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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Four Roses & A Funeral

Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon lends some fairly honestly earned folklore to American bourbon, as anything involving Kentucky, decline and dormancy, and a savior Japanese corporation might. The uneven but still engaging history of the brand, redeemed by money and experts, has been presented well elsewhere. The bottom line is that there are a few of us, and admittedly dwindling numbers, who remember the brand from "the bad days of bourbon." And thus we remember it as something different than it has been since 2004: a high-rye special blend slouching towards mellowness without the usual fuss for aging.

drunken soldier in my limes, good with 'em too
The requisite bourbon lore regarding Four Roses is that it was named for a cluster of roses that led to a betrothal. That delights not me. But I had some after a funeral, in fact, and only then was compelled to keep a bottle on the shelf at least as long as I can think of something else that needs to occupy the space. In my own spirits lore compendium, callously unmoved by marketing, I associate bourbons more with the harvest time anyway. Indeed we may also benefit recalling (if we ever knew at all) that when Finnegan finally wakes at his own wake in Finnegans Wake he cries for whiskey. If you want to associate bourbons with weddings, however, go ahead, I'll wait for you to catch up with me.

The throwback shape of the bottle, something deliberately archaic, which hogs both space on your shelf and store shelf space too, originally displeased my wife, who is not fussy for red roses either. I will tell you gentlemen as an aside, and as a newly-trained rose garden docent at The Huntington, that in general it is men who like red roses, or at least who imagine they do, and women who like all roses but red ones. But she has cottoned to it as both sufficiently flavorful and sufficiently mellow and she likes the way it blends with limes this time of year to fashion one of her favorite drinks, the tangy Commodore.

You too have your own taste, so again I'll not bother you too much with mine. I will say, however, in an attempt to persuade, that there is some oddball conventional wisdom afoot that mixing drinks with thirty dollar bourbons is a too dear practice and a bad idea. I think cocktails made with thirty dollar bourbons at their base are a good idea. Four Roses Small Batch is a fine classic cocktail bourbon; I've tried it in everything and it responds well to both citrus and bitters. My own palate finds it a touch too sweet (though it is not very sweet) for a manhattan, but yours may not if you are from the south or a pastry chef. Or if the idea is to find a hint of sweetness somewhere, such as in a barbecue sauce (I know he's using the single barrel but let's not ourselves get carried away), here you have it, then. Also, as a former banker I should advise you that if you are in some jackety straits in which thirty dollars seems too dear a price for bourbon to mix it with lime juice, sweet vermouth, Campari, &c., you very likely should be consuming less bourbon anyway.




Friday, November 4, 2016

Russell, Thrilling

There is a character in the Alexandria Quartet to whom people give exotic copies of the Koran. People sometimes give me exotic bottles of bourbon because they know it has, with gin, become my favorite spirit, and because, unlike gin, I am more likely to like a bottle than not like one.

But nobody gave me this. I bought two bottles over three days. No promotion, no gifting, no nothing. Just a guy and a purveyor and mystique.

Firewood, urbanite, Garden Shed & Whiskey Bar
I first bought one for Robert, a good friend who likes bourbon. I was wondering: what would he like? I had a conversation about what he might like with the adroit spiritarian Kevin at Topline. We settled on a bottle of Russell Reserve and I took it to Robert on Halloween.

And when I got home – alas, Robert didn't open it, probably knowing a good thing – I was wondering: why did I buy that for him and not for me?

So I went to Cap 'n' Cork and picked up another bottle, this one for The Garden Shed & Whiskey Bar (left).

This bourbon simply thrilled me. I expect a little heat in a 90 proof bourbon and there is some; not a lot, but some. But there is also enough flavor to wet any proverbial whistle. You are getting it all – vanilla, barrel, orange, and a little caramel, in that order, to my buds – but yet not at weapons' grade levels as in a warhorse nor fulminating cleanliness like Wathen's.

NTTIAWWW. But this one works in a way the Bourbon-County-via-San-Jose derby entry only hints at. My wife prefers Wathen's, maybe because she likes the bottle (are you listening, anyone? she would never on earth by a bottle of Four Roses because of the bottle, and that's important to know too).  But Russell's Reserve really took me by the scruff and shook me up. I look forward to the relationship. It's no mean thing, to be thrilled like that at this dramatic stage.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Spick and span


Wathen's on the Birch
I took to drinking Wathen's earlier this year. The proof – 94 – is up around the zone at which you may begin to lose some complexities that seem to please some people. In fact, at this proof, you are beginning to lose enough of the temptation to render bourbon as a kind of alcohol-based syrup that you will please other people: like me. Wathen's is not built to overemphasize complexity anyway; at least I don't think it is. The point seems rather to allow the drink to come at you as cleanly as possible, emphasizing its surprise smoothness at the wattage.

Other tasters talk of vanilla and hot peppers; if so, that is vurrry clean vanilla and those are not overly hot peppers. And still other tasters are down on it for its compact palate, something that I like about it. We don't need to drink brown sugar oaken casked cherry bombs all the time; some of us, in fact, grew up not knowing how to do this at all.

There is some justification in my mind to those who say you don't know what you're getting. But only some. I'm inclined to de-emphasize provenance and folklore, and I automatically dismiss anything printed on a folded card tied to the string around the neck of a bottle. But I will say with Wathen's that whatever you are getting, you are definitely getting across the barrels something calibrated to a specific taste. Those who guess that the barrels may be markedly different are not guessing correctly to my mind; I've had three bottles (so I must like something about it – and of course I do) from three different barrels, and the bottles have all been dependably similar to each other, enough so that I could taste and say, "Oh, that's the Wathen's taste."

When do you want a clean-tasting weapon's grade bourbon? That's the broader question, I think. I don't like one for breakfast, for instance. But I do like one in all those times when bourbon ordinarily doesn't fit the circumstances; say, on a hot afternoon, in the shade. And though most don't mix bourbons above $30, this works well in a Boulevardier, a drink that's got other crazy flavors going for it and needs a little alcohol lift for you to be satisfied with just the one, thank you. But ultimately what in the end I do like about Wathen's is this: it's 94 proof and yet you could say it's refreshing. That's my ticket, and that's why I've had a good amount of the stuff.