'Small' Bourbons Go Over Big


November 05, 1995|By ROB KASPER

Four snifters of pricey, artfully made bourbon sat in front of me. Then there were three, then two, then one, then none.

This was a small-batch bourbon tasting, an example of America's increasing interest in bourbons that taste better and cost more than ordinary whiskeys. This was news. The ballroom in Washington's Grand Hyatt hotel was full of 200 well-dressed guests who, according to a brochure, were there to educate themselves "as to the finer points of bourbon connoisseurship."

One table of sippers seemed at the top of the class. In a move that I thought was a boldfaced attempt at getting second helpings, they claimed that somebody had put portions of iced tea rather than fancy bourbon in their snifters. They demanded refills of the good stuff. It was the old iced-tea ruse! And it worked!

Frederick Booker Noe Jr., semi-retired master distiller for Jim Beam, who had traveled from Bardstown, Ky., to help preside over the event, didn't seem to mind the trickery. While the "iced tea" glasses were being taken care of, Booker told stories.

His favorite president, he said, was the one who repealed Prohibition. "God bless Franklin Roosevelt." His favorite name for a bourbon is Old Tub, a now-defunct Jim Beam brand.

And one of his favorite dishes, he said, is pork ribs cooked in a bourbon sauce. But you have to be careful, he said, not to use his namesake bourbon, Booker's, a 121-proof elixir. One night his wife put Booker's, rather than her usual 80-proof Jim Beam bourbon, on the oven-baked ribs, and the oven door blew open.

Though Booker also talked about some of his encounters with younger, cheaper, "bust-head" bourbons, the theme of the evening was how to appreciate the subtleties of small-batch bourbons. These are bourbons that are made with prime ingredients; given the choice spots in the warehouse -- not too hot, not too cold; and allowed to age at an unhurried pace. Most are not blended. Some are not filtered.

They might not bust your head, but they can put a hurting on your wallet. The small-batch bourbons from the house of Beam -- Basil Hayden's, Knob Creek, Baker's and Booker's -- start in the high $20s and go up to $45 for a 750-milliliter bottle. (Some small-batch bourbons come in small [50-milliliter] bottles. A four-pack of miniature bottles of the Beam bourbons costs about $20. A single tiny bottle of Blanton's, another craft bourbon, goes for about $6.)

Booker and his assistants explained how to taste a good bourbon. The assistants handled the fine points, telling us, for example, to keep our mouth open when we sniffed the bourbon so we could "taste" the vanilla in the Baker's as we smelled it. They also told us that adding a few drops of bottled or branch water to a bourbon would open up its flavors.

Booker was more direct. "Put your snoot all the way down in the glass, and really draw," he said. Instead of merely telling us to let the whiskey roll around in our mouths, Booker showed us how this was done. Taking a drink of Booker's, he moved his mouth around like a man trying to free a piece of barbecued pork from his teeth. As for appreciating the finish, Booker chugged the snifter, smiled and exclaimed, "What about the sweetness of that corn!"

That pretty much ended the tasting. I had a happy ride back to Baltimore by train and a few days later quizzed a few folks in the liquor business about where Maryland stands in the state of bourbon.

Maryland is on the fringe of bourbon country, said John Vidal, manager of consumer development for Brown-Foreman, which makes Kentucky bourbons, as well as Jack Daniels and Gentlemen Jack, two Tennessee sipping whiskeys.

Two bourbon strongholds in Maryland are in the southern end of the state, near the Virginia border, and in Western Maryland, up in the mountains, Vidal said. In the rest of the state, scotch and vodka tend to dominate, he said.

Vidal said the recent practice of holding fancy dinners for cigar smokers has also spurred interest in better bourbons. Men who go to these dinners -- cigar smokers and bourbon drinkers are mostly men -- are in the mood to try fine products, to taste some exquisite forms of sin.

Some liquor-industry analysts predict that these better bourbons will win over customers who are now buying single-malt scotch, another carefully made, expensive spirit.

But David Schroeder, an owner of the Wine Merchant shop in Baltimore County's Green Spring Valley, told me he wasn't so sure this switch would happen. In his experience, a bourbon customer is experimental. He tries different brands: maybe a $13 bottle of Maker's Mark for everyday "pouring," and a $40 bottle of Blanton's for special-occasion "sipping." But a scotch drinker, he said, is different. The scotch drinker cultivates a taste for a favorite elixir and rarely strays.

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