Monday, June 20, 2011
And That HappenedPosted by Craig Calcaterra
Look, I ain't gonna lie to you. I lost track of baseball for a couple of days. You'll have that when you visit five distilleries and take in all manner of food, music, and odd, assorted -- and a few sordid -- people, all in places where the drink menus are longer than most metropolitan telephone directories.
So yes, I still have the recaps from yesterday's games for you, but since the games didn't involve charred white oak barrels and nice vanilla/caramel balance at first followed by a nice spicy finish, my mind wandered a bit (a lot) while writing these, so let's just consider today's installment a bourbon primer with a baseball chaser, OK? Thanks for indulging me.
Red Sox 12, Brewers 3: A six run inning -- with a Kevin Youkilis three-run bomb -- iced this one for Boston before it even got going. Speaking of ice, don't listen to that whiskey snob you know who says that you should never add ice to your pour. Indeed, most experts will tell you that ice -- or a few splashes of water -- will bring out some other flavors and aromas in the bourbon that you may not be able to appreciate neat. Just don't drown it, you know?
Rays 2, Marlins 1: James Shields threw a four-hit complete game with 10Ks. Florida loses its tenth straight, with added disorientation given Edwin Rodriguez's resignation right before the game. Speaking of disorientation, I found that despite all of the great bourbon I sampled over the weekend, I wasn't really ever inebriated. There's always something, be it a well-timed meal or a fairly lengthy drive between destinations -- plus the fact that you're savoring good stuff rather than just glugging down grog -- that sort of encourages moderation on this kind of trip. Didn't really lose a step all weekend, which was not something I expected.
Twins 5, Padres 4: Drew Butera singled in Delmon Young in the bottom of the ninth as the Twins won their seventh straight. Speaking of Old No. 7, Did you know what keeps Jack Daniels from being a bourbon? It's dripped through ten feet of packed maple charcoal after the distilling process is over and before it's put in barrels. And Jack Daniels uses red oak, not white oak. Subtle differences, but enough to give it a totally different taste profile. I've never really cared much for Jack Daniels, and I'm guessing it's that maple charcoal thing going on.
Reds 2, Blue Jays 1: The Reds had gone 16 innings without scoring, but Miguel Cairo's two-run homer in the sixth broke that streak and gave the Reds enough offense to win it. The Blue Jays had owned Bronson Arroyo before yesterday, but he made people forget that. Speaking of owning, the world of Kentucky bourbon is a lot more consolidated than you may think, with any given distillery producing both high end stuff and rotgut. It's so easy with beers and wines to get prejudiced against various producers who make stuff you don't like, even when they dress it up with fancy labels, but you gotta let that go with bourbon. Don't like Jim Beam? Hey, don't drink it, but don't let your feelings toward it sour you on their high end Bookers. Don't like Buffalo Trace? Well, get used to the fact that the best stuff I ever buy -- Blanton's -- is made by the same people. It doesn't take a fundamentally different corporate mindset to make a premium product in the world of whiskey. It only takes the will and some time, because it only takes a few tweaks and some extra space in the rick house to make a super fine product, not some massive change in a company's priorities.
Mariners 2, Phillies 0: Jason Vargas shuts out the Phillies on three hits. Speaking of three hits, Woodford Reserve prides itself on triple distilling its hooch, which it does in these three awesome and massive copper pot stills. No one else distills three times. They claim that's what makes their stuff so special. I don't know enough about all of that to know if it truly makes a big difference. Why wouldn't anyone else distill three times if that was a game-changer? It's great stuff, though, I can't deny it. Maybe it's because they easily have the best employee of any distillery. He's so dedicated he takes all of his meals on site!
White Sox 8, Diamondbacks 2: Paul Konerko homers for the third straight day as the Snakes drop two of three to the White Sox. Speaking of white, did you know that, when they put it in the barrels after distilling, the whisky is totally clear like water? This is known as "white dog," or as it's more commonly known, "white lightning." Or more commonly know than that, "moonshine." Yes, the only real difference between illegal, redneck moonshine and smooth, refined sippin' whiskey is the fact that it's aged in those charred oak barrels, transforming that color and, of course, adding some mellow woody flavors. Some distilleries -- notably Heaven Hill -- are starting to bottle the white dog and sell it, presumably cutting it just enough to make it legal. I'm not sure who on Earth would want that. I have in-laws in West Virginia who have procured me real moonshine before. It's horrifyingly bad, no matter what you do with it. I'm assuming 90% of the bottled white dog will be sold either (a) to dumb kids who want to pretend to be badasses; or (b) ironically.
Dodgers 1, Astros 0: A Dioner Navarro homer was the only scoring of the game. Speaking of thin lines, when they empty a barrel for bottling following the aging process, you can look at the cross section of the barrel staves and see a thin reddish line an inch or two into the wood. That's how far the bourbon soaks into the wood during aging, slowly seeping in and out as the heat in the rick house changes and the barrels and their contents expand and contrast.
Tigers 9, Rockies 1: The AP game story (and I presume others who watched the game too) said that Justin Verlander didn't have his best stuff. Yet he still retired 13 of the first 14 batters he faced en route to a complete game, so even his not-so-best stuff is pretty special. Speaking of retired, the retired master distiller of Woodford Reserve has continued to dabble in the business, and his latest creation just came out. It's called Angel's Envy, and it's different than other bourbons in that, after the normal aging, its transferred to port wine barrels for a few months to give it all kinds of weird fruity, chocolatey and other port-esque flavors. I didn't try any down there, but I bought a bottle because I am intrigued.
Cardinals 5, Royals 4: The win is a win -- a walkoff homer by Skip Schumaker -- but it's cold comfort compared to Albert Pujols' wrist/shoulder injury, the severity and extent of which we'll know more about today. Speaking of comfort -- or, comfort food anyway -- there is no breakfast more fantastic for a day's worth of imbibing than the stuff you can get at Lynn's Paradise Cafe in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville. This is what I had on Saturday morning. This is what the missus had. Yeah, we were comforted.
Orioles 7, Nationals 4: The Nats' eight game winning streak comes to a halt as Chris Jakubauskas pitched five decent innings and got a couple of hits as well to help the Orioles salvage the final game of the series. Speaking of versatility, did you know that Jame Beauregard Beam -- who ran Jim Beam when Prohibition hit -- managed to continue making money hand over fist running quarries, coal mines and owning orange groves until Prohibition was lifted? Did you also know that it took every ounce of will power I had not to ask the tour guide if, in fact, Beam actually continued to secretly make whiskey, using subterfuge and payoffs to the feds? Because that seems way more likely to me. In fact, at every distillery I went to, they told some tale about how the forefathers survived prohibition, and all I could think was "yeah, they survived it by still making whiskey, dude."
Athletics 2, Giants 1: Despite staggering into this series, the A's sweep their cross-bay rivals. Speaking of unexpected, the missus and I sat at the bar at the Brown Hotel for two nights, each night sampling more different bourbons than any sane person should sample, and I'll be damned if the one I didn't enjoy the most was a glass of plain old Old Fitz. I ordered it, not because I thought it would be great, but rather, in homage to Hunter S. Thompson, who orders one in the airport bar at the beginning of "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." And man, I liked it. I really liked it. I'm not sure if that says more about the simple things in life being the best or more about how one's imagination can fool you into all manner of baloney if you let it. But it was good.
Braves 4, Rangers 2: Jason Heyward hit a two-run single and Freddie Freeman had and RBI double. Speaking of the young doing good things, I think one of the more enlightening things of the past couple of days came while tasting at the lovely Heaven Hill tasting room in Bardstown. The two samples: their Ezra Brooks single barrel and their 18-year-old Elijah Craig. The Brooks was fantastic. Even if you'd never drink a black label Brooks -- and I wouldn't blame you -- do try the single barrel, as it may stand as the greatest discovery of the trip for me. In contrast, they talk up the Elijah Craig as something awesome because bourbon is rarely allowed to age for 18 years, and thus it's supposed to have all kinds of complex things going on with it and blah blah blah. Know what? "Complex" and "bourbon" aren't necessarily best friends. This isn't wine or scotch. This is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. It is America's official spirit. In keeping with that legal designation -- and yes, Congress so designated it once upon a time -- a certain immediacy and directness is called for that isn't quite delivered when we pretend that our bourbon is scotch and that it needs more time in the barrel. It doesn't. When I want complex I'll drink something complex, but I no more want an overly-complicated drink when I'm in the mood for bourbon than I want some vaguely European dandy to give me the double talk when I want someone to tell me how it is, get me?
Angels 7, Mets 3: Tyler Chatwood pitched seven scoreless. The Mets' three runs in the ninth were basically an afterthought. Speaking of afterthoughts, for reasons that are still unclear to me, the missus and I stumbled up Fourth Street from the Brown Hotel to the little roped-off party central area of Louisville called "Fourth Street Live." What you find there: lots of chain bars and restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and very corporate feeling Irish Pubs. On Friday night they also happened to have a free concert, featuring some hot country band (as in the genre "hot country") called Thompson Square. A husband and wife duo that, while catchy enough, pretty much tells you everything that is wrong with hot country. When they had the most fun -- and, frankly, when we in the crowd had the most fun -- was when they did goofy stuff like covers of New Kids on the Block and Joan Jett which, while cute, belied their true pop influences and showed that the country in their sound was barely skin deep and probably more calculated than anything. I can't say it wasn't fun to be out on the street on a nice warm early summer evening, fueled by wonderful brown liquor and enjoying a festive atmosphere, but I can't say I felt great about it all either. I probably overthink this stuff.
Yankees 10, Cubs 4: Tied 4-4 until the eighth inning when Nick Swisher hit a tie-breaking three-run homer as New York pulled away for an easy win. The crowd at Wrigley was a kind of crazy, with lots of New York fans there chanting for the Yankees and all of the interest in the Bombers playing on the north side leading to a three-day attendance record at Wrigley. Speaking of outsiders sort of invading, on the way to Woodford Reserve, one passes through the heart of Kentucky horse country, where there sit horse farms with gates that appeared to -- and almost certainly did -- cost more than my house. On those gates are names like "Dubai Arab Farms" and stuff like that, suggesting how crazy international interest has shaped that business. Go a ways up the road and you can see some of their horses just prancing around the most picturesque pastures you've ever seen. Taking this all in, I was struck by the notion that anyone who hopped a fence there and got within 200 yards of one of those horses would likely be shot on site and no jury in that county would convict the shooter.
Indians 5, Pirates 2: Cord Phelps with a dramatic three-run walkoff job in the 11th inning. Speaking of dramatic, the problem you have with anything as old as bourbon making, is that all of the good old stories are sort of lost in the mists of time. At each distillery there is some variation of the story of the founding of bourbon told, be it in an interpretive center or a movie or in a booklet or what have you. Sometimes the reverend Elijah Craig accidentally discovered bourbon making when some barrels were burnt in a fire and he decided to use them anyway. Sometimes it was intentional because he had some harebrained idea. At least three distilleries claim to be the oldest ... something, be it "continuously operating" or "currently situated on this site" or "using the same recipe" or whatever in all of America. Unlike the California wine industry, for example, there just isn't anyone alive anymore who can tell you how stuff really went down. And since 3/4 of all distilleries have someone named "Beam" working for them, there's even more incentive to lie and fudge and all of that.
I found this troubling for a little while because I really wanted to learn things on my trip, but to be honest, this may be all apart of that "official American spirit" thing. America is kind of full of beans itself (in the best sense of the term), so why shouldn't one of its signature industries be too?
Hell, baseball is the same way and I love it too, so maybe it doesn't matter.
Craig writes the HardballTalk blog for NBC Sports.com