Bourbon: A Whiskey by Any Other Name

A brief history of Bourbon and New Orleans

Aren’t there places that are so aptly named to even think of calling them something else makes no sense whatsoever?

Toys "R" Us is such a place. Jiffy Lube is another. The destination name around here that really works for me is Bourbon House.

Dickie Brennan’s aptly named dining and drink emporium is in the 100 block of Bourbon Street. And then they went ahead and took it to the next level. They specialize in Bourbons. Whoa! A theme on top of an address. Excellent!

Take that, The Container Store!

Bourbon House is a complete service location. Good beers, excellent oysters, casual dining, decent and honest mixed drinks, nice wine list, interesting views onto the craziest street in America, fun staff and transparency in its core ingredients. Not many places post the region of origin about the oysters.

But the Bourbon Whiskey program is at the heart of the matter. It’s not just about having a bunch of Bourbons on hand and encouraging patrons to stay with their usual call. Bourbon House wants you to know what else is out there, how it all tastes, and why there are aromatic and taste differences from one label to another.

The New Orleans Bourbon Society (NOBS) is based here. Membership is free. Now that should pique your interest. And New Orleans long-time association with Bourbon should also move you to want to learn more, even if it weren’t for the tastings, socials, and the dinners. Register for membership here.

First of all, Bourbon, both the whiskey and the county in Kentucky, owes its very name to New Orleans. We were such a great market for their product, and so much of the product was consumed on Bourbon Street, that the name of the product took on the name of the spot where sales were higher than anywhere else.

The people of Bourbon County, Kentucky better appreciate the story that their place and their product was an homage to the ruling families of France and Spain during those colonization days. But that part of the New World had no ties to those old countries, and likely doing homage to European royalty, who were actually sworn enemies of Great Britain, from a bunch of Scotch distillers is a far stretch of history. However, since our street was indeed named after the Royal Family of Spain and France, we have never quibbled with the good people of Kentucky about their naming source.

The other grand contribution that New Orleans, indirectly, made to the establishment of Bourbon as a quality adult beverage is the color and the maturing process. While the color of Bourbon in Kentucky at the end of distillation is quite clear, by the time it arrived at its greatest market after a five-month journey, it was brown, maybe even reddish. The trip down the Mississippi River in oak barrels was the cause of the color change. But what else changed was the harsh, hot, inelegant flavor of the Bourbon. The cruise smoothed those hard edges and provided the alcohol “bite” with more elegance.

On arrival here, Bourbon was more refined, more pleasurable. The movement of the whiskey in the barrels while on the water was a wonderful last step in the manufacturing process. Okay, so it was not a planned step, but soon it would be.

That’s the sort of history revered by the NOBS. There are usually at least 120 Bourbons available at any given time, with a core group alongside a rotating stock, all with their own stories.

Recently entering the stockpile is the Angels Envy, Stagg, Jr., Michter’s 10-year, Hirsch Small Batch, Buffalo Trace Single Oak and Elmer T. Lee also from Buffalo Trace, and all from Kentucky. A single barrel whiskey, Breckenridge, is from that spot in Colorado, where I thought they were now distracted by other substances.

What is fascinating is that each Bourbon, like wines, beers and every other adult beverage, brings its own unique characteristics to the nose and the palate. The entire vocabulary of Bourbon is quite reminiscent of those other beverages when we spend far too long rhapsodizing over and not enough time drinking. Okay so that’s not true; we do both.

But I love the language of Bourbon, with resin not being a bad thing and vanilla bean meant as a complement. Toss in some references to sweet caramel and maybe a comment about nuts, figs, spice, cherries, dried fruit and plum. Then you will sound like a true Bourbon aficionado, assuming you use the descriptors with the proper voice of authority.

And you don’t ask for a Bourbon and Coke.

 

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