Barfly is standing in the rain. It’s coming down cats and dogs—a steady stream that seems less like droplets and more like a deluge. Barfly, though, cares not one whit about getting wet. Rivulets are running down his temples and tousled hair—he’s absolutely soaked. Although the March day in Kentucky is unseasonably chilly, steam from the hot rain billows around the Barfly. He closes his eyes, turns, and reaches down—for the soap?
So I’m a little disoriented. Your forgiveness, please; this Sunday morning after the Bourbon Classic in Louisville, an exploration of the “best of the best in the authentic world of bourbon,” I definitely needed to dry out; after a long shower to clear a cloudy head, I needed to dry off, too.
When I emerged from the bath, Jim Rogan, my partner-in-crime for the weekend, was sitting in skivvies on his Galt House bed. His posture listless, his affect blank, I knew he too had succumbed to the bourbon bug. Without a word, Rogan stood up and dressed—commendably still dapper as always—and posed a question.
“I’m going to get some coffee. You want some?”
“Dear God, yes.” Barfly’s reply.
The night before, all I’d had to drink was bourbon and water; the latter melted ice diluted from drinking the former. I’d safely say I still got my money’s worth of the brown stuff.
Saturday’s first of many sips of bourbon was small enough—a trickle of Four Roses Single Barrel to tickle the tastebuds after tasting a cocoa nib. Tim Knittel and Ouita Michel of Midway’s Holly Hill Inn were talking pairings.
Ouita’s enthusiasm about the interplay between bourbon, chocolate, and other sweet things on our plates was exhilarating. She led seventy-five students through the flavor wheel—nibs, dark, semi-sweet, Gianduja, milk, and white chocolates, malted milk, a dried cranberry, a toasted walnut, sorghum, and an chocolate-covered espresso bean— and it became apparent how seemingly subtle differences in food completely changed the bourbon’s character. Citrus, spice, vegetal, vanilla, caramel, coffee, and chocolate notes in the bourbon came and went.
Sipping Four Roses with eleven different complements, the bourbon seemed to become eleven different bourbons in the mouth. Equally amazing was how those small sips turned into more sufficient swallows. When Barfly’s supply dwindled, Ouita shared some from her own shot glass. Such generosity and genuine gusto from Ouita and Tim.
Immediately following, Rogan and I went to a cocktail class headed by Josh Durr of the Hawthorn Beverage Group. Josh has a dream job; he’s a cocktail consultant. Although he had a packed classroom full of conference-goers careening towards inebriation, Josh handled the students as deftly as he crafted a cocktail.
Rogan and Barfly, we two motley mixologists, felt we earned our chops when Josh polled the audience: “So who’s heard of the Boulevardier?”
Our hands shot up. The only two in the room, in fact. Barfly, bless him, spontaneously started clapping. The congenial atmosphere of the class and the bourbon already in his body may have contributed to such a cocksure attitude.
“Ok, there’s our two,” Josh said. “They’re clapping for themselves. I’m not going to do that for them,” he quipped.
Josh made an Old Fashioned, his favorite cocktail, with Demerara syrup, a dark, sweet syrup that was far from simple. The dapper educator expounded on the importance of dilution—when you commonly use a 100 proof spirit in your cocktails, the proper level of dilution creates a drink with a backbone. Josh felt, and Rogan and I agreed, that using a lower-proof bourbon in cocktails makes them “flabby.”
Rogan and I seemed to be the only two bartenders in the class of seventy-five. So when we delved into the arcane arithmetic of barspoon use—depth, speed, and duration—the rest of the room seemed lost in the reverie of their own refreshments. Josh, Rogan and I carried on; we decided that longer barspoons are more extravagant, easier to use—an important factor when a bartender’s performance is considered. Our instructor had an impressive spoon that must have been eighteen inches in length. But I’m not going to get into a barspoon measuring contest here. In my opinion, it’s how you stir with your barspoon, honestly, not its size.
By the end of the class, the crowd had so much bourbon in them that their buzz overtook our bartender. Whooping, hollering, a constant chatter—and this wasn’t just Rogan and Barfly. But the tenor of the Bourbon Classic wasn’t always so convivial. It took a little bourbon to loosen up the crowd. Barfly thought back to the opening ceremony.
At the Kentucky Center for the Arts, arranged on the stage of the Bomhard Theater in front of a deadly quiet audience, sat the masters of the bourbon biz: Willie Pratt of Michter’s, Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace, Al Young of Four Roses, Fred Noe of Jim Beam, Greg Davis of Maker’s Mark, Mark Coffman of Alltech, Craig Beam of Heaven Hill, and Lincoln Henderson of Angel’s Envy. The attendees seemed stunned—afraid to breathe in the presence of bourbon barons. Willie Pratt thankfully broke the ice when he pronounced in his delightful drawl, “I tend to start high and end up low.” Willie was referring to his volume, but might as well have been discussing the bourbon lover’s bane—the dreaded morning-after.
Willie believes bourbon reaches a “fork in the road” at about the seventeen- to twenty-year-mark. At that point, the juice becomes either great bourbon, or a barrel to be forgotten.
Harlen Wheatley, ever the engineer, waxed poetic about his Single Oak Project. Buffalo Trace has relegated their taste testing to the public for four years—crowdsourcing an entire collection of bourbons and collecting opinions on a website. “We were anal enough to go into the woods, check out the trees, the surrounding conditions, save the lily pads. Now we’re using the general public to do all our work,” Harlen said.
Harlen also mentioned the public’s love for bourbon that’s been, essentially, bastardized—flavored bourbons that are almost every distiller’s gateway to the general population. Why did Buffalo Trace make their bourbon cream? Harlen said the stuff filled a new niche: “I think everyone up here would agree—we like bourbon more than Irish Whiskey.” And thus a bourbon liqueur, planned for sale only in the gift shop, is now snatched up all over the eastern United States.
Fred Noe, the fiery fellow from Jim Beam with flames on his cowboy boots and formal fashion above the ankles, touched on the flavored bourbon trend. On making and marketing Beam’s Red Stag: “What the hell? How we gonna do that?”, he recalls his reaction. But bourbon, Fred understood, “is no longer your dad’s drink or your granddad’s drink. It’s not just shots for cowboys bellying up to the bar. Bourbon is becoming pretty damn cool.”
Fred and the rest of the master distillers have become world travelers, purveying their potions across Europe and Asia. Jim Beam sold a million cases in Germany last year. Spain and India are emerging markets. Australia, too, is a nation of bourbon consumers—two drinks a year are poured for every man, woman, and child. Often, these far-flung bourbon fanatics come pay homage to the hallowed halls of Kentucky distilleries. “It’s amazing, seeing people making pilgrimages to our little state,” said Noe.
Asked about the provenance of the burgeoning bourbon market, Noe recalled his famous father’s heyday. “The Scotch guys have been doing good for a long time. My dad and some other folks said, ‘if they can get what they do for one of them bottles, we can do some good too.’ And now we’re getting ahead of the guys wearing the skirts,” Fred jabbed at the guys across the pond. “To quote the great Jimmy Russell,” he said, “If we didn’t sell ‘em our used barrels, no one would drink that shit.”
Greg Davis of Maker’s Mark fielded a thorny question about the eighty-four proof fiasco quite well. “You may have heard about us in the news lately,” he opened, tongue-in-cheek. Greg then mentioned the single mandate from his predecessor, Bill Samuels Senior: “Don’t screw it up.” But Greg deftly banged the drum for the bourbon that once boasted the slogan, “It tastes expensive—and is. An appreciative laugh from the crowd arose when he ended, “bourbon is a great before, during, and after dinner drink.” Barfly must agree.
And on the day of the Bourbon Classic, drink bourbon we did—all day long and into the night. Rogan and I were lucky enough to taste the Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, released only in November. We snagged sips of Jefferson’s Presidential twenty-one year, not yet released, and Parker’s Heritage from last year—my very favorite bourbon.
Here’s the take home; since I left my swag in a bag at the Performing Arts Center, I made it home with only a wealth of knowledge and a killer headache. Although the Bourbon Classic was in its inaugural year, it already seemed like an established tradition. And I imagine it’ll stay that way for years to come.
Strange symbols… Easy eyes and hot spice at Little Branch… Using Michigan’s insider’s secret… Turning Japanese with Taka and Yuichi… Vectors lead to and from V… Gathering outside a gay bar… Vonnegut gets the last laugh at Employees Only
Monday, February 25
Barfly is trying to read the signs. There are hieroglyphics on the wall across the street, glowing gold light on concrete. A happy accident put them there—a glass-walled building, a mirrored reflection, an ephemeral moment of meaning. The signs were perceptible the previous night, too—a chance meeting, a few (too many) bartender’s handshakes, the stars aligning to spell out—what? That much remains to be seen.
It all started with a straw. Four inches long, aluminum, a quarter-sized disc soldered to one end as a stirrer. I’d seen one of these before—at Milk & Honey. But this was Little Branch, far from the Flatiron, a basement speakeasy hidden in a tagged-up beige brick corner building, innocuous and ugly—and the straw was in a rum swizzle to my right. I was sipping a “Torch Light” from Nevada, my bartender, who responded to my request for something spicy—“Chili pepper spicy, not pumpkin pie spicy,” I clarified—by mixing light rum, lime, honey, Cholula hot sauce, and a cayenne sprinkle into this tasty tipple.
I was talking with three girls from outside Detroit—only with Michiganders does pointing to your right hand give you immediate street cred across the world—Chelsea, Kate, and Casey, and the latter of this (almost) alliterative trio was commenting on the jazz trio playing in the space beneath the stairs (how’d they fit the double bass under there?).
It’s a good thing Casey mentioned the music—I was so fixated on my bartender’s beautiful eyes as she deftly wielded a bar spoon, the cleavage of her ice perfect and precise, that I hadn’t heard the soft swish of the drummer’s brush on the snare. Suddenly my attention snapped to the tunes of the trio.
Good thing, too, for later that night—and I’m not sure how she knew—I would be too late to hear B Flat’s own jazz ensemble playing in the basement (like Little Branch, coincidentally) of this Japanese joint, a favorite of mine.
This Monday night was full of Tralfamadorian time—a Vonnegutian vision of the perception of time not as passing, linear-like, but as a paradigm where all moments exist concurrently. So as I was flirting with the girls from the Great Lakes State, I was also learning Japanese from Yuichi and Taka at B Flat.
“Arigato, arigato,” I was saying to these two, thanking them for being open and obliging even as my sorry ass was the only customer in the place. I had already taken “Giant Steps” thanks to T. and Y. an incomparable infusion of wasabi in vodka with Sawanotsuru Zuicho junmai daiginjo sake—simple, with only a slight cucumber garnish. The wasabi packed a wallop, but was moderated by the magnificent sake, a delicate flower in the midst of this wildly overgrown green field.
“Do you like it?” Taka asked.
“Hai, hai, very much,” I said.
Somewhere outside of Tokyo, a toji was toiling away in his brewery, the master brewer burnishing the already-tiny grains of shuzo kotekimai, sake rice, into something half their size.
And in an eclectic little wine bar called V (of all the names of all the java joints in all the world…), I was being told a bad Asian joke by the self-styled Mayor of Sullivan Street, Tracey (something about Japanese yen and “fluctuations,” don’t ask). She snuck outside on her walker for a cigarette when I heard my name called from across the coffee house. It was Ittai, a fraternity brother from college. I brought over my Zin (St. Amant Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, ripe and chewy with big berries) and my shot (of espresso, thank you very much) and was promptly propositioned.
“You’re looking an awful lot like a politician,” Ittai said, but coming from him, that was a compliment. I was wearing a sport coat and trousers, but no tie. “Aren’t you going to run for office in the South?”
I said I hadn’t thought of it past mulling over a mayoral run in 2014 (for the town of Danville, not the street of Sullivan; Tracey held a lifetime term). He was convinced a wave of anti-abortion Democrats would sweep the South in the near future and was ready to sign on as my campaign manager.
“That’s fine,” I said. “But one problem. I’m not a Democrat.”
He looked aghast, as if everything I had ever told him had been a terrible lie. I let his disbelief blossom for a beat.
“I’m kidding,” I said. He blushed.
I should have been doing the same when I walked into Henrietta Hudson that night. Wanting to compliment the staff on their placement of a superlative space heater on the sidewalk outside (my hands were quite cold, and as Grandma Alice says, ‘cold hands, warm heart’), I was oblivious to the importance of the bar’s logo, an inverted black triangle.
It wasn’t the first thing out of Kara’s mouth, but it wasn’t far off. “You know this is a lesbian bar, right?”
“Oh, it is?” It’s not that I’m unconcerned with people’s identities in this most international, inclusive of cities—it’s just that their orientations, opinions, and occupations are secondary to my manifest desire to meet and mingle with all of them. There’s only eight million, after all, in Manhattan.
Kara was getting a call from a neighbor—he was coming around the corner with Taco and Tequila, his Bull Terriers. We went outside to snag a couple of treats for the two pups. Across the street strolled a Yellow Lab, leashless and leisurely. Her name was Glory. I thought back on my family’s own Buster, who, approaching his fourteenth year, now wandered through the house at will, breaking his training, and furtively peed once in the corner (by the Persian rug). Not too different from my own experience behind the big backhoe in Brooklyn. Again, a sign that we’re all in this together—the Tralfamadorians would be thrilled.
Taco and Tequila were hungry—they probably always were—begging for another treat from the towering Kara. I was a bit peckish, now that I thought about it.
And suddenly I was sitting with a towering salad filling my field of view—arugula, shaved Brussels sprouts, Parmesan, and hazelnuts—at Employees Only. Swinging Sam Cooke was singing in the background, and Uros was making me a “Lazy Lover”: cachaça, jalapeño-infused Green Chartreuse, Benedictine, lime juice, and agave. Uros, although from Belgrade, had played basketball at, of all places, Western Kentucky.
“Do you happen to know Kevin Smiley, my buddy from high school? He was student body president at Western a few years ago,” I said. Uros did
Not long after, Kimberle, the manager at EO dressed all in black lace with a feather in her flapper headband, was pushing a “Provençal” my way. “This was one of the first drinks we created here,” she said. “You’ve got to try it. Tell me what’s in it,” she dared, an eyebrow cocked. I guessed gin—and after a second sip, Cointreau.
“Not bad,” she said, and filled out the recipe—Lavender-infused Plymouth Gin, Herbs de Provence-infused dry vermouth, and Cointreau. We shared the cocktail in the middle of a crowded bar and shared our dreams for the future. “I so want to be a writer,” she said, “for Garden & Gun.” I told her about this little chronicle of my time in the city and the endless cocktails I’d consumed.
“So you’re already a writer,” she said. I thought for a moment, and realized she was on to something. If we took it according to the Tralfamadorians, and their atypical attitude towards time, she was absolutely accurate.
Dreaming of Delirium… Sunday a true day of rest… Maysville, KY transplanted to the Big Apple… Secrets over a second round… True family time at Barrio Chino… Drinks and details… A contract between cousins…
Sunday, February 24
Barfly is in bed, shivering, shirt soaked in a cold sweat. Early morning Monday light filters in the wide south-side windows at the Doctor’s sixth floor digs, and Barfly’s thinking, Do I have the DTs? He takes stock of the situation. A week in New York so far. Some serious drinking under his belt. But this is all business, research, networking. Not—he hesitates to say the word—alcoholism. Barfly guesses his body can’t tell the difference between pleasure and this peculiar kind of business. So I took last night easy—and this is my punishment?
Sunday was indeed a day of rest for Barfly. I threw my lengthy itinerary out the SoHo sixth floor window and planned only two leisurely destinations. The first was brunch with Julia and Dré, daughter and son-in-law of two Danville friends and regulars. The second, dinner with cousin Will, who I hadn’t seen in far too long.
A focus on food! Sounded like a welcome reprieve. With a few drinks included, of course. Couldn’t do a day in the city without a drink—it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it—and when back in Danville, a drastic detoxification will be due, I decide.
Maysville had unpretentious service, a sophisticated menu, Miike Snow’s “Animal” bumping in the background (I like that song, don’t get me wrong, thinks Barfly, but it doesn’t mix well with bourbon), and an unabashed shrine to bourbon behind the bar—it all didn’t really jive, but I was sure that with age the elements would integrate, like a good whiskey. Bourbon takes at least five years before its burn, vanilla, caramel, smoke, and oak all meld into something really worth drinking.
Since the new friend I had invited to brunch with us the night before had cancelled—that 8:30 am conference call with Dubai must have taken a lot out of her—(her loss, Barfly thinks, even if I’m terrible company I was still going to treat) I dragged along the Doctor, who had been struggling to survive the morning. “Trust me, you want to come,” I had told him.
Where amber light bathed the bourbonites at Char No. 4 the night before, here it was a relief to sit in the clear white light streaming in through the windows (and bask in the glow of all that brown stuff). We munched on an excellent dish of brussels sprouts—Julia’s first, and not her only first of the meal—crispy pig ears, quail egg, lemon and buttermilk dressing as Dré detailed his recent return to water polo at Mardi Gras tourney down in New Orleans—confirming that it was indeed a rough but satisfying sport, combining the aquatic elements of swimming with the camaraderie of a collaborating as a team (Barfly laments: I should have played water polo).
“So when you swing your legs back together at the end of the eggbeater kick,” Dré explained, “You point your fingers at the end of the kick.
“You mean toes, yes?” I asked.
Dré laughed. “There I am, bringing out the ESL again.” Born in Colombia and raised speaking Spanish, Dré spoke nothing but beautiful English.
“I don’t think it’s an ESL thing—it’s just a brain short-circuit thing,” I said. “Believe me, I’ve had plenty of those this week.”
With that, we raised our glasses full of the stuff that slurs the speech and stops the filter—if one indulges too much.
Julia had a “Hound Dog,” a bourbon cocktail with grapefruit, honey, mint and lime. “It reminds me of lemonade in the summer,” she beamed. The Doctor was drinking the “Spicy Buck,” with Weller Antique bourbon and Blenheim Ginger Ale from South Carolina—sweet from the wheated Weller and spicy from the Blenheim, the oldest continuous independent soda bottler in the world. Dré and I were doing traditional brunch with a twist: Smoked Chipotle Bourbon Bloody Marys.
As we leisurely worked our way through a first dish and then the main course, the conversation drifted as freely as the fugitive minutes, from Colombia to Danville, theater to film, graphic design to good spots around the city. We spent more than two hours together and enjoyed each other’s company too much. A first round gave way to a second, and Julia had her second ‘first’ of the meal—her first Old Fashioned.
“Now you’re a real Kentucky girl,” I said.
With the warm feeling of affection in the air, Julia gushed about Dré’s expert dancing, and this led the Doctor to share the story of what his family still refers to as “The Sexy Thanksgiving,” a flirty night between family and friends where everyone seemed so deeply in love with life and each other. You’ll have to ask the Doctor if you want the details.
Dré, perhaps loosened up by the atmosphere and his second drink(s), a beer and a shot Maysville calls the “Barreled Over,” with Woodford Reserve and Brooklyn Black Ops, told his story of his martini night, where attired “Risky Business” style, he answered the knock of the nuisance downstairs neighbor who never could stand the slightest noise. And as before, the same applies—for details, ask Dré. At brunch, some things are best kept between friends. But believe me—it’s a great story.
“Were you drinking gin or vodka martinis?” I asked (always thinking about booze, Barfly thinks).
“Vodka. Isn’t that traditional?” Dré asks.
The Doctor chimes in. “I think it’s gin, actually.” With his affinity for that juniper-tinged juice, I’m not surprised he knows. “But my father Warren judged a martini-making competition back home (tough duty for the Mayor of Frenchtown, thinks Barfly), and there were ten competitors. Ten drinks. Not a single one of them was gin.” (Barfly: honestly, a tragedy)
Glowing with a light not unlike the glow of a finely-made Manhattan after the meal, we four strolled down the street and ducked into Milk and Honey, which the Doctor and I so enjoyed the other night (what day was it? Barfly thinks). No drinks—no bartenders, for that matter—but it was nice to see the place open, being cleaned and worked on. (Behind the glossy exterior of these fantastic joints throughout the city, there are still people working hard, and a community coming together to support the business, Barfly thinks)
That night I was excited beyond belief to meet with my cousin Will, who I hadn’t seen for eight years. We met at Barrio Chino, a fusion of Chinese décor and Mexican food that mirrored the junction of those two communities in the neighborhood. I arrived early and bellied up to the bar, ordering a habanero-infused grapefruit margarita off the drinks menu written in sharpie on corrugated cardboard. Delicious and spicy, the grapefruit was the perfect strong citrus to complement the Mexican chili. I turned and saw Will out the window, missing the entrance (knew it was him, thinks Barfly, because he is 6’8”, after all).
I leaned out the door and called out. “Easy place to miss, I know,” I said after we had embraced.
“Those are some of the best,” Will replied. We ducked in the door (him perhaps literally, thinks Barfly), and settled down at a table. “Really unique concept,” he said. We talked over ceviche (they cheated and were a little heavy on avocado, Barfly thinks, but it was still good. Will thought so, and he lived in Spain, for goodness sakes) about everything under the sun. We made plans to round up the family for a reunion celebrating my uncle’s 70th in December. As the youngest representatives of this generation of the Johnson clan, we thought, we have the energy and the excitement to make it happen.
After dinner I said I was stopping by Apotheke for a quick drink. Will was up for it, so he put his card down for dinner (thanks Will); he paid the quick cab ride to diminutive Doyers Street. I protested.
“It’s ok. When you’re famous and writing for the New York Times, then you can pay for the cab.” (Will, if that ever happens, then you got it, cousin) And off we went.