An Ode to Bourbon
By David S. LewisPublished October 25, 2012
Everyone enters life virgin to all experience, and strong drink is no exception. Upon first operation of the whiskey cup the voyager reels slightly, as though from an invisible punch. The eyes widen as the face contorts, apparent disbelief that such violent fuel would be readily and often consumed by anyone. Around then, the liquor finds its way to the stomach, the burn expressed past the lips in an audible hiss.
My first love was rum: friendly and saccharine, slurred molasses accessibility. I grew bored of it after not so long, and with a palate in evolution, I moved on to the libation well bred young men are expected to befriend, Scotch whisky. Those single-barreled marvels first challenge with burn and after tantalize with complexity, allowing the searcher to find all the obvious bass rhythms, such as oak and caramel and smoky char. This is good, I said. What else, though?
There’s foreignness to Scotch whisky. Their mashes are made with others’ corns; their trees are not our trees. For an American man, there’s a homecoming in American whiskey – I attribute it to our American creekwaters, our American oak barrels, and the hands of Americans working the liquor, shepherding it from tun to still, still to barrel. The method is directly descended from the distillers of the Old World whisky makers, the techniques refined and applied to our unique and rebellious sensibilities, to our domestic materials and ingredients.
Perhaps all of that is just so much wash – I know that some Scotches are actually aged in American whiskey barrels – but no matter. Bourbon whiskey is, as yet, the finest liquid to pass my lips. Is it the scent, like pepper and cinnamon, wafting out of the rocks glass? Perhaps. It could be argued that it smells more sweetly on the breath of a beautiful woman.
Is it the initial numbing of my tongue, followed by the spreading burn and spice to the rest of my mouth? I suppose, but that burn is most satisfying after a hard pull on a bottle during a heated exchange with friends over a campfire. (Many exchanges become heated with the application of whiskey.)
Could it be the potency, the sheer ferocity of the drink? It virtually leaps out of the bottle, an undeniably masculine liquid with a redhead’s mercury temperament, seven hundred and fifty milliliters of Jacob wrasslin’ with God.
I certainly intend no sacrilege. After all, Elijah Craig, wrongly credited with inventing bourbon whiskey, was in fact a Baptist preacher with what was by all accounts one helluva whiskey still. The Angel’s Share, a reference to the amount of precious booze lost to the barrel’s evaporation during the aging process, is whiskey jargon’s nod to whichever god allowed ethanol to vaporize before water boils, a clear blessing from high.
Hell, so far as I’m concerned, famed distiller Augustus Bulleit, long assumed to have fallen victim to highwaymen on the road from Kentucky to New Orleans, was instead merely spirited away like Enoch, the Good Lord wishing only to sample the wares of his wagon more directly.
Now for ice; all this “research bourbon” bears warning of a coming violent or incoherent vicissitude, fortunately one evaded right easily with the introduction of some water. Yes, I like ice in my whiskey. Sometimes, I like water, too. You think you’re a hardass for taking the shot? Don’t be ridiculous. ALL bourbon, particularly the oft-capricious brands I favor, can benefit from a little suspension. It doesn’t much dilute the potency, unless you intend it as resistance, but rather dissipates the alcohol on your tongue, allowing for a more balanced introduction to your tastebuds.
Yeah, now then, I suppose it’s time for my tumbler. Cocktails are in the purview of more qualified scientists and bartenders, so I’ll leave them to their alchemy. Rather, I’ve used this column as an excuse to depart from my usual conveyance, and explored bourbon as freshly as possible through the various lenses: neat, up, and arctic. Now, as I’ve fulfilled my task, I relax in my commonest fashion, with a tumbler, two-thirds bourbon, one-third water, full of ice: my painkiller, my harbor, my farewell to the day, to you, and likely, to the early morning.