The Bourbon Renaissance

John Autry
by Joe Bargmann - Kentucky - Feb/March 2010

Kentucky's finest has never tasted better

My fascination with bourbon started when I was a kid. Standing in my grandmother’s kitchen doorway, I watched in awe as she reached into a cabinet, grabbed a pint bottle of bourbon, and took a glug that would have made Godzilla gasp. Then she looked at me and said, “Courage.”

Following the family script, I, too, grew to love bourbon. But the notion of the whiskey’s being “good” or “bad” didn’t enter my mind until many years later, in the late 1980s, when the premium bourbon trend started. As with high-end vodkas or microbrewed beers, the trend grew in the 1990s and continues to this day, evidenced by an array of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, made with carefully selected barrels and increased aging times. “What you were drinking twenty years ago doesn’t compare to what you can get today,” says Mary Ellyn Hamilton, curator of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky. “You drank the big brands, your Old Grand-Dad and Jim Beam. They were good, but now you have really good and excellent labels to choose from.”

Here, informed by decades of trial and error—and a recent informal tasting with a trusted friend—are four of my favorites.

The Brute
Eagle Rare 10-Year-Old, Single Barrel, $30

Eagle Rare is one of the Buffalo Trace family of bourbons, which includes the eponymous brand, plus popular old labels such as Ancient Age and W. L. Weller. Whiskey production on the site of the current distillery dates back to about 1787, but Eagle Rare debuted much later, in 2001.

Taste test
I had seen the word oily in some reviews of Eagle Rare. It’s an accurate description: The stuff is viscous bordering on chewy. I smelled tobacco when I put my nose over the rim of the glass, tasted oak and toast with the first sip, and was delighted by the sweet and spicy finish. Brand manager Kris Comstock won’t reveal the recipe, or mash-bill, proportions but says the mix is corn, rye, and malted barley.

How to drink it
The robust flavor makes Eagle Rare ideal for mixing in an old-fashioned, with bitters, a bit of sugar, and an orange-slice garnish.