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Fine Kentucky bourbon never overwhelms you with its history, but instead entertains you with a lifetime of colorful stories, says the manager of Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville. Louisville, called Looavul, Luhvul, Louevill, Looeyville depending on who is saying it, is the bourbon capital of the world and home of the Kentucky Derby. This is where the Mint Julep tours can take you on a trail to show you how bourbon or American whisky is made and drunk.
“I’ll have a Mint Julep please,” I said as I slid onto the bar stool at Doc Crows, the best place for Southern food in Louisville. “Have yer ever had one before?” asked the bartender, his lips hidden under his bushy beard, his big eyes smiling above it. “Nope,” I said “but when in Rome,” I said trailing off. And he said, “May I suggest the Old Fashioned instead.” Mint Juleps he felt tasted like cough medicine to some. Once you have tasted it, you can keep on drinking it but if I wanted to taste something I might enjoy, then the Old Fashioned would be the Bourbon cocktail he would recommend. A small curl of orange peel bobbed snuggly with the ice cubes. One sip and I was hooked.
Emboldened by a few sips I asked the man sitting next to me at the bar if he had ever had a Mint Julep and he said he was a local and sure he had had Mint Juleps. After exchanging thoughts on how bourbon is drunk, my husband was sipping bourbon like a connoisseur that is ‘neat’ or in other words with no diluents like water, ice or soda, the man whose name was Pat said to me, “you won’t believe I had a heart attack this Thursday and got a stent put in.”
“ This Thursday, this Thursday, did you say this Thursday? For heavens sake it is only Saturday today.”
“Yes,” he said, “This Thursday, two days ago I went to the Jewish hospital and a doctor, Dr. Singh as a matter of fact, put a stent in and now I am not allowed to drink bourbon,” he said looking disgustedly at the red wine glass his wife thrust into his hands.
“I am thinking of taking him on the wine trail in Napa,” she said. “He has to look after his health now.”
Bourbon is American whisky. If it is not made in America it is not Bourbon. In 1964 the United States Congress recognized it as a “distinctive product of the United States”. No product called Bourbon may be imported. It is made from at least 51% corn and stored in a new container of charred oak. The oak barrels, used only one time, give bourbon its reddish color and distinctive taste.
The recipe changes with each distillery, Jim Beam, Forrestor, Heavens Hill, Woodford to name a few, balance the different elements of sweetness and smokiness to craft their distinct tastes. Some establishments craft their own custom blends by requesting the distilleries to vary the cask, and thereby changing the taste. They add different strips of wood to vary the finish, said the guide at Makers Mark distillery as we take in a tour.
Big vats bubble with the fermenting drink. The guide invites us to stick our finger in to scoop a taste. Who knew that the sweet taste of wheat hangs out in the front of the tongue while the bitter rye kicks in only at the back of the tongue? A flight of six Makers Mark bourbons awaits us at the end of the tour.
A Mr. Mark does not bottle Makers Mark. Rob Samuels, who settled there in 1780 was the first of now eight generations of Samuels family distillers. He was a Scots Irish. Margie Samuels, his daughter, who had a chemistry degree from the University of Louisville, called the shots. Margie picked the name inspired by the term “mark of the maker” on pewter bottles, and sealed the bottles with a signature red wax. She knew what she was doing then, because the Makers Mark distillery tour is popular. One of the reasons it comes universally recommended is the hot dripping red wax the visitors can hand dip their bottle of bourbon in. Makers Mark was the first distillery named a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
David Domine walks us through Old Louisville where the bourbon barons built their palatial homes. Homes of Belgravia and St. James Square run along green parks and floral walks. A pink house lords over the green. It was built in 1891 as a gentleman’s club where the gentlemen met and sipped their bourbons. The story goes that in 1910 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union bought this mansion not knowing its history as a house of disrepute. “They were mortified when they learnt the house had closets where the ladies had pleasured the men. They painted the house pink to clean up its image,” says David. Now, this turn-of-the-century Victorian mansion forever stands pink as the powers-that-be forbid the historic houses from changing their colors. Beware the color you wear when the National Register of Historic Places calls “Statue” and freezes you forever in time! A sparkly green necklace adorns the pink lady. Tobacco leaves of three kinds decorate the house down the street. It was these rich bourbon and tobacco barons of the 1870s who swept elegantly down majestic staircases in elaborate hats and tailcoats, ready to attend the Derby. Hotel Brown downtown has just the staircase they would sashay down.
Preserved beautifully historic Hotel Brown and Hilton Seelback Hotel, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boast the most photographed staircases. The great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald actually placed the heroine of his The Great Gatsby on one of them. Lead characters from the novel, Tom and Daisy Buchanan held their wedding reception in the Grand Ballroom of the Seelback. Hotel. Brown with its turn-of-the-century décor in gold and cream, crystal chandeliers, and stained glass windows is on the “Urban Bourbon” trail.
We picked up the trail booklet from the bar man and got it stamped.
“Louisville is the only city in the world that can take a two-minute horse race and turn it into a two-week party with a two-month build up,” said the fellow bourbon drinker at the bar. As early as the last two weeks of March the visitors can meet with the horses that run the races by touring the Derby grounds and the museum at Churchill Downs.
“The Derby is one race run on the first Saturday, the locals never attend it. We used to go to the race of the fillies on Friday but now tourists are coming to that too! We now go to the Thurby on Thursday,” said the fellow at the bar. We headed to the next stop on the Urban-Bourbon trail.
Loud music and high-energy bumped us along 4th Street past Mohammed Ali street. Young people were swarming the bars. New Louisville was writing some new stories here.
At the Churchill Downs the next day we learn all about the game. Bets are placed in cash at the windows. “One day a man with a million dollars came to the window and placed all of it on one horse,” says the head of security at Churchill Downs while making a gesture that it all went up in smoke. “Surely he must have gotten a tip,” I said. “Well the horse got stuck as the race started and then it never had a chance. It was all over at the start.” His eyes twinkled with tales. We walked towards the jockey room with him.
Louisville and fine Kentucky bourbon, I said, never overwhelm you with its history but instead entertains you with a lifetime of colorful stories.
What is Bourbon
The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be:
- Produced in the United States
- Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak containers
- Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
- Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
- Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
- Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period. Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon. The exception is straight bourbon, which has a minimum aging requirement of two years. Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may be – but is not required to be – called straight bourbon. In addition, any bourbon aged less than four years must include an age statement on its label.
Ritu Marwah is an avid collector and teller of stories. She won India Currents Katha contest for her story Rivers of Time of which Indu Sundaresan said: There’s a deep sense of history in “Rivers of Time,” and more importantly, it’s full of heart. Incredible to us today is the parting of a husband and wife for almost fifty years, not due to a lack of affection, but mere circumstance. How they meet again, reconnect with longing, is handled with nuance and finesse by the writer.