Amber Waves of Grain

Mellow yet stout of flavor, silky and smooth of texture, today's boutique bourbons set a new standard for American whiskey.

Today's bourbon drinker is night and day different from the old-timers," says Bill Samuels, president of Maker's Mark and the kind of man who becomes increasingly adamant just listing his own arguments. "He's urban—not rural—better educated, a young professional. I would even suggest that the new bourbon drinker has very little social contact with the traditional bourbon drinker."

What's immediately clear from sipping bourbons like Maker's Mark, Blanton's, Labrot & Graham Woodford Reserve, and Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve is that if the drinkers have parted company with one another, so have the drinks. These are not your father's syrupy, one-note, tonsil-toasting Kentucky whiskies.

That's not to say that these "boutique" bourbons—made in small batches or even bottled from single barrels—aren't mighty stout drink. Most are at least 80 proof (40 percent alcohol), and some, like Jim Beam's undiluted, barrel-proof Booker's, climb above 120. These aren't bourbons made for beginners, any more than most single malts are designed to flatter the palates of first-time scotch consumers. If you've never liked anything about bourbon, these aren't the drinks to change your mind. As with single malts of scotch, the whole point of these whiskies is to "amp up" bourbon's essential bourbon-ness.

On the other hand, the best boutique brands also magnify bourbon's most seductive qualities: mellowness, harmony, toothsome sweetness, and silkiness of texture. There is simply more to taste and feel—extra dimensions of weight and character—than in the standard brands. The small-production bourbons are not only America's answer to single malts; in some cases they are actually even truer to their native soils, using not only on-site spring water, but even locally grown grains (corn, wheat, and rye).

Like single-malt scotches, which were essentially reinvented (at least as export products) by Glenfiddich in the 1960s, boutique bourbons were a drink we didn't know we were missing until we had it. The revelation for most drinkers probably came when giant international marketer Jim Beam's strikingly packaged Knob Creek and Baker's brands hit the shelves in 1992. But the quiet origins of this new standard for American whiskey, and of the new bourbon drinker to appreciate it, can be traced back to 1953 and the leafy precincts of Happy Hollow, just outside of Loretto, Kentucky.

It was here that Bill Samuels' father, Bill Sr., came to start over after basically bagging everything his family had done in whiskey making for 170 years. The family's old T.W. Samuels distillery had shuddered back to life after Prohibition, and finally collapsed after a wartime shutdown of industrial alcohol production. But Bill Sr. wasn't looking to restore the antebellum status quo. He had privately formed the opinion that most of the bourbon that he and his peers at the other distilleries were making wasn't much to brag about.

Bourbon's roots are on America's frontier—in Kentucky, back in the pioneer days of Daniel Boone and the Wild West. The home-stilled whiskey that the early Scottish and Irish immigrants in and around Bourbon County turned out from their neighbors' surplus grain was unusually reliable, thanks to the pure water that bubbled up through central Kentucky's limestone substratum. Bu it was pretty rough-and-tumble stuff, bottled for a less-than-discerning audience.

By the early fifties, whiskey making in Kentucky was well on its way to being what it is today: big-company-dominated (there are dozens of bourbon brands, but only nine working distilleries) and already subject to some of the strictest rules in the world of distilled spirits. Unlike Cognac, for instance, bourbon can't resort to artificial coloring to richen its ruddy-amber hue. The clear alcohol that comes off the still must age naturally in a fire-charred oak barrel to pick up its color. And unlike at scotch distilleries, those oak barrels must be new—no flavoring helper is allowed from used sherry or bourbon casks.

But if the industry had evolved by the time Bill Samuels Sr. staged his one-man revolution, the audience for bourbon somehow had not. The typical consumer might not have sported a coonskin cap, but he was still rural, Southern, and nonaffluent. And the distilleries were lucky to have him.

Whatever chance bourbon had to appeal to a wider, more cosmopolitan crowd had probably gone by the boards during the 13 years of Prohibition, when imported spirits from Scotland, England, and Canada opened up a permanent cachet gap with domestic liquors—which in those days, after all, were moonshine. In 1933, when Prohibition ended, these foreign brands had shiploads of bottles ready for the store shelves, while those bourbon producers who managed to claw their way back into the business at all had to wait another four years or so for their newly distilled liquor to mature in barrel.

The traditional customers who returned to bourbon when it became available again were relieved to have their familiar drink. A few brands, like Wild Turkey, might command a premium price, and there would always be a smattering of extra-aged bourbons around. But by and large, "special bottlings" meant that a distillery poured its standard product into a NASCAR Chevy replica or a ceramic bust of Elvis for the novelty gift market. Few of bourbon's conservative customers demanded pricey, picky refinements in the whiskey itself, and the distilleries gratefully provided none.

In fact, the unchanging nature of the product is many bourbon brands' prime advertising claim. The secret, proprietary recipes for these bourbons have typically been handed down through families (or, these days, generations of corporate officers). "The one thing you never do in the bourbon tradition," notes Bill Samuels Jr., "is to vary from that formula." His father, though determined to change the basis of bourbon appreciation, knew in his bones that he couldn't alter the Samuels family's 100-plus-year-old recipe. So he burned it.

The little ceremony at the family distillery would have been more meaningful had it not been so ill-advised. The blazing document caught the curtains and Bill Jr.'s sister's hair on fire before the flames could be contained. As a gesture, the recipe burning had at least two things in common with the future Maker's Mar distillery: It was iconoclastic, and it threatened to end badly.

There is plenty of debate about how much Maker's Mark influenced the boutique bourbons that began appearing on the market 25 or 30 years later. But the thinking that created Bill Sr.'s new brand goes to the heart of what makes bourbon distinctive, and what you can and cannot do to improve it.

"This was the first time it was even considered desirable to make a bourbon that was smooth and flavorful at the same time," says Bill Jr. "That may sound strong, but it was a very weird objective in 1953."

Samuels' first move was to secure naturally limestone-filtered water: He bought the old Burks distillery in Happy Hollow, then took the localness of the bourbon a step further by signing contracts for grain grown on the same terrain. To qualify legally as a bourbon, Maker's had to include at least 51 percent corn in its "mash bill," but Samuels substituted winter wheat for rye as the flavor grain (along with a portion of malted barley). The wheat, he felt, gave the whiskey a smooth sweetness instead of the sometimes harsh, spicy quality of the rye.

Among other hands-on, technical tinkerings—bear with me here—he fermented his grains in old-style open-top tubs, and gave the liquor a secondary distillation in a copper-pot still for added refinement, an old practice that most distilleries have since returned to. As for aging the whiskey, Samuels settled on a figure of around six years, a point at which the whiskey had mellowed in the barrel but not begun to soak so deep into the oak that it was pulling out harsh tannins. (Distilled spirits do not age or—with any luck—change at all once they are bottled.) In essence, Samuels' whiskey anticipated the boutique bourbons by 30 years in reevaluating all of the traditional parameters for bourbon making: source materials, grain mix, production techniques and equipment, aging, and alcoholic strength.

The revolutionary Maker's Mark hit the stores in 1959 and... nothing much happened. Brown spirits in general were at the threshold of their long, steady decline in this country, and a more expensive bourbon with a lot of hard-to-explain special selling points did not exactly ignite the curiosity of the drinking public. The only thing Bill Samuels had set on fire was the family curtains. "I don't know if Dad knew what a bad business plan he'd made," says Bill Jr. "But we went for 35 years almost ignored by everyone outside Kentucky." Though still run by Samuels Jr. and rigorously true to its roots, Maker's Mark was bought in 1981 and, like nearly every other major distillery, is now corporate-owned.

What eventually boosted Maker's out of regional cult status—and brought about the boomlet in boutique bourbons—was the same shift in American tastes that turned around the fortunes of everything from old-vine Zinfandel to shade-grown-leaf cigars to porterhouse steak. Part retro-chic, part exuberance in flush times, the current turning of the wheel began midway through the 1980s with what Bill Creason, the general manager of Labrot & Graham distillery, describes as a "return to flavor, a reaction to all that vodka."

Part of that reaction was the American (and Japanese) embrace of single-malt scotch. It wasn't lost on the big international companies that control the bourbon business that these high-priced specialty scotches were growing, while traditional blended scotch, like traditional bourbon, was shrinking. They were also appealing to a new, well-heeled, blessedly younger drinking audience.

Though some distillery marketing people will mumble on about how their sophisticated consumers pleaded for fancy new versions of their bourbon—letters pouring in! executives being buttonholed!—the truth of the matter in most cases is probably the opposite. Thanks to the success of single-malt scotches—themselves essentially created whole cloth by marketers—bourbon people realized that there were economically advantaged customers lurking in those urban canyons, and set out to lure them.

Of course, single-malt scotch is at heart a simple concept: the product of a single distillery not blended, as it typically would be, with neutral spirits (in essence vodka). But bourbon isn't blended with neutral spirits to begin with, so what would a "single malt" bourbon look like? Well, it might have some of the features of Maker's Mark—small-batch processing, extra aging, a distinctive grain mix—but few were willing to emulate the experience of Samuels Sr. and revisit the whole bourbon-making process.

Fortunately for them, several distilleries had a secret weapon for short-circuiting the process of reexploration: old guys. At Jim Beam it was Booker Noe; at Wild Turkey, Jimmy Russell; at what became Buffalo Trace (producers of Blanton's), Elmer T. Lee. Each of these master distillers was backed by decades of bourbon knowledge, and knew his company's stocks inside out and the "sweet spots" in the warehouses that cradled the best barrels. The bourbon revolution, the industry's yuppie outreach program, would be led not by young Turks but by a cadre of near-retirees with country accents. The vanguard in this case was the old guard.

Each distillery sought to make its product unique. At Wild Turkey, Jimmy Russell evolved a line with different quality attributes (Rare Breed, for example, is small-batch produced and bottled at barrel proof with no water added; Kentucky Spirit is from single barrels) but whose bottlings bear a striking family resemblance, like notes on a scale. In a similar vein, Jim Beam placed its bets all around the quality-added board, but chose to make its small-batch offerings (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Booker's, and Baker's) different-tasting and, with regard to packaging, seemingly unrelated to one another or to Jim Beam.

At least one boutique went for the Maker's Mark model: Labrot & Graham, whose parent company, Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels, Early Times), shelled out $12 million to restore an historic gem of a distillery from the ground up, including old-style copper-pot stills imported from Scotland (see On the Bourbon Trail). And then there's Blanton's, which pretty much qualifies as the anti-Maker's Mark.

With its globe-shaped, faceted bottle and hokey racehorse stopper, Blanton's looks like what it basically is: a brand created for duty-free shops and the European and Asian gift-giving market. It's contract-distilled at a vast industrial facility as regular Ancient Age, the company's staple, and chosen by distiller Elmer T. Lee from certain barrels (and priced at two or three times Ancient Age). As I sat facing a group of Blanton executives at their small loft offices near the state capital, I had a sinking feeling that here was the sucker side of boutique bourbon.

At first the Blanton's folks told me that this, the original "single-barrel" bourbon back in 1984, was chosen from "the best barrels in the warehouse." But if that were truly the criterion, wouldn't every 25-case batch (roughly the amount contained in one barrel) be different? Oh well, they replied, they're also chosen for consistency. So actually what you're doing is choosing barrels that taste alike? And there have to be a lot of them, right, since you sell 50,000 cases a year? By now everybody around the conference table was getting a little sulky.

Personally, I was nearly ready to write Blanton's off and move on to my next appointment, when they poured me a glass of the stuff. Bless old Elmer T. Lee! In the spectrum of bourbon tastes, Blanton's doesn't have the guts and fire of Wild Turkey, the pure, up-front sweetness of Maker's Mark, or the full, rich mouth feel of Labrot & Graham. But that, as they say, is why they make cars in different colors: Blanton's may just be the smoothest combination of mellowness and subtle, big flavors on the market.

Tasting Blanton's several times since has only confirmed my feeling—and deepened my confusion about these new bourbons and what, really, goes into making them different. Working backward from a desired result—luring a more sophisticated customer—these distilleries found pleasures right under their noses that perhaps only a few canny old hands had been aware of all along. As Bill Jr. puts it: "Bourbon has always been marketed on the basis of tradition, which is not irrelevant—it's just one-dimensional." Now, drinkers far beyond the borders of the Bluegrass State can taste bourbon in its many new and old dimensions.

Talking Straight

ANGEL'S SHARE: The amount of whiskey that evaporates from a barrel as it ages.

HOG TRACKS: The harsh alcohol burn on the sides of the tongue made by a young, unaged whiskey.

HONEY BARREL: The best barrel for a single-barrel or small-batch bottling (selected because, by placement in the aging warehouse, its whiskey has developed better than that of other barrels).

RED LINE: The depth to which a whiskey has soaked into the barrel (and begun to pull out raw oak tannins)—you can see it like a high-water mark on a disassembled barrel stave.

STRAIGHT WHISKEY: Under federal regulation, a predominately grain spirit distilled at under 160 proof, aged in barrel for at least two years (four in Kentucky), and bottle at no less than 80 proof. Includes bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and rye. (Whiskey, by the way, is spelled with an "e" for most American spirits; it's "whisky" for U.K. spirits.)

WHITE DOG: The clear spirit that comes off the still (also called "high wine"), before it picks up color from aging in charred oak.

Labels To Look For

BASIL HAYDEN'S (Jim Beam) $34. Name for the 18th-century distiller whose picture graces the Old Grand-Dad label, and packaged in a goofy paper smock, this distinctive bourbon adds an extra-large portion of rye to its mix, which kicks up the spice and bite.

BLANTON'S $39. Bottled from six- to ten-year-old single barrels selected from stock of Ancient Age, Blanton's is mellow and subtle—a bourbon for single-malt scotch lovers.

ELIJAH CRAIG 18-YEAR-OLD (Heaven Hill) $36. Rich and full-bodied, wafting a big snootful of vanilla and caramel, this is an after-dinner sipping whisky. A single-barrel bottling from Kentucky's last family-owned distillery, Elijah Craig defies the general wisdom that bourbons this old pull out excess tannin and bitterness.

LABROT & GRAHAM WOODFOR RESERVE $27. Blended from prime barrels of old stock, this is potent stuff, with a rich, filled-in palate and a lingering, complex, sweet-oak-and-vanilla aftertaste. In the next couple of years, Kentucky's smallest distillery (from the parent company of Jack Daniel's), which has been newly restored, will bottle the first triple-distilled bourbons from its old-style pot stills.

MAKER'S MARK $20. Meticulously made, Maker's is designed to concentrate the flavor on the sweet receptor at the tip of your tongue, with little in the way of "finish," or carry-through to the back of the palate. It works: With winter wheat substituted for the spicier, more bitter rye, this is the "sweetest," easiest-drinking bourbon around.

WILD TURKEY RARE BREED $30. Distiller Jimmy Russell bottles this straight from a blend of six-, eight-, and 12-year-old barrels, amplifying Wild Turkey's trademark combination of refinement and fire with a mild tannic "grip." They haven't watered it down, but you certainly should.

On The Bourbon Trail

Seven distilleries—Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Austin Nichols (Wild Turkey), Buffalo Trace (Blanton's), and Labrot & Graham—offer visits or tours as part of The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but bear a couple of things in mind: There's no actual trail and, at many stops, there's no bourbon either, at least not for sampling purposes. The distilleries are grouped around two towns in central Kentucky's limestone belt that are about an hour's drive apart: Bardstown (Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker's Mark) and Frankfort (the rest). It's worth obtaining the Bourbon Trail map from your hotel, or contacting the Kentucky Distillers' Association, in Springfield (e-mail: The Commonwealth's legislature finally permitted on-site tasting as of summer 1999, but most distilleries are still studying the advisability of serving visitors.

Distilleries to Visit
Northwest of Bardstown (towards Louisville), Jim Beam's Clermon distillery has the size—and general ambiance—of a small factory town, complete with its own fire engine. There are no tours, but the well-equipped American Outpost gift shop offers all the Beam bourbons, logo wear, and such, plus a short movie and a nicely done small museum. You can taste two of the small-batch bourbons a day (Booker's, Knob Creek, etc.) in the living room of the handsome T. Jeremiah Beam clapboard house next door, a genteel world removed from the industrial site around it. 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, KY 40110; 502-543-2221.

Southeast of Frankfort, Labrot & Graham (the first name rhymes with "no") is a gem, a sleekly refurbished historic distillery set amid the gentle bluegrass hills of some of the state's most prestigious Thoroughbred farms. Tour guides wear name tags inscribed with the slogan "whatever it takes," meaning that an almost over-the-top hospitality is one way this smallest of distilleries plans to put itself on the map. (The fact that it's owned by whiskey-and-wine giant Brown-Forman won't hurt.) From mid-November to mid-December L&G hosts wonderful, substantial daily country buffet lunches. No sampling. 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY 40383; 859-879-1939.

South of Bardstown, Maker's Mark is something of a world unto itself, a quaint group of small black-and-red-trimmed buildings nestled in a valley called Happy Hollow. It's a charmer, with a gleaming copper still and bubbling, open-top cypress fermenters. If you buy a bottle you can dip the neck in Maker's signature red wax yourself. No sampling. 3350 Burks Springs Road, Loretto, KY 40004; 270-865-2099.

Where to Stay & Dine
The Seelbach Hilton in downtown Louisville isn't near any distilleries, but it is, as it bills itself, "the 19th hole of the Bourbon Trail." The bar list is probably the world's most comprehensive bourbon carte, with every known brand on the market (40 plus). The gorgeous Edwardian-style Oakroom, managed by bourbon fanatic Adam Seger and overseen by chef Jim Gerhardt, is a shrine to Kentucky drink and produce. Gerhardt has scouted out artisanal Kentucky ham, lettuces and spoonfish caviar (wonderful), and many of the dishes include a nongimmicky bourbon component, like the Labrot & Graham-marinated pork chop with spicebush berries in a country ham reduction sauce, served with pawpaw relish. 500 4th Avenue, Louisville, KY 40202; 502-807-3463.

If you prefer more straight-ahead country fare, visit Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown, where Marilyn "Toogie" Dick has turned out many a true Kentucky Fried Chicken (skillet fried, that is), and where her mother once spent many a meal debating the same with her late friend, Colonel Harlan Sanders. Genuine red-eye gravy, skillet-fried cornbread, and biscuit pudding are just a few of the other enticements. 418 E. Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502-348-5983.

Richard Nalley covered northern Rhône reds in the January/February 2001 issue of Departures.