We were talking about how you can't help how you're raised -- how you're just an innocent in thrall to bigger folk, your relatives, the ones who, if you're lucky, care for and about you. You've got no say and, for a while, their assumptions frame your known world. Like if you grow up in an insulated ethnic neighborhood, you don't give much thought to the ways of the people you don't see every day.
Depending on your circumstances, you either develop a curiosity about the wider world or you don't. Travel, if you get to do it, works as a solvent on all kinds of prejudices. One way to overcome shyness is to put yourself in situations where you're seen as the exotic one. You can, after a while, learn to embrace the strange.
My father didn't drink much bourbon.
There was always a half-gallon of Jim Beam in the kitchen cupboard for anybody who'd ask, but he drank Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.
The fact he almost always kept two brands on hand is interesting, especially since my father mostly drank beer and broke out the Jack Daniel's only on social occasions. He discerned a difference between Beam and Jack, and while he had his preference, he understood that reasonable people might disagree. Even though, in the scheme of things, there's really not that big a difference between Beam and Jack.
If you're reading this column, you probably believe you can tell the difference, and you probably can. But what about your significant other, your mother or your friend who's into Bud Light Lime Mang-O-Ritas? Some people might even suggest that having esoteric knowledge about whiskey signals decadence, that honest people have more important things to do than worry the technical differences between Jack Daniel's -- a product that meets all the legal and technical qualifications to call itself bourbon, but chooses not to -- and Jim Beam.
Sticklers might object to JD's "finishing process" that involves filtering the mash through sugar-maple charcoal, alleging that adding anything other than water to bourbon is disqualifying. But that point is moot since JD self-identifies as "Tennessee Whiskey," which has its own restrictions. None of this matters to most of us, and it certainly didn't matter to my father, to whom brand distinctions were more important than varietal categories: He didn't discriminate so much between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, or even between Canadian, Irish and Scotch whiskeys. He did, however, know Seagram's from Crown Royal and Jack Daniel's from Jim Beam.
I don't know why he preferred Jack to Beam, though he harbored some fondness for Frank Sinatra. It was just one of his quirks, like the bemused (and probably inauthentic) contempt he pretended to hold for the Beatles (which I suspect he got straight from the scene in Goldfinger where Bond insists that "drinking Dom Perignon '53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit" is "as bad as listening to the Beatles without ear muffs") and his fondness for the countrypolitanstylings of Jack Greene and Ray Price. (Though my father drew the line at Bobby Goldsboro, I grew up thinking country music was something you could sing in a tux.)
I say this just so you'll understand I didn't grow up with all the advantages, and have had some overcoming to perform. I wandered in the wilderness for years. I drank canned Schlitz in high school, and thought it was cool when my buddy Jet got his own apartment and a water bed and filled up one of of those mini-fridges with Miller High Life ponies. I was so clueless in college that I smuggled -- and by smuggled I mean I didn't wave the bottle in the assistant provost's face until after I made it through the turnstile -- a pint of Canadian Mist into Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
(A friend from Vanderbilt says that would have got me blackballed from the better fraternities around Nashville. Lah di damn dah.)
I was probably 30 years old before I settled on bourbon as my drink. And that was after flirtations with Remy Martin champagne cognac (thank you, Pete Townshend, you beautiful old sot), Italian wines (go ahead, quiz me on the old Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and single malt Scotch (which I liked well enough until I realized that there were people who took that stuff way too seriously).
So maybe you got a head start on me. But who among us hasn't changed majors a time or two? All you without sin, go on and chuck a rock at me (but understand that among the motley regulars hanging about my place hoping to avail themselves of my top-shelf stuff is at least one bona fide seersuckered-up lawyer who owes me plenty).
That's enough introduction. I want to start at the beginning. When I was in high school, driving around the dark roads listening to Foreigner and Journey and the original Lynyrd Skynyrd, I might have had a sip or two of Old Grand-Dad or Wild Turkey (though that was a little pricey for us), but the main bourbon we drank was Old Charter.
(Not that we thought too much about what it was -- we also drank a lot of Pepe Lopez tequila and Black Tower wine and 151-proof rum that we'd pour over Icees. Sophisticated lot, us.)
Anyway, the way it would work is that, after we'd cruised the McDonald's, we'd swing over to Sonic and order 32-ounce Coca-Colas, pour out about half the soft drink and most of the ice, and replace it with about a quarter of a fifth of Old Charter.
Because we'd all passed chemistry, we generally went for the 101 proof O.C. rather than the standard 80 proof. We preferred the knot of fire it made in the gullet to the roasted vanilla, caramel and honey notes of the 8-year-old standby.
The palate, they say, becomes more refined as you get older. And I have progressed -- I am not ashamed to call myself a successful semi-professional bourbon drinker -- and my tastes have become more rarefied. At any given time I'm likely to have the seals snapped on five or six high-dollar bourbons.
When I come across new ones I like, I'm liable to tell you about them. I didn't hold wild expectations for the Droptine 12 Point Bourbon that came my way courtesy of proprietor Dave Eders, who in his other life is a maker of bowhunting equipment (eders.com) and was put onto my scent by outdoorsy colleague Bryan Hendricks. There are lots of people slapping labels on bourbon these days, and while this column has determined through science that there are absolutely no bad bourbons, a lot of those bourbons are only not bad.
But Droptine (which you can find for about $55 locally) is a lot better than not bad; it's an interesting young bourbon with a complex finish that belies the whiskey's relatively mysterious origins. We don't know from which distiller Droptine sources its bourbon (somewhere in the Midwest, likely Indiana, based on the heavy corn mash bill), only that it's put first into new charred oak barrels and after a vague period of time transferred to brandy barrels sourced from the Russian River Valley near Sonoma.
Considering that the spirits business is largely driven by brand narratives, I pay more attention to the final product than the process, and the resulting whiskey is complex and spicy, with a distinct brandy drone. Molasses and oak notes with a trace of citrus. Beneath it all, there's a vigorous young bourbon that will only get better with time. And at 92 proof, it's got plenty of heat without being overwhelming.
I liked it a lot on its own, but its highest and best use might be as a cocktail bourbon -- it would work well in an Old Fashioned or as an alternative to rye in a Manhattan.
It probably won't replace my regular sipping whiskey -- Knob Creek's 120 proof single barrel -- but I'll reach for it occasionally and pour it for guests. And I'm eager to try a couple of other Droptine products, a vodka and an apple persimmon moonshine they also sent along. (I've voiced my feeling about moonshine before. But I'm willing to keep trying.)
Another not necessarily everyday bourbon that's getting some play around our house is Little Rock-based Rocktown's Single Barrel Reserve Arkansas Bourbon ($60), a grown-up cask strength whiskey that doesn't back down to Kentucky's best products. Their Four Grain Sour Mash Arkansas bourbon ($60) may be even better.
Rocktown has come a long way in less than a decade, and has developed a handsome line of spirits. But while it makes a solid, popularly priced vodka, a very nice rye and probably does good business with its various flavored products, it excels at bourbon.
Which, in my narrow slice of the world, is a good thing to be good at.
Style on 05/12/2019