Let's get one thing straight (or on the rocks, if you prefer): Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky. The whiskey with a French name does have to be made in the United States, under a 1961 federal law, and it does have to be made of at least 51 percent corn, and it does have to be aged in charred oak barrels. But it does not have to come from the Bluegrass State. That's just where it more or less started (in the Colonial Bourbon region, which included Kentucky's current Bourbon County), and where most of it is produced.
Until relatively recently, bourbon played off Kentucky's down-home image. It was unpretentious, honest, accessible (the sweetness of the corn makes it friendly to whiskey dilettantes), a workingman's drink that could also accompany a lawyer's poker game. But that was your Old Grand-Dad's bourbon. Things have changed in the increasingly trend-conscious spirit realm, with booze of all kinds aiming for a younger, hipper, upscale demographic. Bourbon has gotten on board, with distilleries producing small-batch whiskeys with posh names in distinctive bottles. If your only notion of high-end bourbon is Maker's Mark, with its melted-wax seal, it may be time to revisit the genre.
A good place to do that is the Public House, the fine new bar on Magnolia just north of the Old City that also seems to be aiming for a younger, hipper, upscale demographic. It recently added four bourbons to its drinks roster, and it offers a "bourbon flight" for $9, which gets you one-ounce servings of any three of them.
I usually have a bottle of bourbon around the house (Knob Creek, at the moment), but it is not my go-to drink. That's why I gathered a small tasting panel of more dedicated bourbonites—my drink-savvy friend Zak, and Metro Pulse staff writer Cari Wade Gervin. We ordered two flights featuring all four of the Public House's labels and sat down to sip.
"It's a seasonal thing for me," Zak says. "I like brown liquors when it's cold." He allows that he prefers Scotch, with its more subtle shades—"Bourbon has no smoke, it's just corn juice"—but there are times on blustery days when the sweeter kick is welcome.
Cari came by bourbon the old-fashioned way: stealing it from her parents. "They had a large liquor cabinet for entertaining purposes, but they didn't really drink liquor," she says. "So when I started very occasionally drinking in high school, that was the easiest thing to sneak out of the liquor cabinet, because nobody drank bourbon." She graduated to Jim Beam in college, "and then I discovered better whiskey."
All four of these bourbons at the Public House actually come from the same distillery, Buffalo Trace in Franklin County, Kentucky. One of the oldest distilleries in the state (it was even allowed to operate for "medicinal purposes" during Prohibition), it was also the category leader in the move toward boutique bourbon. Then known as the George T. Stagg Distillery, in 1984 it brought the first commercial single-barrel bourbon to market. It was rechristened Buffalo Trace in 1999, and introduced the bourbon of the same name.
Besides that eponymous brand, the Public House has Old Charter 8 Year, W.L. Weller 12 Year, and Elmer T. Lee. Old Charter and W.L. Weller are 19th century Kentucky labels that have changed hands several times over the years. Elmer T. Lee, meanwhile, is a single-barrel bourbon named for the longtime distillery employee credited with dreaming up the single-barrel concept.
As it happened, none of us cared much for the Buffalo Trace itself—it's easy to overdo the sweetness in bourbon, and the vanilla oakiness struck us as cloying. The Old Charter seemed the most traditional (not surprisingly, it's also the cheapest), and by traditional I mean it had the most obvious bite and back-of-the-throat burn. The Weller was complex by comparison, a factor of its aging and maybe also its secondary grain; unlike most bourbons, it uses wheat rather than rye to complement the corn. "I could taste the char more than the oak, along with some butter, pepper and pecan," Cari says of it, bringing to bear the kind of tasting notes that have only recently begun to accrue to bourbon. It was good.
Then there was the Elmer T. Lee, which was the smoothest of the lot. Maybe too smooth. We all liked it, but it somehow didn't quite say "bourbon"—something more like, "bourbon with aspirations to Scotch." And that may be the trick for bourbon-makers as they compete for space on the top shelf. It's one thing to dress up the corn whiskey and take it to town. But you don't want to forget where it came from.