Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival - Bourbon

On Saturday April 5th 2008, we attended the 2nd Annual Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival held at the Timonium Fairgrounds, Maryland. We intended to spend a day away from wine and sample various craft beers and America's native spirit: Bourbon. Our first task was to learn more about this spirit so we headed immediately to the first seminar of the day: "The Wonderful World of Bourbon" - hosted by Wild Turkey Distillery's Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. Mr. Russell has worked at the distillery since 1954 and humorously and honestly guided the audience through the definition of Bourbon - to government regulations - to sampling 5 different Wild Turkey brands.

Bourbon was first distilled in Bourbon County Kentucky in the late 1700s. Elijah Craig is considered the inventor of bourbon, since he was probably the first to age the whiskey in charred oak barrels. Today, this whiskey is the most restricted spirit in the United States in which the government regulates its definition and receives 65% of the retail price in taxes. At one time, Federal Agents even possessed the keys to the distilleries and opened and locked the doors before and after working hours. By definition, a whiskey can be called bourbon when
  • It is made in the United States.
  • It is made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
  • It is distilled to no more than 160 proof.
  • It is aged to no more than 125 proof.
  • It is 100% natural (nothing other than water added to the mixture).
  • It is aged in new, American White Oak, charred barrels. Once used, the barrels are sold for other uses - primarily whiskey aging.
At Wild Turkey, Mr Russell attempts to create a consistent flavor with each batch. This consistency is evident in the Wild Turkey 101 - made from a blend of 6, 8, and 10 year old bourbons. Each bottle has virtually the same caramel and vanilla notes with a sweet tail. We next tried the Russell's Reserve Bourbon made from batch of 100 barrels 10 years to proof. This was good - but there's something about the flagship 101. Mr. Russell fought the idea of producing a single barrel product because it was incompatible with his goals to produce a consistent bourbon. After reluctantly agreeing to work with market forces, every year he designates barrels with a similar taste and uses these for their Single Barrel Bourbon. Their Rare Breed is an interesting bourbon, its made to barrel proof - in that no water is added - from a blend of 6, 8, and 10 year old bourbons. This was our favorite - and since it has a touch of tobacco - would be great with a cigar. Finally we tried their American Honey Liquor, basically the same Wild Turkey 101 with honey and spices added. This aperitif is popular as an after dinner drink or as Mr. Russell uses it: with lemonade or over ice cream.

Upon leaving the seminar we found ourselves at the lone whiskey booth: Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. While sampling their excellent Single Barrel 94 Whiskey - we learned about sour mash, charcoal filtering, and the historical tradition of America's oldest registered distillery. Jack Daniel's whiskey is unique because the whiskey is filtered - drop-by-drop - through ten feet of hard sugar maple charcoal. Along with the sour mash process (where a portion of the previous batch is added to the next batch) this filtration mellows the whiskey before it is aged in the barrel.

Directly across was a display of several well known Jim Bean brands: Knob Creek, Bookers, Bakers, and Basil Hayden. The Basil Hayden bourbon is unique in that it consists of just over 51% corn, whereas most distillers use over 70% corn. Basil Hayden uses more rye to offset the lower amount of corn which produces a lighter bodied bourbon. This profile was popular among the beer drinkers at the event. The Basil Hayden bourbon also has a tie to the state of Maryland because the brand is named after Basil Hayden, a Maryland Catholic who, in the late 1780s, led a group of pioneers from Maryland into what is now Nelson County, Kentucky (near Bardstown). There Hayden founded the first Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

We made sure we visited Maker's Mark next, and while waiting for our souvenir baseball dipped in wax, learned what makes this bourbon popular, besides the distinctive red wax seal and drip marks. Maker's Mark is made without rye. Instead barley and winter wheat is combined with corn to produce a smoother spirit - even before aging. The barrels are rotated from top to bottom in the warehouse, which helps create a different flavor profile. As a result, this spirit does not require a long aging process and can be bottled by taste, not age.

At this point in the day, after two hours of not spitting, we decided to be a little more discriminatory in our tasting. We skipped the Buffalo Trace booth since we are very familiar with their Blantons, Ancient Age, and Buffalo Trace brands and headed to the small batch booths. To our surprise the first we tried was a Buffalo Trace brand: Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon. This is a great bourbon - somewhat nutty - almost chewy - but still smooth throughout. The next was the Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon. This is a lighter bourbon with a honey and vanilla aroma and soft finish. Coming after the Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel probably didn't help its cause. The final table contained small patch brands from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. These were all excellent bourbons and we recommend trying all. Our favorite was the Kentucky Vintage and this may become our everyday bourbon. Sorry Ancient Age 10 Year. It is made in the Sour Mash fashion (although I guess almost all straight bourbons are made in this fashion) and has a medium body with caramel flavors. Those who prefer a more potent drink, try their Pure Kentucky XO aged to 107 proof or their Noahs Mill aged to 114 proof. After the initial burn, these bourbons are loaded with the usual vanilla and caramel flavors and a long-long sweet finish. It may even be advisable to add a touch of water to these last two brands to reduce the tannins. The final bourbon tasted for the day was their Rowan’s Creek, a 100 proof bourbon that is a little more fruitier than its cousins. It also has the most flavorful aroma. Why did I prefer the Kentucky Vintage?

For bourbon lovers, this was a great opportunity to sample various styles without having to pay for the entire bottle. Our hope for next year is that more corporate representatives will be available to discuss their brands - but thanks to Jimmy Russell and the reps from Makers Mark and Jack Daniels for spending time with us. Bourbon truly is "America's Native Spirit".

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