LOUISVILLE — I was speaking to January in late March in Kentucky, and that meant basketball was on in her bar as she built me a Manhattan. Could a visit to my hometown really ever be so perfect?
On screen behind the bar at Proof on Main, five freshmen for the University of Kentucky were handing Wichita State its first loss of the season, setting up a game next weekend against the defending national champions Louisville Cardinals — and tension was already crackling in every corner of the city and would soon be washing over the rest of the Commonwealth like the Ohio River jumping its banks in a spring flood.
I had told January I am in town for the week to do bourbon research — the best kind of work — and asked her to build a Manhattan that would teach me something. She set down a bottle of Antica Formula vermouth and a bottle of Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbonand I knew I was being taken to school.
As she worked in the ice cubes and began to stir, I told her I wanted to talk about the importance of the ‘story’ behind a bourbon in today’s market. It’s my theory — and indeed the premise behind the Bourbon Story Magazine, which will soon launch with editors in cities across America — that even the best-tasting hooch is never going to get anywhere without a tale about how it is made and how it’s somehow connected to the hoary myths of the pre-prohibition days of bourbon’s youth and its frontier-days infancy.
You can see this in the story behind nearly brand: A grand-father’s recipe suddenly discovered, and whiskey aging in a forgotten warehouse suddenly is the magic behind a bottle that’s going to cost you $50. Sometimes, the stories are true. And it’s then that a Kentucky native like myself can feel as it we taste where we came from in the burn of a jolt of bourbon as it marches down our gullet like trail of gun powder leading to a box of dynamite that never quite goes off.
You could see it last year, too, when Maker’s Mark announced it would lower its proof from 90 to 84 and instantly its fan base recoiled. I followed that story in TIME and elsewhere and it was remarkable how quickly the brand’s suffered. Classic bartenders from Houston to San Francisco, on the front lines of the cocktail craze that is doing so much for the premium bourbon industry that Maker’s helped found decades ago, told me they would stop using Maker’s in cocktails. “When you are building a cocktail, you really reach for a higher element of proof as a backbone to stand up against the dilution and other ingredients in the cocktail. A lower proof really makes a significant difference,” explained Alba Huerta, of Houston’s handcrafted-cocktail joint, Anvil Bar and Refuge.
Marker’s Mark recovered, of course. Bill Samuels Jr. and his son, Rob who is now the distillery’s president, reversed course and promised to keep the bourbon the same proof it had always been. The recovery was so complete that many observers argued that Maker’s had staged the whole thing. I never believed that, both because it didn’t make much business sense — Maker’s was already selling out; the problem it faces was one of supply, not demand — and because it underestimated the real damage the move would have done to the brand had Samuels not reversed course so quickly. .
The story of a brand is everything in this market, where a big part of the craze behind the bourbon boom is the same search for authenticity that makes shoppers look for butchers who can tell them where their rib-eyes lived when they were cows, and the same impulse that makes Five Guys burgers hang a chalkboard next to their counter telling you which farm raised the potatoes that became the french fries you’re about to eat.
Maker’s story is one of Bill Samuels’ father inventing a new recipe 50 years ago and resuming the family business with a batch of booze high of winter wheat and long on age. Watered-down bourbon, whether you can taste the difference of not, weakened that story.
That’s what was on my mind as I watched my drink taking shape Sunday. January knew right away what I was taking about. “I call it folklore,” she said adding that it’s not always gospel truth. “Take this,” she said, pointing to the bottle of Angostura bitters she was using to build the drink. “That’s a nice name but there’s no Angostura bark in that bottle.”
The drink she placed in front of me wasn’t cheap — a $19 cocktail is happy hour prices at some places in DC, but they still raise an eyebrow in Louisville — but it was fine. Balanced and with enough high-pitched squeal to cut against the sweetness to remind you that you’re drinking whiskey. I guess that comes from the 100 proof.
As I settled in, I looked at the Bourbon Library on the menu. It’s a nice collection, though in Louisville there are dozens of places that have 50 or more bottles of bourbon on the menu. Still, it tickled me to see that the most expensive Scotch on the list — a $50 glass of Bowmore 12 year old — was matched the Van Winkle family, when it’s available, at prices up to 70 dollars a drink and the 20 year Mitchner’s for $85. Bourbon has definitely gone upscale.
January told me she loves Scotch just fine, and the bar sells plenty of it. But chances are, she said, a whiskey lover who stops in her bar knows where they are, meaning in Kentucky. And Kentucky, means bourbon.
And in March, especially, is also means basketball. Next Friday, about 6 million or so Kentuckians or their spirits will head — in spirit, if not in person — two hours north to Indianapolis to see the Cardinals take on the Cats in the Sweet 16. I trust you don’t need to know what will be in there flasks.
Whoever wins, it will be a helluva story.