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Scenes From a Bourbon Tasting
I'm getting some notes of Pop-Tart
[Three people walk down a downtown street. They are dressed in business-casual attire, and have convention lanyards around their necks.]
JASON: Boy, I sure am glad that the conference ended early today.
KEITH: I agree! Now we’ve got an entire afternoon free to explore Louisville before we fly out tomorrow morning.
MEREDITH: I wonder who pulled that fire alarm.
KEITH: What do you guys think we should do?
MEREDITH: We could go to the horse museum, or the baseball bat factory!
JASON: Those sound great, but what I really want to do is a bourbon tasting.
KEITH: You know, I actually talked to the hotel concierge about this this morning. They said there’s a great place that does bourbon tastings just around the corner from here.
MEREDITH: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not much of a bourbon drinker.
JASON: No, come on, it’ll be great. You probably just haven’t had the good stuff. This is Kentucky! They’ll be able to tell us all about it.
[The three round the corner, and see a wood-paneled storefront with a half-flight of stairs leading down to the door. A small sign reads “The White Dog”. The three descend the stairs, and enter the bar. A bearded man in a long-sleeved shirt is working behind the bar, and a handful of other patrons are quietly enjoying their drinks.]
DEREK: Afternoon. Y’all visiting from out of town?
JASON: Yes, we are in town for the annual Business Convention.
DEREK: Ah, yes, BusCon. That’s a big deal around here. Well, welcome to The White Dog. My name’s Derek. What can I get goin’ for you today?
KEITH: We’re interested in doing a bourbon tasting, and the concierge at the hotel said this was the place to go.
DEREK: Absolutely, friends. We’ve got over 200 bottles of bourbon here, and I can tailor a tasting to anything you’d like.
MEREDITH: … I like wine?
JASON: Oh, come on, be a sport. This is the place to try bourbon, and Derek here is definitely the guy to talk to.
KEITH: How about a dealer’s choice? You tell us what’s best.
MEREDITH [rolling eyes]: Fine.
DEREK: Awesome. Give me a second to pick out a flight here and we’ll get going.
[DEREK steps aside for a moment to gather bottles. While he does, the three discuss the different kinds of business they saw at the Business Convention that day.]
KEITH: —so I say to the guy, I say—that’s not a generally accepted accounting principle!
[All three laugh, for reasons that are unclear to the narrator]
DEREK: Alright, friends, we’ve got five bottles to sample here today.
MEREDITH: Five bottles? Sounds like this guy better log out of Microsoft Teams first!
[MEREDITH elbows JASON teasingly]
KEITH: Yeah, we don’t want a repeat of what happened in Charlotte at last year’s Business Convention!
JASON: [somberly] I don’t want to talk about Charlotte.
[DEREK lines up three glasses, and pours an ounce of a bourbon into each]
DEREK: Alright, now, this first one’s a Bison Run Bottled-in-Bond, this comes to us from Gravel Switch, Kentucky. Do y’all know what “bottled in bond” means?
KEITH: We know what stocks and bonds are, is it like that?
[All three laugh for an uncomfortably long time.]
JASON: [wiping tear from the corner of his eye] Ah, business.
DEREK: Y’all are a hoot. No, bottled-in-bond means that it’s the product of a single distillation season by a single distiller at a single distillery. It has to be aged for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. It’s got this paper seal up top that indicates all this happened. Back in the day, this was a very important signifier of quality.
KEITH: [holding glass up, swirling in light] It’s got a beautiful color to it.
DEREK: Now, before y’all go drinking this down, let me tell you the proper way to taste a bourbon. First, you want to hold the glass up to your nose, and tilt it just a little. Open your mouth a smidge, and breathe in. Get the aroma.
MEREDITH: It smells like whiskey.
DEREK: Once you’ve gotten a good whiff of it, take a sip—but don’t swallow it down immediately. Let it sit on the center of your tongue for a minute, and roll it around—we call this “chewing” the bourbon. This really lets you sense all the flavors. Finally, you can drink it down.
[Each of the three raise the drinks and sip.]
DEREK: Now, tell me some of the thing you’re tasting in there.
JASON: I’m getting… vanilla?
DEREK: Good, yes.
KEITH: There’s an oaky flavor, a bit of almost… banana, maybe?
DEREK: Absolutely. Spot on.
MEREDITH: It, uh, tastes like whiskey?
JASON: C’mon, really open your palate up, Mer!
DEREK: Swish it around. Really hunt for those flavors.
MEREDITH: I dunno, like… honey, I guess?
DEREK: Excellent. You’re all doing great. Should we move on to the next bottle?
[DEREK clears the first set of glasses, and produces three fresh ones, into which he pours from a second bottle of bourbon]
DEREK: Alright, I think you’re really going to like this one. This is Colonel P.T. Sprucker’s Signature High Rye Bourbon, from Broad Bottom, Kentucky. Now, whiskey can be distilled from a number of grains, but bourbon is required by law to be at least 51% corn. The other parts can be wheat, barley, rye—any cereal grain. Most bourbons have about 12% rye in their mash bill, but this is what’s called a “high-rye” bourbon—it’s got around 25% rye. That’s going to give it a bit more a bite. You’ll notice a grassier background, with some baking spices and less fruit than other bourbons. Go ahead and try.
JASON: Oh, I’m definitely getting the grass here. Big grass.
KEITH: Lot of cinnamon and cloves, and maybe even a little cardamom?
DEREK: Totally, totally.
MEREDITH: Um, I don’t know.
JASON: Are you chewing it? He said to chew it.
MEREDITH: [sighing] Maybe, uh… gingerbread cookies?
DEREK: Oh, that’s a sharp note there.
JASON: Hey, maybe you’re a bourbon lover after all, Mer!
MEREDITH: You know, the horse museum is open until 5. If we get an Uber now—
[DEREK has already cleared the glasses and is pouring the third bourbon]
DEREK: This next one’s pretty special, you’re not going to see this one outside of Kentucky very often. This comes to us from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. Interesting story behind this one—about fifteen years ago, there was a big fire at the Winchester & Perry distillery’s main rickhouse. 50,000 barrels of aging whiskey went up in flames. Fire burned for three months. The runoff killed all the fish downstream for a hundred miles. Devastated the local economy, they say it’ll never recover. Twelve people were killed, and another eight are still missing. Anyways, when they finally finished clearing the charred rubble, they found about a dozen barrels that were still intact. When they sampled them, they discovered that the whiskey had taken on a lovely toasted quality. They bottled it up as the Winchester & Perry’s Rickhouse Roast.
JASON: Ooh, sounds delicious.
DEREK: Really give this one the time to sit on your tongue. Inhale as you hold it there. You’ll get some smoke. Normally, that’s more common in a Scotch whiskey, but it’s a really unique quality for a bourbon.
KEITH: I’m getting some roasted marshmallow here on the front end, with a back-bite of seared steak.
DEREK: Definitely. Definitely.
JASON: Some real peppery notes here. Cracked black peppercorn, but with a buttery slide. Almost popcorn-like.
DEREK: Brilliant. Brilliant.
MEREDITH: [loudly swishes it like mouthwash, then gulps down] Alright, so, you know how when you toast one Pop-Tart on the normal setting, it comes out just right? But then, like, you decide the package is already open, so you might as well just make the other Pop-Tart, too, so you pop it in, but the toaster’s already got residual warmth from the first cycle, and so the second one kinda burns a little on the edges? That’s what I’m getting here.
JASON: Meredith, come on, don’t—
MEREDITH: [burps] The brown sugar kind.
KEITH: If you don’t want to do this, we can just meet you back at the hotel later.
DEREK: No, actually, I think she’s made a really astute observation here. There is a very subtle note of slightly over-toasted Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tart in this. Your friend might be what we call a “super-taster”. It’s a very rare and special skill. People who have it are very valuable in the bourbon industry.
[While DEREK is talking, MEREDITH has poured herself a second glass from the bottle and drank it]
MEREDITH: [slams glass down on bar] You hear that, you smug son of a—
DEREK: Let’s move on to the next one. This is a newer brand, it’s called Bluegrass Vulture, and they’re based out of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. They’re a newer label, but what they do is buy up old barrels from distilleries that have closed, and carefully blend them into new whiskies bottled under the Bluegrass Vulture label. Because they’re using really limited runs—sometimes they’re pulling from something that only has a dozen barrels left—no two of their bottlings are exactly the same. There’s also a lot of different things going on; I think it’ll be an interesting challenge for your super-taster friend here. This is their #2 Pilfered.
[DEREK pours three more glasses. By now, a few other patrons have entered the bar and are watching intently.]
JASON: I’m getting a bit of papaya and honeysuckle.
KEITH: There’s some dried apricot and wild thyme.
MEREDITH: Okay. Okay. I’m getting something. I’m getting—it’s a warm summer day, and you’re eight years old. You’ve been eating Twizzlers all day, and your tongue is still red with the dye. There’s a bit of crunchy peanut butter still on the corner of your mouth from when your Dad brought lunch out. A few grains of sand scrape your tongue from the sand-fight you had with those idiot Wilson brothers from next door, and you decide to wash it out with a drink. Your mother has given you strict instructions to stay outside until dinner time, so you take a sip from the garden hose. It’s metallic and minerally, but intensely refreshing at the same time.
[The other patrons murmur in awe, some of them having ordered glasses of it as well.]
DEREK: Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
RANDOM PATRON: You can really taste the Twizzlers.
JASON: Meredith, I had no idea you knew this much about whiskey.
MEREDITH: [poking JASON in chest, slurring slightly] There’s a lot you don’t know about me.
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[DEREK steps into the back room, and returns holding a dusty bottle]
DEREK: Okay, now, normally I wouldn’t do this, but for our final tasting, I’m bringing out something from my own private stash.
KEITH: [eyes wide] is that—
DEREK: [nodding] Great-Grand-Uncle Zebulon’s Special Family Reserve 24-Year.
[An awed murmur ripples through the now-crowded bar.]
DEREK: It’s widely recognized as the best bourbon ever made; Zebulon Hancock distilled it in his private distillery in Big Beaver Lick, Kentucky for decades, selling outside of the law to friends and family. When the federal government finally caught up with him, the standoff lasted for three weeks. When it ended, they say his corpse was so full of lead it took three men to carry. His remaining barrels were sold off and bottled as the Special Family Reserve, and they’ve been the great white whale for any whiskey collector ever since. The things I had to do to get my hands on this bottle will haunt me until my dying day, but it was worth it.
OTHER PATRON: Bottles of that sell for thousands!
DEREK: [nodding] They sure do. But I want to see what she can do.
[DEREK pours three glasses, one for MEREDITH, and one each for the slack-jawed JASON and KEITH]
DEREK: Bottoms up, friends.
[JASON and KEITH nervously raise the glasses to their lips, their hands visibly shaking. MEREDITH drinks it as casually as one sips a Diet Coke while reading blogs at lunch]
JASON: It’s subtle, but sublime. It’s cream and caramel, maple and ripe Valencia orange.
KEITH: It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. There’s buttered pancakes and well-worn leather, raisins and toffee, baked apple and a hint of dill.
[No one is paying attention to JASON and KEITH. The whole bar holds their breath, waiting for MEREDITH to deliver her tasting notes. MEREDITH finishes her gulp, and calmly sets her drink down]
MEREDITH: You can hear the cicadas. It is early morning—perhaps six or seven AM. It’s late summer. The sun is up, but the dew has not fully baked off the grass yet. A musky aroma wafts through the air. We are outside the zoo, and the smell from the giraffe enclosure is distant but clearly distinguishable.
DEREK: … the… the zoo?
MEREDITH: It is a calm morning, but it will not remain so—not when the crimes of the night before have been discovered. A chain-link fence has been carefully cut open under cover of darkness, the links snipped with care using bolt cutters. Someone has broken in, and they’re about to break back out.
DEREK: These don’t really sound like tasting notes to me, to be—
[MEREDITH holds up a hand to silence him. She is not done with her tasting.]
MEREDITH: A man hurries through the hole, with a large sack slung over his shoulder. Something struggles inside the sack—we can’t see inside the sack, but it is clear from the noises it makes that it is an ocelot. The ocelot is in distress.
OTHER PATRON: Wait a minute, an ocelot was stolen from the zoo here just last summer!
SECOND PATRON: It was all over the local news for weeks.
THIRD PATRON: They never caught the person who did it, and they never got the ocelot back!
JASON: I actually remember reading about this. It was a big deal.
DEREK: I don’t know where you’re going with—
[MEREDITH silences him with her hand again, her eyes now closed. She is in a trance-like state, recounting the vision as she connects with another place]
MEREDITH: The man is not young, but not old, either. About 30, 31 years old. He is wearing dark sunglasses and a ballcap to conceal his identity, but he has a close-cropped dark beard and gauges in his ears.
[Heads turn in unison as the entire bar looks at DEREK, who is 32 years old, with a close-cropped dark beard and gauges in his ears.]
DEREK: [nervously] There’s a lot of people who match that description, you know.
MEREDITH: He is loading the ocelot into the trunk of a waiting 2002 Toyota Tercel. He is not gentle with the ocelot as he tosses it in and slams the trunk. It is unclear whether he is stealing it to sell to an exotic animal dealer, or for some strange personal purpose, but he is exhausted.
[a second bartender has arrived for the evening shift in the middle of this story]
SHARI: Hey, Derek, didn’t you used to have a Tercel?
DEREK: [sweating profusely] This is all quite ridiculous, it’s a bourbon, no one can taste all of that—
MEREDITH: The man huffs to regain his breath after wrestling the recalcitrant cat into his car. He is covered in sweat, and rolls up his sleeve to wipe his brow with his forearm. A tattoo is visible—a recreation of an 18th-century woodcut of a schooner.
SHARI: [leaning on the bar, staring at DEREK] DEREK.
DEREK: C’mon, people. Let’s be serious. All these crazy tasting notes are made up. Bourbon only tastes like five things and three of them are oak.
JASON: Roll up your sleeves, Derek.
DEREK: You can’t possibly believe that I—
KEITH: ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES.
[The crowd at the bar grows angry, and SHARI yanks at DEREK’S right sleeve, ripping the button off to reveal an intricate tattoo of a sailing ship on his forearm]
DEREK: I CAN EXPLAIN, I—
[The three coworkers stand out on the crowded street, sharing a cigarette as flashing blue and red lights illuminate the scene. A local news reporter is setting up for a live remote broadcast that will lead the 10pm news. DEREK pleads his innocence as he’s loaded into a police van]
JASON: That last whiskey was really good.
KEITH: I really could taste the ocelot, once Meredith pointed it out.
MEREDITH: [has brought the last bottle out on the street with her and is drinking straight from it] You guys wanna get some White Castle or something?
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)