Yesterday, we began our Bourbon Trail adventure with stops at Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. As expected, our tours at Woodford and Four Roses overlapped a little (“Did you know that all bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn?”), but each was also surprisingly fresh and interesting. I’d show you pictures of the fermenting yeast concoction we saw at Four Roses, but they turned out a sickly green. Perhaps our favorite experience was being in the barrel warehouse at Woodford Reserve — an olfactory overload so blissful that we were all reluctant to leave. Tara actually bought a bourbon-scented candle a little later, and at Wild Turkey (which we didn’t tour), we picked up bottle of Russell’s Reserve, supposedly not available back in our home state. We all took sips back in the hotel room, and it’s an interesting bourbon — smooth but with a slightly bitter finish.
This morning, we head out for Buffalo Trace — home of Blanton’s, in the opinion of at least three of us the finest bourbon on the market today. We’re doing two tours there, the regular tour and then a special hard-hat tour. We are tingling with anticipation.
For today’s literary snippet, here’s an excerpt from Walker Percy‘s glorious essay on bourbon:
I can hardly tell one bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad bourbons are more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: “Where are the women?”
I have not been able to locate this remarkable bourbon since.
Not only should connoisseurs of bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real enough dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, that is, the use of bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cure the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”
If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of the C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.
The pleasure of knocking back bourbon lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of evocation of time and memory and the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, where as connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded simulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation….
This essay appeared in Percy’s collection Signposts in a Strange Land and has been excerpted and reprinted widely. Find more of the essay here.