A high-quality Kentucky bourbon, aged six to eight years and
bottled directly from the barrel without any of post-production typical
of other bourbons. It comes in somewhere around 125 proof, but some
bottles will be stronger than others.
It's just a few minutes until midnight. Three hours
ago, I was driving around, exploring the lonely rural highways that
spider outwards from Minneapolis. It's been one of those magical
nights, a November evening that can't decide whether it's autumn or
winter, and there's a light rain which is more of a mist hanging in
the air than any kind of real precipitation. In the morning, every
child in this county will wake up, stare at the glass of a bedroom
window, and memorize the Jack Frost legend to tell to their children
I came to a dark intersection, the green traffic
light surrounded by a soft emerald halo. Just past the intersection
is one of those old bars that I always see along the side of the
highway. There's one dim street-lamp at the far end of the parking
lot, the building unmarked except for the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign,
and the entrance is one of those swinging doors with the dirty
diamond-shaped window at just my eye level. I pulled off the highway,
parked, and got out of my car. My feet crunched on loose rock of some
kind, either gravel or red rock, and I walked into the
Kentucky bourbon is a unique spirit. Traditionally, it's sour-mash
whiskey with a particular mixture of rye, corn, and barley in varying
proportions, aged in charred oak barrels for three or four years before
bottling. To be called bourbon, it must be distilled and bottled within
the state of Kentucky. It's strong stuff, not so subtle as scotch
whiskeys and not as mellow as Jack Daniel's or the Canadian stuff.
But there's a bourbon snob subculture out there. Scotch snobs have
a variety of single-malt, single-barrel brands, but bourbon is a less
scientific process, so until recently the best you could get
commercially was small-batch bourbon -- bourbon bottled out a relatively
small number of barrels that have been blended together to ensure a
predictable "brand-name" flavor. There are a lot of names in small-batch;
Knob Creek, Maker's Mark, Evan Williams, and Basil Hayden's are
some of the more popular.
Three hours ago, the bar was filled with town locals
watching the prime time news on a beat-up color TV sitting above the
bar. Blue-collar men wearing blue jeans, checked shirts, and adjustable
meshback baseball caps. The bartender clearly knew all of them by
name, and none of them were talking much. I walked up to the bar,
ordered a bottle of beer, and sat down at a table near the door to
kill a few hours.
An hour ago, the ten o'clock news ended, and all
the locals slowly filtered out of the bar. The bartender shut off
the TV, turned on an old army-surplus radio at the other end of the
bar, and started cleaning up for the night. I was still sitting at
my table, drinking another beer, lost in my own thoughts, when the
bartender was suddenly standing next to me.
"I gotta put the chairs up, fella. Would you mind
moving to the bar?" he asked me. I shrugged, downed my beer, and walked
over to the far end of the bar. I took my seat and leaned
Mostly bourbon is watered down after it comes out of the barrels, to
mellow it and get it a consistent level of alcohol. This watering process
is actually part of what gives a bourbon its character; indeed, it's
recommended to add an ounce or two of water when drinking bourbon
from a snifter, to release some of its hidden flavor.
Booker's is different, though. It's single-barrel, and it's barrel-proof.
That means it comes to you straight from the barrel, no additional
watering, and no two bottles you'll find in the store are exactly alike.
It's a Jim Beam specialty brand, and it's at least half-again as
strong as their mass-market stuff. You can smell a glass of Booker's
from five or six feet away. To me, it smells like apples, chocolate,
and of course burnt oak.
Presently, the bartender was in front of me again,
ready to take my order. I looked up and scanned the shelves behind
the bar. This place was actually well-stocked for a hole in the wall
in some farm-town-going-suburb. I ordered a double of Booker's with ice.
The bartender barely glanced at me, poured it, and went back to getting
the bar ready for closing.
In a rocks glass the slow melting of the ice makes a single glass of
Booker's Bourbon a subtle experience, changing the flavor over time.
I prefer it with ice because the bourbon is strong enough that you
have to sip it; a shot of this stuff is probably just as hard to take
as a 151 rum. Besides, you can turn the glass slowly in your hand and
actually watch the water from the melting ice swirl into the whiskey.
The bartender poured mine an hour ago, and the
process of sipping at it and staring into the glass has consumed just
about that entire hour. Out of that old surplus radio, some woman is
singing the blues, pouring out her soul alongside that old Saint Louis
rhythm guitar. The music is timeless, I've got no way of knowing who
she is or how long ago she sang these songs, and her voice makes me
want to believe in the divine. I close my eyes and listen, letting
the ice continue to melt, just smelling the drink and letting that
smoky aftertaste play across my palate.
Booker's Bourbon was named for Booker Noe, Jim Beam's grandson.
In his role as Master Distiller for Jim Beam, Booker used to take a
few bottles a year out of the very best of the year's production and
give them away as Christmas gifts. Eventually, he decided to establish
the his private-stock gift as a boutique brand for the distillery.
In the fifteen years that Booker's Bourbon has been on the market, it
has won multiple awards, and stands without question the best true bourbon
in the world.
A minute ago, the door just opened, and I'm no longer
alone in here with the bartender. There's a woman sitting down at the end
of the bar, she's already got her drink, and somehow I missed her ordering.
She's a vodka martini with a twist, a couple of years older than me, and as
I'm looking at her, she just smiled at me.
I should know how this story ends, but I don't.