Tasting bourbon: A patriotic duty

With the first-in-the-nation presidential primary receding in New Hampshire’s rearview mirror like a magical carnival from a Ray Bradbury story – sprung up all wild-circus music, clowns, barkers and wizards in the middle of a vacant lot one day and packed up and on down the road the next – it seemed like a good time for a drink.

So when Tricia Baker from the New Hampshire Business Review told me the publication was sponsoring a free bourbon tasting recently at Villa Banca, my favorite Italian restaurant in Nashua, and maybe the whole state, I threw aside my typical fidelity to single malt Scotch and signed up.

I was especially glad of the decision later – having learned both that bourbon boasts variety, complexity and charms of which I was entirely unaware, and that by consuming bourbon I was fulfilling a patriotic duty – and when more timely an exercise of patriotism than following the rousing political battle of the New Hampshire primary?

As Jim Hildreth of Southern Wine & Spirits, a sprightly man with a bourbon-bottle printed tie and a backcountry evangelist’s enthusiasm for brown liquor, pointed out during the tasting: Bourbon is the official spirit of the United States. It is an intrinsically American political drink. FDR, the president who (thank heaven) repealed prohibition, is alleged to have mixed up Manhattans for Winston Churchill. Ulysses S. Grant was a bourbon drinker. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, in which Grant’s critics visit President Abraham Lincoln to accuse Grant of being a drunk. “I wish you’d find out what brand of whisky he drinks,” Lincoln is said to have responded. “I’d like to send a barrel of it to all my generals.” Lincoln himself had a license to sell liquor as a young man, and he was born in Kentucky, where his father worked at a distillery.

In addition to the patriotic benefits of drinking bourbon, I can confirm that moderate and responsible consumption of bourbon-based cocktails (such as and especially the Manhattan) can enhance debate and election-night return watching. Makes them into a sort of AFC playoffs party for the politics geek.

Bourbon whiskey was first known simply as whiskey, a word that derives from the Gaelic uisge beatha, or “water of life.” Bourbon comes from the name of a county in Kentucky that was stamped on barrels of whiskey produced there – resulting in a demand for that “Bourbon” whiskey.

These days, there are a number of conditions whiskey must meet to legally be considered Bourbon. It must be derived of 51 percent corn. It must be aged for at least two years. The aging must be done in new, charred, white oak barrels (this last rule a demonstration of the influence of the cooper’s union in the 1940s). It’s interesting to note that much Scotch whisky is aged in American bourbon whiskey barrels, since they can’t be re-used for bourbon.

The night of the tasting, as Hildreth waxed profound on the history and lore of bourbon and our tasting samples breathed, Villa Banca put on a lovely spread of bourbon-glazed, infused or otherwise manipulated meats, fish poultry and a bourbon-sauce-drizzled bread pudding for dessert. My favorite was the bourbon-glazed brisket – which is easy to justify having seconds on if you know you are about to dive into six potent whiskies. I’ve read that the Greeks consume a teaspoon of olive oil before a night of drinking; the fat coats the stomach and slows the absorption of the alcohol – I figure brisket is a reasonable substitute.

After eating, we tasted Basil Hayden’s, Jim Beam Black, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Baker’s and Booker’s. As the whiskey grew increasingly high-end (which is not to say we didn’t start fairly high-end to begin with), the proof also climbed. Booker’s is uncut – that means no water is added during the bottling process and the whiskey is 125 proof. A powerful spirit indeed.

When tasting whiskey, there are some important things to remember. You should part your lips as you taste to allow the alcohol to dissipate and not overwhelm your sinuses. The spirit glass from which whiskey is traditionally consumed is curved to keep the whiskey away from the sweet receptors on the tongue. There isn’t much sugar in whiskey (bourbon has more than Scotch, though). A few drops of water (or more) can help to open up the flavor of the whiskey, though ice can introduce impurities to the flavor.

The six bourbons we sampled showed amazing diversity of flavor and character. As a frequent Scotch drinker, I had always credited Scotch with rivaling wine for variety and subtlety and eschewed other forms of whiskey – but this event opened my palate to bourbon’s undeniable sophistication.

From the Jim Beam Black, with its tones of vanilla, to a peppery Basil Hayden’s (must be the high rye content), to the smooth, winter-wheat mixture of the Maker’s Mark, they were all fine whiskeys, but all radically different. And as we tasted, the proof increased. The higher the proof, the greater the heat, body and viscosity of the drink.

We finished the night with Booker’s, the richest of the Small Batch Bourbon collection and a spectacular uncut, unfinished bourbon. And at 125 proof, there’s plenty of room to customize this with spring water to an individual preference.

Have I given up single malt Scotches altogether in favor of small batch bourbons? No more than I’ve given up my Netflix subscription in favor of watching CSPAN2 as a result of having the New Hampshire primary sweep through the state. But I have added a Burden Manhattan to my repertoire (two parts Jim Beam Black, one part Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth, a few splashes of Angostura bitters) and Booker’s to my Christmas list, right along with some of my favorite single malts.

Ernesto Burden is vice president of digital media for The Telegraph in Nashua, New Hampshire Business Review and other Web sites.