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Take It Neat: True Bourbon Culture
It could be argued that bourbon is more Kentucky than horse racing is Kentucky, though the two are inextricably tied.
On Kentucky Derby Week, it felt important to find out if bourbon retains its identity, particularly in Louisville, a city that used to boast dozens upon dozens of distilleries. Has even the drink itself been diluted by mixing?
Clare Schmitt, a charming Louisville native with amber hair, climbed a ladder behind the bar at Blu, on West Jefferson Street, and fixed a few pink hats up on the shelves. She situated a few bottles of bourbon in and around the hat boxes.
“Trade the Maker’s and Blanton for height,” said fellow bartender Chris Smith, a slender man with white hair and glasses. “Yeah, that’s better.”
Smith’s passion is bourbon, has been ever since he moved to Louisville 17 years ago. He took a bottle down, poured a sip, splashed in some water and spoke of its complexities: vanilla, toffee, raisin, caramel, even tobacco. Or another that’s spicier. Or another that has French oak, hints of cedar, smoky. Smith had a similar palette for wine and sees all the parallels between wine and bourbon. Bourbon won.
“Bourbon is much more steeped in tradition,” Smith said of the culture. “In the last 15 years, bourbon has taken off. The tradition of it has been handed down from generation to generation.”
Derby Week ushers in a national and international clientele: Australia, Peru, Germany, France. Sometimes Colorado, the place of a certain dignitary Schmitt met. She recalled the woman quietly sat at the end of the bar, this little old lady. “I know this woman; I know this woman,” Schmitt said.
According to Schmitt, the woman sipped a glass of bourbon and said, “I’m in the thoroughbred industry, used to be. I had some luck in the ’70s.”
“Anybody we know?” Schmitt asked.
“You might know him,” replied the woman. “I owned Secretariat.”
Schmitt lost it, Penny Chenery, “You are like royalty!”
Turned out Chenery was in town to present the trophy for the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Derby Day.
Schmitt’s signature drink is a mint julep made with creme de cacao and Bailey’s Mint along with bourbon and a sprig of mint, shaken and served in a chilled martini glass. “I think anything’s good with chocolate in it,” Schmitt said. “Happy Derby! Isn’t that good?”
Her specialty didn’t win the mint julep competition in 2008, the year she invented it, “I don’t know how you can resist a cute, pregnant bartender,” she said, putting a hand on her hip and batting her eyes.
Smith won this competition in 2007 with a julep made with ginger and lemon, just enough to temper the bourbon’s bite while at the same time releasing its flavors. He hates a sweet julep (“Worst hangover you can imagine”). Mixing, for that matter, is better left to amateurs. Schmitt concurs.
“I think a mint julep is a good way to ruin a good bourbon,” she said. “Bourbon can have a little water, not necessarily ice cold. As long you don’t put Coke in it, then it’s OK.”
Within two seconds, a man approached the bar and asked, “Can I have a (bourbon) and Diet Coke?”
Schmitt, amazingly, kept a straight face.
Smith’s partner Mike Myers (who took a lot of flak for having the same name as a horror movie killer and comedian) passed away last year. Myers was an avid bourbon enthusiast and poured glasses to friends as if he were spreading the gospel.
“He wanted everyone with him to drink bourbon,” Smith said. “He loved bourbon so much.”
The lounge started to swell and Carly Johnson, a jazz singer with Norah Jones tone, lustily sang, “Georgia On My Mind,” while guitarist Craig Wagner finger-picked his seven string $1,200 Buscarino.
Smith and Schmitt proved that bourbon is every bit embedded in the culture. They practically bathe in it.
Three miles away on Frankfort Avenue from Blu, the walls of the dimly lit Bourbons Bistro are tiled with barrel caps of major and minor distilleries and bourbons. They boast 130 different kinds. Daniel Stevens, 42, of Louisville, reclined in his bar chair sipping something neat.
“It doesn’t seem corporate at the restaurants,” Stevens said. “Not like when you go downtown to Maker’s Mark. I think that’s more corporate.”
Stevens also felt bourbon, if it should be mixed at all, should be with ginger ale or a splash of water. The mint julep?
“They suck,” he said. “It’s like anything else. If you get one made right, it’s actually pretty good.”
Even bartender Jeff Shaw said bourbon should stand alone, free from influence.
“Don’t waste your money,” Shaw told a woman who ordered a high-end bourbon with Coke. “That’s a $35 drink. Here it is on the rocks. Here is your Coke. If you want to mix it, you do it.”
Shaw had a few rules, “Bourbon should be drunk neat (at room temperature) or on the rocks with a touch of water. Coke, ginger ale, Sprite? You lose the flavors of the bourbon.”
The passionate conversation on how to drink it showed Kentucky bourbon culture is not a myth. It’s real.
A man pulled out a hidden stash of bourbon from behind the bar and shared it with a couple of friends. He poured a little into two tulip glasses.
“I wish we had time to let it breathe,” he said. He swirled it around, dipped his nose into the glass and closed his eyes.
He tipped it back.
“Oh, that is good.”