A devotee discusses 'bourbon renewal'

October 04, 1998|By Rob Kasper

FOR MOST imbibers, bourbon is a cool-weather beverage. In the fall, the mixed drinks, like the landscape, turn brown. But in the summer, cocktails are made with gin or vodka. Which was why one sweltering summer day I asked Frederick Booker Noe Jr., the big bubba of the bourbon world, if he ever sipped a little gin. "Gin?" He shuddered. It was no small shudder. Booker is massive in appearance and manner. His frame overflowed the sumptuous chairs in the lobby of Baltimore's Omni Hotel.

"Gin?" he repeated. The grandson of Jim Beam looked at me as if I didn't have good sense, like a fellow who needed to be hit upside the head with a walking stick, the kind Booker held in his thick hands.

Booker let it be known that he is a year-round bourbon man. While other sippers may make the seasonal switch to gin and club soda in the summer, Booker merely adds an occasional ice cube to his bourbon and water.

"One ice cube will take care of the heat," he said. "If the bourbon gets real cold, you miss out on the flavor."

Getting folks to stop and sniff the bourbon is Booker's mission these days. He is a point man for bourbon renewal, the campaign of whiskey makers to get folks to appreciate boutique bourbons. These are bourbons made in small batches, given special treatment as they age in the rackhouse, and sold at premium prices, as much as $45 a fifth for a bottle of Booker's, the unfiltered, straight-from-the-barrel, 6-year-old bourbon that carries the name of a former master distiller for Jim Beam Brands.

Booker, 68, crisscrosses the country presiding over bourbon tastings like the one that was held at the Omni. He points out the subtleties of better bourbon, its color, its aroma, its finish. And he tells a few tales.

He is well-equipped to do both. He grew up in the bluegrass of Kentucky, surrounded by relatives who made corn whiskey or, as it is better known, bourbon. After 40 years he retired from daily distillery duty, only to be summoned into service as a combination oral historian - Abe Lincoln liked bourbon - and connoisseur.

When I met Booker, I tried to get tips on bourbon appreciation. The first tip Booker passed along was that in the summer, you don't stop drinking bourbon, you merely add an ice cube to your glass.

Another tip dealt with how much water should be added to a serving of better bourbon. Sometimes Booker drinks his bourbon straight, with no water. But since these small-batch bourbons have such a high alcohol content - Booker's, for instance, is over 120 proof - Booker usually prefers a "tall water." This, he said, is a mixture made with three parts water to one part bourbon. This ratio, he said, allows you to appreciate the fine points of the bourbon without getting overpowered by its alcohol.

Booker is a stickler about the kind of water he mixes with his bourbon. He prefers bottled water, because unlike some tap water it has virtually no chlorine taste, which, he said, can block the finer flavors of bourbon.

Finally, Booker gave me his recipe for mint juleps. He said he puts a quart jar of mint leaves in a pan, then adds 2 cups of granulated sugar and 2 cups of water. He brings the mixture to a boil, then lets it cool, and strains the leaves.

He puts a half ounce of the mint mixture in the bottom of a glass, packs the glass with pulverized ice, then adds two ounces of bourbon.

I was going to tell Booker my recipe for a gin rickey, but thought better of it.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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