Life

A Fact-Soaked Odyssey Through Kentucky’s Bourbon Country

It’s no coincidence that Patton Oswalt’s nerdy-outcast-all-grown-up character in Young Adult is into making whiskey. It’s easy to see how the process might appeal to anyone with a mind for nerdy minutiae. In a macro sense, it’s deceptively simple, like the plot outline of A New Hope. Take a sugary substance — a mash of fruit, grain, rice, potatoes, anything with starch, really — add yeast to convert starch into alcohol, boil off the alcohol to concentrate it, and voila! You’re distilling booze.

Dig a little deeper and things get mind-blowingly complex. Each step of the process involves a simple technical choice and an almost endless capacity for specialization and embellishment — world-building potential, to extend the Star Wars metaphor. And with possibility comes debate, factions, purism, pedantry. Rich with arcane jargon, historical trivia, and all manner of esoterica, liquor production and connoisseurship is the perfect hobby for the 21st century American adult. We may not have culture, but we have interests, dammit, and we’re willing to delve, to obsess. Nowadays, whiskey is yet another sandbox to play in, a kid’s tinker toy hobby with a grown up reward: You get to get drunk at the end.

That last part, of course, brings people together, “nerdy” or not. And it was mostly that step that brought me to Kentucky — that, along with an invite from Marriott and Maker’s Mark to sample their new “bourbon program.” I didn’t know what a “bourbon program” was, but it had “bourbon” in it so I figured it was worth investigating.

Since 2004, there’s been nearly a 40 percent growth in sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Whiskey sales are expected to overtake vodka and tequila by 2018. You drink vodka when you want to get drunk, you drink whiskey when you want to get drunk while also discussing the vanilla notes and smoky profiles. That’s the perception, anyway.

Facty justifications aside, I jumped at the chance to see how the sausage was made, and so it was I eventually found myself in the Maker’s Mark plant in Loretto, Kentucky (one of the most out-of-the-way stops on the “Bourbon Trail”), listening to Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels deliver a lengthy spiel on the types of grain, wood, malt, aging, distilling, and bottling of the whiskey he extols for a living. Rob also happens to be the grandson of Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels Sr., whose family had been making whiskey since the Civil War days. Nice work if you can get it. Incidentally, Maker’s Mark was bought by Hiram Walker in 1981, and Jim Beam in 2005, and is now part of the Beam-Suntory “family.” But it still clings tightly to its “traditional methods.”

And I was about to find out just how tightly.

Whiskey, Bourbon, Scotch, And Rye — What The Hell Does It All Mean?

There’s going to be a lot of terminology from here on out, and there’s really no way around it, so strap in. In fact, we should probably back up and define a few terms, within reason.

So, “bourbon” is a type of whiskey (remember the adage all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon). Contrary to popular belief, “bourbon” does not have to be distilled in Kentucky. Though it does have to be 51% corn, corn being the distinguishing grain in bourbon. “Rye,” likewise, is 51% rye. Single-malt Scotch is 100% malted barley (and must be produced in Scotland). “Whiskey” (or “whisky,” as the Scottish, and the Samuels family, spell it) can be any combination of grains. That combination, in turn, is called a “mash bill.”

“Tennessee whiskey,” meanwhile, is a whiskey made in Tennessee. Typically (though it’s not required), it utilizes the “Lincoln County Process,” whereby the whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging. (There are other types of filtering, including chill filtering, and passionate people who swear by each, though Maker’s is unfiltered).

To be called bourbon, the spirit must be produced in the U.S., it can’t exceed 125 proof, and it must be stored at no more than 160 proof. What’s the difference between final proof and storage? Well, the discrepancy there is that bourbon (and whiskey as a whole) is usually distilled to a higher alcohol content (proof), aged, then diluted to a lower proof with water. Have you ever seen a whiskey called “cask strength?” That means it’s undiluted – usually 50-60% alcohol by volume, vs. 40-45% for regular whiskey. Another bourbon rule is that the (oak) barrels it’s stored in have to be new, distinguishing it from Scotch, which doesn’t have that rule. Which explains why old bourbon barrels often get shipped off to Scotland (or to Central America and the Caribbean to make rum).

Phew, and we haven’t even gotten to yeast yet! Suffice it to say, yeast is even more complex (not to mention mysterious), and according to lots of people who know such things, even more important. According to Clay Risen’s American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye (which I have also relied upon above), “ask distillers what the single most important variable is in making a specific whiskey, and they will almost always tell you it’s the yeast.”

Risen writes that Maker’s Mark’s patriarch, Bill Samuels Sr., acquired his yeast (and recipe) from Julian Van Winkle II, whose name you might recognize, coming as it does from the Pappy Van Winkle lineage. Pappy Van Winkle is the Valentino purse of bourbons these days (yes, I am somewhat ashamed of that analogy). I won’t go into what exactly “sour mash” means, just know that virtually all whiskeys are sour mash, so seeing it on a label doesn’t distinguish that bottle too much.

Is that TMI yet? I hope not, because we’ve only just begun.

But in a world where you can see Mila Kunis explaining the Angel’s Share in a television commercial, a reasonably detailed explanation of bourbon terminology seems a necessary prerequisite for a journey into the heart of charredness (I am also embarrassed of this pun). You can easily see how whiskey-as-a-hobby might be appealing to the kind of person who likes to stain his own furniture, or memorizes the casualty numbers of famous battles.

Drinking The Kool-Aid, Er, Maker’s

Maker’s CEO Rob Samuels, leading a factory tour

As we walk through the Maker’s factory, Rob Samuels describes his company’s mash as coming from a “150-year-old yeast,” gesturing to two giant vats, bubbling on cue like a scene from a promo video. It really looks like that? Bubbling liquid inside wooden vats fermenting in the open air? (Antique wooden vats, by the way, both Samuels and American Whiskey‘s Risen note that most distilleries nowadays use stainless steel.)

“Go ahead,” Samuels urges us, “you can dip a finger in and taste it if you want.”

The 10 or 15 assembled journalists dutifully, tentatively, dip our bare fingers into the yeasty stew. Is this allowed? Random unwashed fingers straight into the mix at a beverage production facility? And journalist fingers at that (yechhh, God knows where those have been, probably Cheetos bags and buttholes).

I lick my finger, trying not to look too sexy. It tastes less disgusting than you’d imagine of something bubbling like a witch cauldron. Surprisingly sweet, not bitter, and chunky — sort of like semi-blended apple smoothie. And less yeasty than your average Belgian beer, despite the whole place smelling like dark bread being baked, which you can smell from 100 yards away in the parking lot.

Still refusing to entirely believe what I’m seeing, I pull Samuels off to the side, where presumably he can give me the straight dope, and not just the party line he’s toeing for these other jerks. “Really, we’re allowed to just stick dirty fingers in the barrel like that?”

“Yeah,” he nods, cheerful yet slightly dismissive.

“Is that because it’s all getting fermented and boiled off anyway?” I persist, trying to ask the tough follow-ups. Samuels just maintains his previous nodding.

I guess it makes sense. How much are a few fingers really going to alter a giant chum bucket of bacteria? And what better way to disinfect it than boiling, followed by a few years of aging in a mixture almost as alcoholic as Purell? Samuels forced me to do this science myself, which I respect.

Like most of everything Samuels did on the tour, the fingers-in-the-yeast moment felt either off the cuff or exhaustively practiced. Repeat the same thing often enough and it starts to sound natural, something he could probably do sleeping (or bourbon drunk). The Samuels family, according to Rob, had been making “really bad whiskey” for going on 400 years (or 500 years, according to other interviews). The old stuff, sold under the name TW Samuels during the Civil War days (the board room where he delivered this opening preamble actually had a letter from Lincoln on the wall), was caustic stuff that “reflected the harsh realities of frontier America.”

Yes, that is a direct quote. This man is a Ken Burns documentary come to life (but less boring).

Everything changed, so Samuels’ story went, when Rob’s grandfather got back into the whiskey business in the 30s following a short, failed stint in banking. His goal was to make a fine, drinkable bourbon, in small batches, just for him and his distiller friends (since not too many people outside of Kentucky could even imagine such a thing at the time, “bourbon” still being associated in most people’s minds with the previously noted, frontier-life product). Samuels associated some of that harshness with rye, which is why Makers’ mash bill (see how comfortable we all are with this term now? pour yourself a drink) is 71% corn. But no rye. The rest made up of barley and wheat. This makes Maker’s a “wheated bourbon,” a category that also includes the venerated Pappy Van Winkle and WL Weller (for whom the Van Winkle patriarch used to be a salesman — it’s an incestuous group).

But Maker’s doesn’t just use regular wheat, oh ho ho no. Maker’s Mark is made with only “soft, red winter wheat.” As opposed, I guess, to other kinds of wheat, which is hard, like life for a pioneer woman. All the fancy naming reminded me of colleges and the names they have for their school colors. “Yellow? Please, this is ‘Old Gold.'”

Those grains, by the way, are milled using a roller mill, as opposed to a hammer mill, which is much faster and efficient, but can also heat up and scorch the grains (don’t scorch my grains, bro!). And Makers’ roller mill is in fact an antique roller mill — “one of two in the world,” according to Samuels. I did not check this fact, nor would I even really know how to. And let’s be honest, he could’ve showed me the engine block of a model T Ford and called it a roller mill and I would’ve believed him. This whiskey is delicious, sir, how do you make it? A pentium-sealed discombobulator, you say? My, that’s fascinating, pour me another glass.”

These People Are Insane, And It Might Be Contagious

To be sure, Samuels makes an unlikely hipster, dressed as he is in the official white dude’s uniform of Kentucky: Pressed table cloth button up, studiously tucked, with pleated khakis and fluffy, floppy bangs (often paired with croakies and a sunburn for maximum effect, though not in Samuels’ case). Yet he talked about his company’s distilling process much the way Jack White might describe his home studio, with a fetish for all things retro and the mythos they entail. It’s all about “purposeful inefficiency” — a line that Samuels likes to repeat, which he says came from the Wall Street Journal.

There are no rules on what makes “small batch” whiskey truly small batch, but Samuels touted Maker’s Mark’s 19 barrels-per-cook process, contrasting it with larger distilleries, “some of which produce up to 600 barrels per day.”

Maker’s doesn’t even include “small batch” on the label, presumably as a power move to say “we don’t need to.” It’s also aged 5-7 years. It’s not a consistent number, because how much oaky flavor a whiskey picks up depends on the weather that year.

Oh, but about that aging process, it’s not just the weather that affects the taste, it’s also a particular barrel’s placement in the warehouse (known as a “rickhouse”). See, you usually have to stack the barrels for storage, and since heat rises, barrels on different levels will be subject to different temperatures. Thus, they won’t age, nor taste, the same. According to Risen, “some distillers regularly rotate their barrels to get a consistent flavor (though some don’t, preferring the range of flavors created by keeping barrels at different levels).”

According to Samuels, “Maker’s is the only distillery that physically rotates its barrels” to create a consistent product. Other distilleries simply create a blend of the different levels, which is obviously more convenient. Still others — Woodford, for instance — use a climate controlled warehouse, which Maker’s doesn’t. If you want to know just how god damned ridiculous distillers can get in trying to specialize their aging process, look no further than Hudson (whose product I do enjoy), who apparently utilize a “sonic maturation process”:

As Gable tells it, someone told them they should rotate their barrels once a month to hasten the aging process. Unthrilled at the idea of physically rolling every single barrel in their inventory, Lee showed up one morning with a trunk full of bass speakers, to agitate the barrels using sound waves. For a time, the whiskey would rattle away to dubstep and Tribe Called Quest, until one day a tour-goer volunteered his skills as a professional audio engineer. After a weekend of measurements and calculations, he returned with a CD, which cycles through different resonant frequencies to shake the different sized barrels. [DrinksAndDrinking, 2012]

That’s right, they literally play music to their booze. It seems there’s really no limit on how far a craft distiller might go to differentiate the product.

Here at Woodsmell, each barrel is personally glowered at by international superstar Benedict Cumberbatch, which is just part of what makes it sexiest bourbon on the market. With a rich musk of masculine oak and a gentle aftertaste of comforting butterscotch, it’s a naughty bourbon for a thirsty drinker.

Maker’s Mark’s #BrandStory is all about #inefficiency. Why do they rotate the barrels by hand? Because it’s hard. Because it’s expensive. So that they can say they do. Even the labels are printed on-site, using yet another antique machine, and torn by hand–

Oh dear me, it seems they’ve removed my brain and replaced it with #BourbonFacts. I no longer remember my mother’s birthday, but I now know that one year of bourbon aging is equivalent to five years of scotch aging Why!? Well, becauseofKentucky’svasttemperaturevariance,withbitingwintersandsweaty summers,in contrasttoScotland’srelativelyconsistent,coolclimate.

You see, (*deep breath*) temperature changes cause the expanding and contracting of the wood in the barrels, which in turn cause the wood to retain and expel the whiskey molecules inside, imparting the flavors and color in the finished product. (*long, satisfying pull from inhaler*)

Phew, I need a drink.

Maybe It’s The Right Kind Of Crazy?

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Shutterstock

All the history is nice, and if there was a crack in Maker’s Mark’s monolithic quaintness, where crass commerce peeked through even for a second, I couldn’t see it. In an extra folksy touch, Samuels has a habit of saying “It were Kentuckians who first distilled…” rather than “it was.” I polled a few Kentuckians about whether this is natural vernacular or an affectation, and no one could say for certain. +10 for brand consistency. Inside the boardroom, there’s a framed cover of “SUCCESS!” magazine featuring Ronald Reagan. But later, Samuels recounts a story about agreeing to let Hillary Clinton stage a photo-op here on a campaign stop through Kentucky. “She was enthusiastic, and she seemed fascinated throughout the tour and tasted all the bourbon we offered. Later she gave a speech, and some of her aides said it was the most relaxed they’d ever seen her.”

That anecdote crushed. Like I said, this guy is good.

But here’s the thing: I tend to think of a whiskey’s process the same way I think of an actor’s process. They can go on a press tour and tell me about all the method work and intense preparation — I pretended to be homeless for an entire year! I built a real teepee out of Mammoth tusks! — but at the end of the day, I’m not really concerned with what was in the puppet’s head when he did the pantomime dance. I only care whether the pantomime dance made me believe. Same with bourbon. As long as it tastes good, and didn’t come from slave labor or poisoned water, I don’t really care.

There was an “exposé” of sorts circulating a while back, about how “Your ‘Craft’ Rye Whiskey Is Probably From a Factory Distillery in Indiana.” The term “factory distillery” clearly intended to conjure images of young malts stuffed into tiny pens, yeasts with their beaks removed to keep from pecking each other to death and so forth. It profiled, among others, Bulleit, owned by “drinks behemoth” Diageo, who don’t distill their rye in-house, but instead get it from a “massive plant” in Indiana (INDIANA?! …Get a rope). The article ran with the equally unsubtle sub-head, “MODERN-DAY SNAKE OIL.”

But hey, that snake oil still tastes pretty smooth to me, which is why I have some in my home bar (also, it’s like $20 at Trader Joe’s). On the flip side, all Makers’ talk of family recipes and hand-torn labels might make for a nice presentation, but all of it would be for naught if the whiskey inside kinda sucked.

To make a long story short, it doesn’t. I always thought Maker’s Mark made a great every day bourbon (maybe don’t take this literally…), consistently good, full-bodied, sweet but not cloyingly so, and available almost everywhere. Sort of the Sam Adams of bourbons, if you will — occupying a niche that exists in the space between the most universally likable of “craft” products, and the craftiest of mass-market products. You might be in the mood for something more niche than Maker’s Mark, but you can never really go wrong with Maker’s Mark.

And listening to a member of the Samuels family hold forth about the uniqueness of the brand surrounded by wooden barrels of the product while being served hors d’oeuvres in a warehouse redolent of oak… (DID YOU KNOW THEY HAVE A TASTING ROOM FEATURING A ONE-OF-A-KIND INSTALLATION DESIGNED BY FAMOUS GLASS BLOWER DALE CHIHULY?!) yeah, it probably made it taste a little better. On the way out through the gift shop, I bought a bottle of cask strength Maker’s Mark and waxed dipped it myself.

RIP, journalism.

Who’s On Your Fantasy Bourbon Team?

The following evening, our group of lumpy journalists pack ourselves into formal wear, and the lobby of the Lexington Marriott, for a tasting to kick off Marriott’s new bourbon program — “an innovative on-property experience for guests and visitors.”

This will be followed by a “Bourbon Battle,” where Mariott bartenders “will go up against local mixologists to prove their bourbon mixology skills.”

But first, more #BourbonFacts! And a tasting, thank God. Hosted by “leading spirit expert and author” Heather Green, Rob Samuels again, Matthew Carroll from Marriott, and Maker’s Mark tasting “maturation specialist” Jane Bowie, today’s lesson is all about the wood. Were you ever curious what roles cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, and tannin play in the taste of your bourbon? Of course, every young boy dreams of that.

If you’ll remember, all “bourbon” must be aged in new oak barrels. Of course, not all those barrels are created equal. You don’t just cure the wood and turn it into barrels, there’s a whole charring process that involves damn near as much variation as fermenting/distilling. And just to complicate that even further, Maker’s adds still another wrinkle: finishing staves. Essentially, 10 extra pieces of oak added to the barrel for nine weeks during winter (again, the season is important), so that they can impart additional flavors, sort of like a tea bag steeping in hot water.

This is the process they used for Maker’s 46, the first Maker’s special edition or variation of any kind, which they started selling in 2010. It’s Maker’s Mark, steeped for nine weeks with 10 staves of seared French oak. Maker’s 46 is one of our six or seven tasting samples, along with others representing four other types of staves.

See, in addition to Maker’s 46, Maker’s is now rolling out a “private select” program, where entities like bars, restaurants, hotels, etc. can create their own personalized bourbon. This is what’s known as a barrels program, and lots of distillers have it. Usually the way it works is, the bar manager visits a distillery, samples a bunch of different barrels, and buys his or her favorite. “Countless bourbon enthusiasts are now traveling down to Kentucky to explore the opportunity, often buying a barrel on the spot, just like they might pick out a new car,” The Daily Beast wrote last year after a visit to Wild Turkey.

GearPatrol wrote about Woodford Reserve’s barrel program: “After finally reaching the top of a waiting list, restaurants and liquor stores interested in selecting their own single barrel of whiskey will typically call in and give the master distiller an idea of what they are looking for — just broad strokes of flavor — and the master distiller will try to select barrels that fit this preference.”

Yes, hello, I would like my bourbon to reek of desperation with a hint of my ex-girlfriend’s skin. She’s Lebanese. I’m so lonely.

Maker’s has tweaked this model slightly, and that’s where the staves come in. Maker’s has five different types of staves, which go in the barrel in racks of 10. Allowing the barrel buyer to choose which staves will flavor “their” bourbon in whatever combination they choose. That’s 1,001 possible combinations! It’s actually a pretty brilliant way to empower the barrel buyer to become as bourbon nerdy as the seller. Not only can you become an instant bourbon expert, for the right price, you can become an instant distiller too. You just dip your wood in it.

And so begins our tasting, in which we get to sample bourbon flavored with each of the staves. There’s the Baked American Pure, an American oak stave, toasted “low and slow” in a convection oven, characterized by caramel flavors, and designed to bring an “intense vanilla” (also my rap name). Then there’s Seared French Cuvée, an infrared toasted stave cut with ridges (so you can taste multiple levels of char, like a rare steak!), characterized by an oaky, roasty flavor and an especially syrupy, rich body. Maker’s 46, that one’s also infrared seared, but without the ridges, and darker, imparting a dried fruit flavor. There’s Roasted French Mocha (kinda like a fine cigar!), and Toasted French Spice, for smoke and coumarin (I love a good coumarin on a hot day, but that’s just me).

By the way, the Maker’s folks have brought samples of each stave and cross sections of oak to smell while we taste. There’s even a flavor graph showing what times and which temperatures produce which flavors. My God, who knew there was this much to know about wood?

As I drink and sniff and nod, I’m afraid of not looking fascinated enough, afraid of what my hosts might say.

At first, the differences between the bourbons seem so subtle as to be imperceptible. Imagine drinking the same bourbon with a slightly differently-cooked piece of wood under your nose. The only one that’s distinctly different is the deliberately over-aged bourbon (did you know a bourbon can be aged too long?), which tastes sort of like licking whiskey off a log. Still, I probably wouldn’t throw it in your face if you served it to me at a bar.

With every new sample, there’s discussion of what part of the tongue we feel it on. “This one’s so sweet, hits you right at the front of your tongue,” and so forth. It’s based on the old taste map from elementary school, where the sweet sensors are in the front of the tongue, bitter in the back, sour on the sides.

And this is, unfortunately, a good time to point out that the old flavor map has been proven largely mythical. “Each of the roughly 8,000 taste buds scattered over the tongue is capable of sensing the full suite of tastes. But specialised cells within the taste bud are tuned to either salty, bitter, sour, sweet or umami tastes,” goes one study.

The old taste map is based, according to a doctor at the Yale School of Medicine, “on a mistranslation of a German paper that was written in 1901 by a Harvard psychologist.”

After the third or fourth sip, I begin to taste the subtle differences in the staves. Or maybe I’m hallucinating. My favorite of the staves is the French Cuvée, which is fatty, rich, buttery — perfect if you have a fat-tooth like I do. We’re all half drunk and creating new mixes from the different samples, discussing fantasy bourbon barrels and our ideal stave combination. My God, have we been booze hypnotized? I’m starting to feel like Pinocchio on the donkey island, and that’s before they start handing out free cigars.

They bring out the Griffin Gate Marriott’s own private select — made with four Baked American Pure, four Roasted French Mocha, and two Toasted French Spice staves. It’s delicious, and doesn’t even include my favorite stave, the French fatty. Dammit! Now I have to taste more private select bourbons!

Which was, of course, surely the point of the event. Not only can we become instant bourbon experts, we can be instant distillers too!

This is the rub, much more so than the brainload of wood facts I’ll surely never retain. Me forgetting everything is the best-cast scenario. Worst-case is me cornering you at a cocktail party for a harangue about the finer points of mouth feel. Did I need to know all this? Absolutely not. Did I enjoy learning all this? Sort of. When it comes down to it, I don’t really care what sorcery produces good bourbon, but it’s nice when the witch takes pride in her spells, so to speak. And it gives your bartender something to talk about while he pours. Can you taste that raven’s claw? Are you getting a subtle nose of newt’s eyes? Along with the truism that the more bourbon you taste, the better it gets, it’s also true that the more you drink, the more interesting the brand story becomes.

A Bourbon Battle

Bartender Ashley Sherrow and author Heather Green

After the bourbon tasting, Marriott invites us all to their kickoff Bourbon Battle, which will have events in Portland, Calgary, Boston, and New York throughout the next two months. The event itself is mostly a blur, though I make note of the chicken and waffles (in my admittedly limited Kentucky experience, chicken and waffles are always an entree option, and bread pudding always a dessert option). And, naturally, every variation on bourbon you could ever want. I mostly stick with private select on the rocks and old fashioneds, though I also discovered the boulevardier, a bourbon cocktail with vermouth, campari, and orange peel. Essentially, a negroni made with bourbon. Try it, it’s nice.

After more drinks and food, the other writers and I sit down front for the bourbon battle, taking bets on each round, the event getting friendlier with each successive cocktail. One of the judges keeps calling me “Bobby Flay,” which I can’t decide whether to take as a compliment or an insult. I stupidly bet against the Griffin Gate Marriott’s hometown bartender, Ashley Sherrow, after being wowed by a competitor’s use of red ice cubes made from Campari (genius!, I think, throwing an orange rind onto the stage at his feet as tribute). Instead, Sherrow wins the competition with a drink made from egg whites, coffee, and grapefruit juice (recipe below).

Afterwards, we pile into Sherrow’s giant pick-up truck for a bar outing. A publicist wisely shoos a few drunk writers out of the truck bed in favor of an Uber, even though truck-bed-riding is apparently legal in Kentucky (ain’t that America).

The following day, we drag ourselves out of bed for a trip to Keeneland racetrack — jacket and tie required, no denim — to watch the horse races. I smuggle some bourbon in through my pores and wear the same coat I wore the night before, which smells like a humidor left in a hot car. It’s a beautiful day, and the crowd is thick with croakies and sunburns, not to mention an overwhelming number of beautiful tanned women in tiny rompers and nude wedges. Many wear silly hats. There’s more bread pudding, and hey did you know you can make a bloody Mary with bourbon? It’s true. If I spend another day here I’m going to be using bourbon to brush my teeth and splashing it behind my ears before dates.

Maker’s has partnered with Keeneland racetrack (it’s where they filmed Seabiscuit!) to advertise (tastefully, the racetrack reps repeatedly promise us) Maker’s 46. Indeed, the Maker’s 46 signage is very discreet, as far as signage goes. This partnership includes, of course, a Keeneland-approved barrel of private select — one Baked American Pure, three Seared French Cuvée, one Maker’s 46, three Roasted French Mocha, and two Toasted French Spice staves. It’s also quite nice.

We spot Rob Samuels on the way down to the horse paddock. “Oh, you’re visiting the paddock? That’s great, the paddock is really the heartbeat of the racetrack.”

He really talks like that.

It’s interesting to be in a place like this, with a history, traditions (not all of them so great, I’m sure, but that’s sort of the deal with tradition). I come from a place that exists outside of that. A place that feels largely ahistorical, acultural, that doesn’t have a uniform to speak of, croakie-based or otherwise. What was my family doing 400 years ago? I don’t have a clue.

My people, we aren’t bound by those kinds of ties. We can’t be representatives, ambassadors of a particular time and place because we aren’t really tied to any. Instead we become enthusiasts. We’re defined not so much by who we are but what we like. If our culture is too mixed to be any one thing, maybe we can create a new culture out of all the little things we like. A different culture for a different day, with shifting, sometimes overlapping groups of peers. That seems to be the collective dream, anyway. Is it possible? I don’t know. But on the right day, in the right light, perhaps with the help of a few glasses of the right bourbon, it feels like it.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

Ashley Sherrow’s Winning Recipe:

  • 1.5 oz Maker’s 46
  • 1 Egg white
  • .5 oz frangelica
  • .5 oz simple syrup
  • .5 oz hot coffee
  • Splash of grapefruit juice
  • .5 oz honey

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