On a Wednesday night, I’m on Oxford Street in Sydney to taste bourbon. I’m not sure if I like bourbon or if I can tell the difference between bourbon and whisky or if bourbon isn’t kind of the poor relative of scotch and Irish whiskey.
For me, bourbon has only been drunk with Coke, late at night or after sailing. I don’t know if I like it – so I’m here to learn. At the front door of Vintage Cellars in Paddington, I’m checked off a list. The young woman at the door tells me that I will be given boovardeyay cocktail.
“What’s that?” I say, “a boovardeyay?”
She smiles and says, “I don’t know,” she tries again and comes up with another series of random vowels and consonants starting with “b” and ending in “ay.”
She smiles again. For some people, that’s enough. She’s young and I’m convinced her smile has disarmed more significant people than me, so I move on.
I go in and the brightly lit shop floor of Vintage Cellars on Oxford Street is set up with tables populated with placemats covered in five glasses of bourbon of varying shades of caramel colour. There is also a table groaning under the weight of very fine antipasto, cured meats, cheese and rustic bread.
I consider antipasto to be one of the greatest inventions of all of Italy. Bugger the radio, electricity, the telephone, pasta, the Ferrari, really (really) good wine or a thousand excellent ways to eat a tomato, antipasto – that’s genius.
I enter and with my drinking companion stake out a place at one of the tables. We are then quickly served a cocktail. It’s a Boulevardier. The girl at the door was trying to say Boulevardier. A Boulevardier is: whisky, sweet vermouth and Campari. Essentially, it’s a Negroni with whisky instead of gin.
It’s cold, black in colour and tastes of stone fruit and sugar. The first few tastes are delicious but after that, it’s a plum pudding of a drink. And kind of hard work. But it’s in a big square glass with a big square ice cube which is clear as a baby’s conscience and it’s nice. It’s after work and I’m tired and I drink it.
Of bourbon fanciers and idiots
The room is suddenly full of people who have been invited and people who are there for work representing the company selling bourbon, or people who it seems are bourbon fanciers.
Next to me as a man of my age (50 + GST) dressed in after-work clothes of a dark blue suit and maroon tie. There is a couple in matching check shirts, jeans and pointy-toed RM Williams boots who will reveal themselves through the event to be bourbon specialists – answering questions from the MC and displaying a really thorough knowledge of the process of making bourbon, the manufacturers of bourbon and the different styles.
Then there are the idiots. The ones who ask the same question repeatedly or talk for the love of the sound of their voice. The young Italian MC does his best to manage these guys and he’s good at it, first entertaining their single question (what’s the recipe?) then eventually shutting them down.
After all the speaking is finished, the balding 50-something guy in the heavy framed glasses and 1970’s Columbia-graduate school jumper askes the same question and the MC, maintaining his cool and his charm, says: “why don’t you look it up on the internet – it’s there.”
I couldn’t really do a review of this event without talking about the MC. He’s young, he’s Italian, he knows a lot about alcohol and he’s passionate about bourbon. He explains the history of bourbon, which to be frank is a little murky; how it’s made; and how the master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell whose product we are drinking are devoted to it.
He’s dressed in a suit. But not just any suit – it’s dark blue and so tightly cut that getting dressed and undressed every morning and evening must be a labour of love. His trousers, for example, are so figure-hugging they ought to be reclassified as leggings; they are cut to show a lot of ankle and he’s sockless and wearing loafers.
He pulls it off though – in the way that only Italians can. I have a friend who is from Milan. He once came to lunch wearing red leather trousers. No one batted an eye, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s almost a superpower to be able to make ridiculous clothes look absolutely great.
The story behind the bourbon
Someone very, very lucky from Coles Liquor (owner of Vintage Cellars) got to go to Kentucky, specifically to Wild Turkey to taste the single-barrel bourbons and to bring them back to Australia. They were supposed to be buying three barrels, but using Australian charm and alcohol, ended up buying five.
They bought five because most bourbon is blended. They make as much as they can, and age it in barrels for at least four years. If it’s aged for less than four years (and it can be as little as three months) it has to say that on the label.
Bourbon is aged in new barrels in giant wooden barns called rickhouses. The different barrels and the different spots in the rickhouses, and the different amount of sun or rain or wind that hits the different spots means that the Bourbon has different qualities, depending on where in the rickhouse it was stored. And not just mildly different, but wildly different. When they tasted this bourbon – Russell’s Reserve – they realised it was very good and they wanted to buy as much as possible.
Stop for a minute to consider the science.
I’m sorry about this but I’m going to do a bit of science here to explain something. First, let’s start with humans. We’re pattern-seeking animals. We are hard-wired to look for order in things, so we seek to measure things and develop systems to explain the world. We look for patterns in the weather, we seek them in animals and each other, and we seek them in alcohol.
The best way to understand this is that we seek a benchmark or something that we can anchor an idea to. In whisky and bourbon, we look for characteristics and they are: smoky, salty, floral, sweet, oily, vanilla and fruity. When you talk about a whisky or a bourbon you talk about those characteristics.
We talk about these things because no two barrels of whisky or bourbon are the same. They have different flavour characteristics, they are more or less porous, and they have more or less sunlight on them. No two distillations are the same. Bourbon generally consists of corn (75%), rye (13%) and malted barley (12%), except that every distiller will have their own recipe and their own suppliers that they buy from.
For example, for Russell’s Reserve, the guys from Kentucky only use German rye, because they believe it is better. They only use American oak for the barrels, and they don’t chill-filter the good stuff, because they want to preserve the flavour.
The bit about drinking.
The Russell brothers (Jim and Eddie) are master distillers. They work for Wild Turkey in Kentucky and have so for all their lives. They make mostly Wild Turkey – blending vast quantities of bourbon to make the best possible product they can for the most people.
Over time they have noticed that a small number of the barrels they have been tasting have been exceptional and they have been hiding them to age them a little bit longer and to keep them for themselves to keep them away from the bulk blending process. Now, they are selling them and Australia – thanks to Coles Liquor – has five of them.
And they are good. Not just kind of good or sort of good or probably worth it. Seriously good. Bourbon is 110 proof – which means it’s full of alcohol and if you don’t know what you are doing, this means the drink will be stripped of flavour or so heavily sugared that’s it’s horrible to drink.
But, these single-barrel bourbons aren’t. They are full of caramel and vanilla flavours, too good to be mixed with anything else, and are best enjoyed over ice, by a fire with someone you fancy. Buy some, add them to your whisky cabinet and if you add Coca Cola to it, I am reliably informed that the people from Kentucky will find out about it and hunt you down and kill you. It would be regarded as justifiable homicide – so, for heaven’s sake, only drink it neat, or with the tiniest drop of water.