American Spirit

This summer, thousands will make the pilgrimage to Kentucky for what they consider the event of the year, and it won't involve horse racing. Kentucky's other big deal is September's annual bourbon festival. It's not so much the week Kentuckians obsess over bourbon—they do that every week—it's just the week they make the adulation official by inviting the rest of the country to join in. Every liquor enthusiast has his or her opinions on which spirits are most refined. There are gin drinkers, cognac swillers, and those who are inexhaustible on the subject of fine scotch whiskeys. Because of its patriotic nature, bourbon whiskey seems to garner the staunchest support of all, particularly in its birth state, where it's regarded as if it were the American flag in a bottle. What started as a way of life became an industry in the late 1700s when Kentuckians sold their first barrels of whiskey. Over the next century, bourbon became Kentucky's main industry, with thousands of distillers turning corn into cash, employing thousands more men, including little Abraham Lincoln's father, who worked in a Knob Creek distillery. What separates bourbon from other whiskeys is a set of strict guidelines officially declared by a U.S. congressional act in 1964: The product must be made in the U.S., contain at least 51 percent corn (for a flavorful full body), and be unfiltered and aged in new, charred oak barrels (other whiskeys are aged in used barrels). To be labeled a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, the whiskey must be produced in Kentucky and aged at least two years. If the fine print of making bourbon sounds complex, try watching a serious tasting. Last month, promoters of small-batch bourbons descended on McCormick and Schmick's Harborside restaurant on Lake Union for a four-course dinner that refused to waste a drop of whiskey. The sweet potatoes were mashed with Baker's bourbon, the apple vinaigrette was spiked with Knob Creek, the pork chops were cured with Booker's, and the pecan pie was made even better by Basil Hayden's. Of course, there was plenty of old red-eye being poured and appraised as well. The uninitiated can hardly drink the stuff—at least not without some soda or lots of water—but professionals will discuss the nose of a particularly fine bourbon for a full hour if given the chance. Vanilla, maple, spice . . . all the nuances of aroma and flavor (if you can distinguish them) and color (the deeper the color, the more potent and complex the bourbon) come from the barrels. Charring the oak brings the sugars and tannins to the surface, producing a caramelized top layer. The longer the bourbon sits in the barrel, the more complex and rich it gets. There's even a four-step method for tasting Kentucky pride. Pour two fingers' depth into a glass, add an ice cube if you need to, then: assess the color, smell it with parted lips (for more palate access), taste it with the ol' "Kentucky chew" (get some on the tip of the tongue and roll it around inside the mouth for a bit), and, finally, evaluate the finish (if you can identify a lingering taste other than a raw burn, congratulations—you're doing better than I am). Perhaps you're ready for Kentucky. It's not too late to plan for September's festival:, 800-638-4877.

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