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Monday, November 21, 2005

As Thanksgiving Hurls

As Thanksgiving hurls at us like a puritan’s shoe buckle, thoughts turn, in the tradition of the season, to strong drink and plenty of it; brown drink, the kind the kiddies would hide from like a beating. It’s what made our country great, or at least thankful. Having navigated the stormy seas of puppy love with brandy, rum, and applejack, the youthful Uncle Sam and his constituency, only still slightly dyspeptic, grew into strapping and enthusiastic whiskey drinkers. It would remain so well into our pompous years. It took WWII (the War to End All Wars, Part Deux) to finally flog it out of our system. Prohibition gave us a long tender spanking, but World War Two finally made us see that, after war rationing and such, there really wasn’t much superb aged whiskey left to bottle-feed the baby Boomers, and anyway…less flavor is WAY better. Flavor. Ew, gross. And so in our bombastic dotage we are the (vodka) Martini Republic. Happy Thanksgiving!

Ah, but whiskey is the stalker not so easy to restrain with a court order. Like a scrappy Peter Braunstein, whiskey doesn’t care that nobody likes it anymore, that it got fired, that its off-Broadway play got abysmal reviews. No, whiskey knows it can win us back again with its charm and cheery fireman’s suit.

You’d have to say, whiskey began to seriously pitch woo to our alienated affections with Maker’s Mark Bourbon. It was the first new hand-made American whiskey in years. Maker’s was so far ahead of its time in 1958 that no one noticed it until the 1970s. By the mid ‘80s, however, what with all of that grody alcoholism, liquor companies looked at the drippy red wax and hit upon a genius notion: drinking less but drinking better. Sazerac Co. took the next initiative and created the exquisitely-flavored Blanton’s, the first single barrel Bourbon. Single Barrel means all of the whiskey in the bottle came from the same barrel it aged in, adding only water so it didn’t rip your tonsils out. Before, different barrels were always mixed for a potentially boring-if-consistent bottling. Suddenly frisky, American whiskey was innovating!

This was followed by Jim Beam, the 800lb gorilla at the bar, making the whole concept very, very mainstream by releasing 4 delightful “small batch” Bourbons: Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden. “Small batch” means the whiskies are blended, but only between a few carefully culled casks (barrels, actually— but our Nation became great on the back of literary artifice, so shut up) and they swear under oath they don’t spit into the mash. Most all of the other American whiskey makers followed suit with their own meticulous gems. So even though nobody liked it, the whiskey cult was back, setting up a well-armed compound and threatening the townfolk.

Enter Fritz Maytag, the man behind Anchor Steam Beer, whom we know as lovable Old Man Crazy. Fritz just about single-handedly resurrected America’s other whiskey, Barbara. Er, pork. Er…RYE whiskey. While rye need be but a minimum of 51% rye grain to a max of 49% corn to earn the name, Maytag’s Old Potrero (named for Melvin Potrero, inventor of the pot still) is made with 100% rye grain and for a while was bottled at a lovely tonsil-ripping 120 proof but now weighs in at 90. Honestly, even at 120 proof it was magically smooth stuff. In time, other companies began looking longingly at the sexy rye revival and before too long there were all kinds of delicious bouncing boutique ryes on the market. Still, no one liked them.

Not one to rest on his lumpen laurels, lovable Old Man Crazy followed this with an entirely new (meaning old) product. It was a whiskey made as whiskey might’ve been when it crossed George Washington’s balsa wood teeth. He didn’t char the whiskey barrels as do all Bourbons and ryes; he toasted them as one might toast toast in a particularly large toaster. Also made with 100% rye grain, once aged, the whiskey was bottled at barrel proof. Your tonsils will yowl a falsetto aria. Uncle Sammy does not allow this to be called rye whiskey because of the toasting thing. The choices were “Oogy wa wa!” or “18th Century-Style Whiskey” paired with a ponderous explanation. Ponderousness won the day! It was truly a new form of whiskey, but not the last.

This year Heaven Hill debuted Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey. Some Bourbons substitute wheat for rye in the mash, but corn is still of higher percentage as it must be legally to be called Bourbon. This is different. It’s as though the rye in rye whiskey was suddenly transmuted into wheat, and it is an entirely new variety of whiskey. It has a natural lightness with a slightly floral sweet character and superb balance. It is very smooth at 90 proof and entirely drinkable, if one were to like whiskey which no one does.

We today are the patriotic and flavorless land of all-American vodka. History (and whiskey, and flavor) is old, and old is bad. Vodka, conversely, is new. The Pilgrims would’ve drunk vodka if they’d known better and though that sets up a logical paradox, best not to dwell on that. Regardless, it’ll be Thanksgiving soon and thoughts turn to brown liquor and turkeys. For the first time, as of 21st century, we now unquestionably produce the finest, most varied whiskey since this nation was founded. Let us raise our vodka glasses and toast!

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