously guarded secret handed down through eight generations, is then added to the mash. After double distilling, the whiskey is then stored in the finest charred new white oak barrels and allowed to age unhurried to its peak of flavor.” (The charred barrels are what give bourbon its distinctive caramel color.)

Lest one wonder about the “eight generations” claim, a geneaology of the Wathen and Medley families dating back to the 1720s is thoughtfully provided on the label. Our friend Ben, a Wathen relative whose Kentucky ancestry also dates back to the 1700s, can only approve.

But I digress. Caves, bourbon, beautiful horses: Kentucky’s bluegrass region has it all. Next time you plan a trip that takes you within driving distance of Bardstown, make a point of stopping. Head to the Bourbon Heritage Center for a free tour and tasting (you’ll learn about the different types of bourbon and get our friend Ben’s favorite treat, a chocolate-coated bourbon ball, yum).

Then enjoy lunch or supper at the historic Talbott Tavern, where you might share a table with the ghosts of Lewis and Clark, John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, King Louis Philippe of France, or many another luminary who stayed and ate there. Try their scrumptious fried green tomatoes and two of Kentucky’s signature dishes, burgoo (a type of stew) and hot brown (a turkey and cheese dish). Not to mention chess pie for dessert.

The Talbott Tavern has an extensive bourbon selection, including flights, where you can try three bourbons of your choice and compare them. And while you’re in the area, you might want to try the water.

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In bourbon country. August 16, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just returned from a trip from scenic PA to our hometown, Nashville. We decided to return via Kentucky rather than our usual route, through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Going through Kentucky would take us directly through the heart of Bluegrass Country, known for its beautiful horse farms and thoroughbreds, its caves, and its bourbon.

The heart of bourbon country is in Bardstown, also the site of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” And our friend Ben’s Simms ancestors moved from Maryland to the Springfield area, just 18 miles from Bardstown, in the late 1700s, so my roots go down deep in this part of Kentucky. I made the trip up several times a year from my earliest childhood, stopping en route at Mammoth Cave, which remains the most magnificent thing, along with the ocean and a prehistoric Irish elk skull, that I have ever seen.

Travelling as they did with three small children, my parents made many stops along the route. And one of them was always Bardstown, where we would eat in the historic Talbott Tavern. We were in good company: Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, King Louis Philippe, John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln, and many another luminary had stopped there on their travels. I remember the fabulous fragrance of Bardstown, unlike anything else I’d ever experienced, between the tobacco warehouses and the distilleries.

If the mention of tobacco fragrance brings to mind the unspeakably foul stench of cigarettes, our friend Ben would like to set the record straight. Unadulterated tobacco, just dried tobacco leaves, gives off one of the most heavenly perfumes there is. No wonder the Native Americans held tobacco sacred! No potpourri even comes close. To drive through Bardstown when the tobacco had been gathered into the great warehouses was like waking up in heaven. It was the addition of toxic chemicals to cigarettes, to enable them to stay lit, that killed the fragrance and made them carcinogenic.

Sadly, Silence and I didn’t smell tobacco in the air this trip, nor did we see any tobacco warehouses. I guess that industry has died out or moved elsewhere. But the air was still redolent of bourbon.

This may have been because it was obscenely hot and humid when we arrived, so the bourbon scent of the distilleries may have been held close to the ground. But whatever the case, aaaahhh!!! The air smelled so, so sweet. Much as Silence and I hate heat and humidity, we could both have stood outside the Talbott Tavern and just breathed in the night air for hours.

Unfortunately, it was getting late, and serving hours were coming to a close. So Silence and I went in to the venerable tavern to enjoy their famous fried green tomatoes and (in my case) even more famous “hot brown” and some chess pie. Not to mention some bourbon from their extensive selection.

Coming from the area, our friend Ben is related to many of the famous bourbon families: the Beams, Mattinglys, Haydens, Dants, and Wathens, just to name a few. So when I saw a Wathen’s single barrel bourbon on the menu, I had to try it. And my, was it good!

Now I was on a mission from God. Here in our adoptive home state of PA, liquor stores are run by the state. Think 1950s communism: exhorbitant prices, limited hours, extremely limited selection. In the South, by contrast, every grocery store has an excellent wine and beer selection; even gas stations have wine and beer. And the selection in actual liquor stores is simply amazing. I was determined to find a bottle of Wathen’s bourbon before I returned to PA.

What I actually found, along with my bottle, was so classic I can’t stop thinking about it. Seeing a tiny box store selling liquor on the outskirts of Bardstown, I pulled in over Silence’s objections (“Ben! This looks like a dive! Let’s try to find a real liquor store!”). I could hardly blame her; it looked like a tiny, run-down filling station that was lucky to even have ice. But we were getting our usual late start and had many hours to travel, and I wasn’t eager to waste time trying to find something better unless it proved necessary.

I went into the tiny store, which had more varieties and sizes of bourbon (and everything else) than I could conceive of. I still don’t know how they managed to cram them all into such a minuscule space. And yes, my Wathen’s was there. But while I waited to pay for it, I noticed a feature I had never seen in a liquor store: a drive-through window. Sure enough, some patrons had pulled up in a pickup and were ordering a pint of something. And they were also ordering mixers and three cups of ice, all conveniently provided by the proprietors (“Do you want orange juice or orange soda?”).

Oh, oh, oh. Our friend Ben wishes Pennsylvania had liquor stores with a more extensive selection, better hours, and cheaper prices. I wish we were civilized enough to carry wine and beer in our grocery stores. But I think I’ll leave the drive-through option to the other 49 states.