Dylan Thomas once said, "I've had 18 straight whiskeys ... that is the record." It was the last thing he said. Maybe if he'd had only 17 he would have lived to say other things, but likely not. It's never really the last one that gets you. It's the first one.
The closest I ever came to Dylanization was in 1990. McDonald's was giving out Happy Meals in plastic beach buckets. We each got one and filled them with ice, Coca-Cola and Jim Beam. Then we got straws. It was like mixing a cocktail in a paint can.
Everyone else there that weekend is now either missing or dead, but what happened to me was worse. I let somebody dye my dyed-black hair platinum, which took nine bleach jobs. It turned into fishing line and had to be hacked off. If I had drawn a swastika on my forehead and shouted, "Free Charlie!" I could have had a good Halloween costume. It was wretched excess, sure, but remember another thing Thomas said: An alcoholic is someone you don't like who drinks as much as you do.
All liquored up
Though it's a classic and it might make him laugh, I don't tell Booker Noe this story. Booker is royalty: He's Jim Beam's grandson, a sixth-generation Beam and master distiller emeritus of the family's Kentucky distillery. Booker tells stories about people like FDR who drank Manhattans every night and made them for visiting dignitaries. The story of my hair loss doesn't fit in.
He does have one that's kind of common to us all, though, the "my first time" story. Lots of kids emptied the glasses left over from a parent's party into one big snort as their foul introduction to drinking. Booker's version happened when he was about 7 years old. "We had a brand called Old Tub, 100 proof stuff. Dad threw all his empties down in the old outhouse. There was a big pile of bottles," and just enough in the bottom of each to get a swig. "I found," he says, "that it set me afire." That's pronounced "afaaaaaar"; Booker's voice sounds like it's being poured out of a cement truck. "I thought, ‘What in the world does my dad drink that stuff for?'"
He eventually acquired the taste.
So did the 50,000 members of the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, about 250 of whom are at the Wildhorse Saloon to hear Booker speak and to taste the new Beam small-batch bourbons. Bourbon is enjoying a renaissance right alongside martinis and single-malt scotches. When I mention the '50s cocktail culture, Booker says, "Cocktails were coming about then, yeah. But drinking out of the bottle was another thing."
Booker is as classic as his family name, and his set-awhile stories range from how his grandpa Jim recovered the family business from Prohibition (he farmed citrus in Florida during that period) to anecdotes about the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Before he speaks to the group we have a private audience in which he's going to tell me the finer points of whiskey tasting. "Mix it up with your finger, if you don't mind," he says after pouring water into the snifter of Booker's Small Batch Bourbon, his own creation. I don't mind -- I know where my finger has been.
Like someone who has been playing by ear their whole life and decides it's finally time to learn music theory, I am beginning my formal drinking education 20 years after my first stumbling experiments. Tasting, it turns out, is easy, and amounts to the difference between a generous lover and a selfish one -- you admire and pay attention to the external qualities of your heart's desire before getting all up into it. I learn to swish the liquid around the glass to "open it up," to put my whole nose in the snifter to breathe in the aroma, and to cut it with cool, not cold, water to balance the flavor.
We try a couple of varieties, including "White Dog," which is clear. (Bourbon gets its maple color from the "toast" of the wood on the charred barrels it's aged in.) There is no such thing as plain "whiskey," says Jim Kokoris, executive director of the Circle; it all has a name -- bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish malt or blended -- and what it's called depends on its content. Bourbon has to be 51 percent corn, and it has to be aged. It's the only liquor of pure American origin.
Feeling pretty patriotic, I try them all, but it's the Booker's my hand keeps wandering back to. It goes down as easy as flattery, even at 126 proof. "Hard to resist, isn't it?" says Booker. It would be, if I had any intention of resisting. With my newfound sniffing technique, I think I detect vanilla or other spices, but it's actually just eight years of aging. Aging, Booker says, makes it more aromatic, smoother, sweeter, richer.
Aging makes a lot of things sweeter and richer, and between us, Booker and I are bringing a century to the table, which could be why I had such a good time and learned something about drinking that didn't hurt the next day. But mostly I learned that while some people prefer to mix theirs with Coca-Cola and some with water, the best thing to mix your whiskey with is good company.
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