Looking to drown out your pigskin sorrows? Or better yet, celebrate our roundball triumphs? There’s no adult beverage more fitting for Big Blue Nation holiday parties than our signature spirit, Kentucky bourbon.
If you’re counting down to Christmas, bourbon is the ideal partner for tree trimming, mistletoe kissing and fireplace sipping. If you’re like me (and Adam Sandler, Drake, most NBA and NFL owners, but, alas, not Willie Cauley-Stein), bourbon is the perfect way to numb the blaring accusations of a “War on Christmas.” (We’re only asking for a little recognition of Chanukah, the celebration of a military victory that made it possible for a Jewish baby to be born safely in Bethlehem a century later, OK? Rant over.)
And if you need a little extra oomph to transcend the season’s stress, I suggest a few extra-potent potables. The higher the proof not only inflates the intoxication; cask-strength bourbons are some of the finest tasting libations around. As noted whiskey aficionado Russell Coleman explains, the process of transferring from the barrel into the bottle that results in the typical 80-100 proof fare is really about watering down the innate product — higher alcohol varieties offer straight-from-the barrel, fuller flavors, exploding your taste buds with unprecedented savory and sensory smart bombs — the very way God created bourbon.
(OK, I may be exaggerating when I called Coleman a “noted whiskey aficionado.” But the former FBI agent and Mitch McConnell consigliere proves the true bi-partisan nature of whiskey drinking. And the man knows his bourbon.)
A few cautionary notes: First, if you are not of legal age, please stop reading: Print out this column and place it in a lock box to be opened on your 21st birthday. Even if you are fully grown, tread carefully on quantity: a one-drink maximum is advised for the novice. Meanwhile, a cube or two of ice are fine, and/or perhaps a splash of water, but understand that the more H2O you add, the more you are diluting the whole point of the venture. And don’t you dare add Coke or sour mix. (Don’t you dare…) Finally, most of these varieties are hard to find at your typical liquor store — I usually have to shop out of state where bourbon experts are too scarce to hoard the inventory. Accordingly, for my fellow Central Kentuckians, I offer some prime restaurant locations to sample, sip and savor:
1. William Larue Weller, $80/bottle, 133 proof (66.5% alcohol), available at Tony’s of Lexington
It’s fitting that Lexington’s first world-class steakhouse overlooks the cathedral of our Commonwealth, Rupp Arena. (Ask for a table by the window in super-server Shoshannah’s section.) It also features bartender-extraordinaire Lincoln Nevels, bon vivant and bourbon savant. While the meals are unmatched in the region (try the bourbon-infused sweet potatoes with your filet or bone-in New York strip), it took a few months for Tony to catch up with the whiskey selection. But since Breeders’ Cup, they are much improved, and Lincoln introduced me to the delicious and powerful William Larue Weller, part of the Sazerac/Buffalo Trace Distillery family.
The oak-infused nose — OK, smelling it — can quickly cure most sinus infections. But the taste is what’s special. On the tongue it feels like a cinnamon grenade, but unlike those crappy Fireballs which flame out quickly, a chocolate-y, caramel balance soon envelopes your palate. Best yet, the aftertaste finish is long and warm, sweet and bold, as comforting as a spicy hot cider. If the football Cats could finish like this…oh well.
2. Colonel E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof, $90, 135 proof (67.5% alcohol), available at Distilled at Gratz Park
A few days after I discovered Colonel Taylor at Proof on Main in Louisville, I left for my annual World Series of Poker trip; and while I was waiting for my luggage at the Vegas airport, I noticed a baggage claim liquor store featuring dozens of bottles of this very barrel proof product. In retrospect, I should have taken my $1000 buy-in, purchased 15 liters, and returned home: I have not seen it since offered at retail. (If you can find a few for me, there are a couple of really great lower Rupp Arena UK basketball seats with your name on it.)
Another champion in the Sazerac/Buffalo Trace collection, The Colonel smells fruity, a bit like raisins, with a little vanilla as a chaser. Tasting it is like sipping an Ã¼ber-strong cup of coffee, sweetened with caramel and brown sugar. In the end, like many of Taylor’s lower-proofed concoctions, there’s a warm peppery aftertaste that coats and soothes the back of your throat.
3. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, $45, 133 Proof (66.5% alcohol), available at OBC Kitchen
It shouldn’t be surprising that Central Kentucky’s best bourbon collection can be found at Old Bourbon County (OBC) Kitchen, the latest venture of Bruce Drake and the gang at Bluegrass Hospitality Group. Walking in the first time and witnessing the orgy of amber-colored bottles, bathed by spotlighted glass, recalled my inaugural visit to F.A.O. Schwartz’ Central Park toy store — with shot glasses replacing the human piano. There’s no better guide to the comprehensive selection than bourbon sommelier Jake Sulek. Jake introduces me to a new, usually limited-edition, whiskey each time I visit, but my standby is the Heaven Hill Distillery masterpiece, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Elijah is markedly sweeter than the rest of its competitors on this list, so the nose is masked a bit by a fruity, woody smell. After you feel the initial heat on the tongue, there is another fruit detonation, a rush of apple and orange with cinnamon mixed in. After swallowing, the spiciness begins to really hit you, with an oak-y, minty feel on the back of your throat.
4. Noah’s Mill Small Batch, $50, 115 Proof (57.5% alcohol), available at Dudley’s on Short
The best location for lunch and brunch in Lexington is not a close call: Debbie Long’s mainstay is the go-to spot for downtown movers and shakers; and now with new chef Mark Richardson returning to the Bluegrass State from a stint at New York’s The Carlyle, the food is phenomenal. I’ve sampled Dudley’s brussels sprout salad so often that Debbie engraved my name on a small plate at the bar. Featuring a smaller whiskey selection, Dudley’s makes up for bourbon quantity with quality, boasting many years of Pappy’s and the like. Early on, I discovered Noah’s Mill here — and while the family-owned Kentucky Bourbon Distillers’ product features the least alcoholic content on this list; it’s plenty strong, as well as the only variety that you can find in most local liquor stores.
Don’t let the simple, old-style bottle design fool you, this is a sophisticated concoction, aged for 15 years. The smell is a blend of vanilla and oak, while the taste is leathery, with strong elements of brown sugar. The finish packs a wallop, even a bit fiery: You get the full cask-strength power without the cask-strength hangover.
5. George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon, $90 retail (likely cost you $300+ if you can find it), 142 proof (71% alcohol!), available at Coles 735 Main
As I was first stumbling through higher proof bourbons, I was disappointed to learn that one of my favorite restaurants, Coles 735 Main, was temporarily out of the Colonel. (Don’t worry: He’s back!) My server, Brian Carcaise, shared a not-so-secret piece of advice: If you like Taylor Barrel Proof, you’ll love George T. Stagg (yep, another Sazerac). He warned me, though, that the granddaddy of all cask-strength bourbons might be a bit too much for my palate; that the perfect solution was dropping one piece of ice into the brew. I thought, of course, that Brian was threatening my manhood. But as a show of good faith, he gave me an ounce of each, with and without ice.
Brian is a very wise man. The nose is phenomenal: This chocolate lover savored the notes of fudge, nougat and toffee. Straight up, George is a powerful blend of fruit and wood flavors, but adding that one ice cube opened up the whiskey to a sensation of dates and wintergreen, with a hint of mocha. George is expensive, so you might try Stagg, Jr., which is a little less powerful, and a little less flavor-able. But treat yourself once in a while to a George, Sr. And drop in that piece of ice.