The Quotable Drinker

September 20, 2010

“Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals”

-Abraham Lincoln

“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite, and furthermore always carry a small snake.”

-W.C. Fields

“They say some of my stars drink whiskey. But I have found that the ones who drink milkshakes don’t win many ball games.”

-Casey Stengal 


Whisk(e)y Men

December 22, 2009

Most whiskys (the Scottish and English spell the name of the drink without the American “e” in the middle) are blends. Famouse Grouse and the inestimable Johnnie Walker both are; oddly, most single malts are too. What we call single malts today are blends, but from casks of whisky in the same distillery.

Blenders, blending.

Blenders, blending.

Blended whisky was invented by Scots who realized that strong spirits went down smoother mixed with grain alcohol. The Irish, ever slow to change, clung to the stronger spirits and eventually Irish whisky lost ground to blended Scotches. Houses like Dewars and Johnnie Walker lead the revolution, but quickly came up against the same problems anybody who mixes things for a living comes up against: how to keep a consistent product, from bottle to bottle. So the Scottish distillers became expert mixologists also, judging blendable spirits by aroma and palate, adjusting for cost while retaining quality. Master blenders like Tom Aitken of Dewars, David Stewart of William Grant & Sons, and John Ramsay of Famous Grouse became sought-after commodities and honed their skills over decades.

As each blender gets on in years, he turns his craft over to apprentices. Aitken recently turned over the reins to Sophie MacLeod, Ramsay to Gordon Motion, and David Stewart to Brian Kinsman. Stewart, though, won’t retire: he’ll stay on as master blender of The Balvenie, a single malt whisky. The Balvenie is the first single malt to be finished in a separate wooden cask than the one in which it was started. He’s also the man behind the Glenfiddich Solera Reserve, and the blender responsible for choosing and blending the whiskys used in the landmark Glenfiddich 50 Year, an acknowledged masterpiece of the blenders’ art.

Watering Holes: Maker’s Mark Distillery

July 9, 2009

The Maker’s Mark Distillery

Loretto, Kentucky

The place where the Samuels family distills Maker’s Mark bourbon whisky (the company spells the spirit the Scottish way, sans “e”) is an old wood-frame distillery in Loretto, Kentucky which looks like a barn, built by architect George Burks in 1889. Near the distillery is the old Quart House, where customers used to come re-fill their quart bottles.

Maker's Mark distillery, Loretto, Kentucky.

Maker's Mark distillery, Loretto, Kentucky.

When T.W. (Bill) Samuels, Sr. bought the property around 1950, it had lain dormant for years.  Samuels, a sixth-generation Kentucky distiller, set about rehabbing the old building and getting it into shape to turn out his dream, a small-batch Kentucky bourbon known for its smooth and easy taste. His new bourbon’s tag line: “It tastes expensive… and is.”

Maker's Mark bourbon, aging.

Maker's Mark bourbon, aging.

The distillery refurbishing underway, Samuels began to build his bourbon but soon ran up against reality: because aging just one batch of bourbon can take six years, he didn’t have time to distill, test, taste, and select from different recipes. Samuels’ solution: he and his wife, Marjorie, baked loaves of bread, each containing the exact grain content of a different proposed Maker’s Mark recipe, and asked neighbors to taste each loaf; the bread judged best-tasting would be the model for Samuels’ bourbon, which would be distilled with the exact proportions of grain found in that loaf. The winner: a bread made with barley and red winter wheat, instead of rye. In keeping with tradition, Samuels celebrated his new distillation by burning his family’s 170-year old bourbon recipe.

The first bottle of Maker’s Mark Kentucky bourbon whisky was sold in 1958 and featured the company’s trademarked red wax seal. In 1974, the distillery was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1980 it became a National Historic Landmark. Today it sits along Kentucky’s historic Bourbon Trail. It is one of the few distilleries left to rotate barrels between high and low shelves during the aging process to take advantage of the differences in temperature found at each altitude.

While not technically a “watering hole,” the distillery does offer tours which include a stop in the sampling room.

Sans Rocks

May 17, 2009

Bourbon is a Southern drink: since the 1700’s, it’s come from Bourbon County, Kentucky, where abundant fresh streams and corn provided for its easy distillation. It’s been accordingly enjoyed on verandas, wrap-around porches, in rocking chairs, in carriages, overlooking farmland, and on humid summer nights. That is, when the temperature is high and people drink for refreshment. Bourbon is appropriate either neat or with ice, so long as it’s poured over ice, not crushed by cubes dropped in a glass already full.

Scotch is a different animal entirely. Scotch whisky (the Scots stubbornly withhold the “e”) is made in no such warm climes. Scotland is known for its beautiful green hills, not its sweltering Kentucky evenings, and so its liquor is meant to be served at room temperature, not over ice. A little water perhaps, to open up the whisky, but never ice cubes. A chilled Scotch numbs the tongue, masking its complicated flavor: the Scots are proud of their respective smoke and peat, the variations thereof dependant on the region of distillation, and are averse to sacrificing either for the sake of a smoother sip.

Americans prefer their Scotch on the rocks. Americans, of course, are not Scots. We used to drink our Scotch in Highballs – a tall glass of whisk(e)y with water and seltzer, and in the 1940’s we started to order it straight, with ice. The Scots don’t approve: their whisky, crafted with such art, is best enjoyed as is, without frozen  tap water’s adulterative chemicals. Scottish distillers are often craftsmen descended from generations of the same, artists who labor over a product and don’t want it mucked with later on. The Scots, after all, are the experts, and for my money, I’ll trust their opinion.

Scotch whisky, sans rock.

Scotch whisky, improperly.