Bourbon 101: An Old Friend’s Cry For Help

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The call for help came in the form of a text message and a tweet which are words I never thought I’d type. My old and dear friend RK was in trouble and needed help. Indeed, his message was simply the word “Help” with the photo above. It appears a new “whiskey” bar had opened a couple of blocks from his home. Thankfully the “martini” bar fad has passed and whiskey is on the rise but I digress. As a good drinker, RK had immediately sauntered down to the new whiskey-themed joint and bellied up to the bar. But as often happens, he was confronted with a plethora of choices. Which whiskey to order? How do I avoid making a mistake here. Thankfully he came to the source, he came to BourbonAndVinyl.

Now I should probably take a step back for second to explain my view on friendship. I learned at an early age how valuable friends are. As a young, young man, I had forsaken all my friends for that oldest of reasons… love. Or, what I thought was love in my romantic, slightly drunken, immature heart. I had packed up all my stuff and took that leap of faith and moved to another city for a chick. After taking the leap, lets just say I landed hard when there was nothing to catch me. It was a lifetime ago, bygones and long forgotten… Embarrassed and chastened, I reached out to my friends, and to my surprise, all was forgiven. The prodigal was welcomed back to the fold with open arms. It dawned on me, that friends, true friends are some of the most important relationships a man can have. Dudes to drink and swear and talk a little treason with are invaluable. Friendship is sacred.

So when RK’s cry for help came to me, I took it very seriously. RK and I have a long history of tearing around Chicago. I seem to have a vague memory of drinking Hennessey with him and a homeless guy outside a Walgreens, but those records are mostly sealed. We’ve matured since then. I would do anything for RK… he’s one of those pals who could call in the middle of the night and I’d jump in my car with a weapon and $1000 bail money, no questions asked. And I must admit, RK is not the only one who has asked me about what bourbon to choose and what occasion to drink them. Luckily my friend Pest lives in Kentucky and took me out on the Bourbon Trail so I have cursory knowledge. What I’m about to tell you here is personal choice more than expertise. I’ve spent a lifetime drinking and frankly I don’t think there is anything better than whiskey.

My general rule – I always choose bourbon over whiskey if a good bourbon is available. Remember folks, all bourbons are whiskeys but not all whiskeys are bourbon. To be bourbon you have to have the right combination of grains, specifically a corn-mash and while it can actually be distilled anywhere, in my opinion it needs to come from Kentucky where the water is rich in minerals. It’s no coincidence they raise thoroughbred horses in Kentucky. Strong water = strong bones… and strong bourbon.

In the absence of bourbon, when it comes to American whiskeys, the one that is my go to is Gentlemen Jack, Jack Daniels’ premium whiskey. Until I discovered my love of bourbon this was my go to. I used to drink it neat because when I put ice in it, it goes down like coca-cola on a warm summer day. The next thing you know you’ll be trying to take your pants off over your head.

I tend to shy away from Canadian whiskeys because they’re sweeter. I like Canadian beer more than their whiskey. Sorry Canadians. If you’re looking to mix coke with your whiskey, and why the fuck would you do that, Canadian is probably where you go.

I hate Scotch. My apologies to my readers in the UK. Scotch tastes like whiskey gone bad. I know I’ll take a rash of shit on this. My buddy Doug has been trying to get me to drink a “good Scotch” for years but in my opinion, no such thing exists.

I love Rye as well when I want to mix it up. I actually like Bulleit Rye more than their bourbon. Rye has a more peppery finish to it. Its to bourbon what tabasco is to ketchup in my mind. I love the after taste of rye. Even in the presence of bourbon I will sometimes get a good Rye before dinner. I tend to lean on bourbon post eating.

I am very, very fond of Jameson if you’re going to with an Irish whiskey. I haven’t tried Tullamore Dew yet, but I am hearing great things about it. I tend to drink Irish whiskey on that most sacred of religious holidays, St Patrick’s Day. If I’m going to drink all day, I like a good Irish whiskey.

But again, at heart I’m a bourbon man. I drink it neat, or if I’m taking it slow I add ice. I never add mixer, to do so is blasphemy in my eyes. I don’t even add water. When confronted with a long list of bourbons, like the one photographed below, here’s my thoughts. I sorted this list based on cost:

Pappy Van Winkle: While this is not on the list above, I feel I must address Pappy Van Winkle. Yes, the rumors are true, it’s outstanding bourbon. My friend Arkansas Joel, who led me to my only shot of Pappy always warns though, anything under 20 years old isn’t worth the money. I tend to only drink Pappy when someone else is paying for it because, well, I’m poor.

Blanton’s: Blanton’s is as smooth as the ass of a high school cheerleader. It’s truly a wonderful bourbon. Again, from a cost perspective, Blanton’s is on the high end. I tend to drink it on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or after seeing the Stones in concert.

Woodford Reserve: Woodford is a less expensive, generally, than Blanton’s. It’s my go to bourbon. It’s what I drink when I’m sitting on my roof deck, watching the moon rise and contemplating life’s deep mysteries, which are usually something like, “when will Springsteen release a new LP.” I like Woodford so much I hide the bottle during parties so I don’t have to share it with anybody.

Maker’s Mark: I’ve been drinking Maker’s since right out of college. It’s in the middle of the price spectrum and I think it’s a great price performer. It’s a quality bourbon at an affordable price. Before going on the bourbon trail, Maker’s was my bourbon of choice. Typically I drink Maker’s now when I’m celebrating something and they don’t have Woodford. I also tend to use Maker’s as my “5 o’clock angel,” my end of day drink.

Buffalo Trace: For the life of me, I don’t know why they don’t charge more for Buffalo Trace. It’s a top notch Kentucky whiskey at a great price. I like to take a bottle of Buffalo Trace with me if I’m going to a football game and I’m going to be drinking for a couple hours prior, tailgating. And then maybe drinking for a few hours post game tailgating. Or, if I can get away with it, smuggling it into the game… I see a pattern. From a price performer, Buffalo Trace is your winner.

I generally avoid anything from the Jim Beam family… You have to draw the line somewhere.

That’s my take on the menu folks… again, season to take. Sample as many bourbons and whiskeys as you can until you find your “go to.” The journey to the heart of what your cocktail is will be one of the funniest journeys you ever take.

And, as the famous toast goes, “May we never regret this….”

Travelogue: Fear And Loathing* In MSP Airport: I Meet a Bernie Sanders Fan

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*A weak homage to Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve always loved the writing of Hunter S Thompson. “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” was given to me by my dear friend DJ and it’s one of my all time favorites. One of the things that seems to get glossed over these days is the brilliant political writing he did. “Fear And Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72” is a fascinating read. Of course, I’ve always been a little obsessed with that era of American history. Not only did Hunter write his book in ’72, published serially in Rolling Stone magazine, but he came up with the idea for Tim Crouse’s “The Boys On the Bus” detailing the press’s and the campaign’s symbiotic (and at times ethically challenged) relationship. Apparently, early on in the ’72 campaign, cigarette holder clinched between his teeth, Thompson said to Crouse, while pointing at the pack of reporters, “Those are the bastards you really oughta be watching…” True words indeed…

Despite my enjoyment of Hunter’s political writings, I’m not a political person per se. I enjoyed reading his books because of the historical perspective that it gave me, however warped that perspective may have been. I try to never discuss politics unless “I’m talking a little treason” amongst likeminded friends at the pub. I like the words of Little Steven’s song, “I Am A Patriot” in regards to my view on politics:

I ain’t no communist
And I ain’t no capitalist
And I ain’t no socialist
And I ain’t no imperialist
And I ain’t no democrat
And I ain’t no republican
I only know one party
And it is freedom

Needless to say BourbonAndVinyl won’t be endorsing any candidates. I certainly would never ever talk about politics to a stranger. And yet, this being an election year, politics is on everybody’s mind. It’s hard to avoid a political discussion even in the oddest places… say, in a tavern on a concourse of the Minneapolis-St Paul Airport on a cold February evening. And while it’s not exactly a political story… in honor of Dr Gonzo, I must share. And I will say, as a disclaimer, I admire Mr Sanders and this is in no way meant to be derogatory toward him or his followers. I just thought it was a good story and weird things continue to happen to me…


I’ve always considered Minneapolis a gem of a city, since the first time I visited there a decade ago. The downtown has a lot of great nightlife and restaurants. I even had a rather wild evening there where I ended up in some place called Nye’s which I thought was in Canada, but that was a different B&V post. The main problem with Minneapolis is it’s too fucking cold. I honestly don’t know how anybody lives there. I wander the downtown ant-like tunnels and walkways to avoid going outside, still shivering, surrounded by Nordic types who seem oblivious to the cold. More power to them.

For reasons unclear, the team that works for me there always seem to summon me up there in the dead of winter. I never get to visit Minneapolis during their all too brief 4 day summer season, it’s always February when I get to go to Minny. It’s hard enough to fly but in winter to fly to Minneapolis means you have to peel layer after layer off when you get on the plane and then put it back on again when you land. I had spent two very cold, crazed nights in Minneapolis and was, as usual on these trips, exhausted when I got to the airport. I had been forced to again strip off layer after layer while being x-rayed and probed by the TSA people only to have to put everything back on again. I lumbered down the concourse where my gate was, looking like an extra on The Revenant set and I couldn’t help but think, after the stressful business reviews I’d attended, that perhaps a libation might ease my travel woes and warm me up. Near the Burger King, I spotted a pub and to my surprise, an open seat at the end of the bar. I went crashing through tables and people with my coats, bags and winter gear to claim the open seat.

“Is this seat open?” I asked. The bartender and the rumpled woman in the next seat seemed all too eager to both say in unison, “No, sit down.” I ordered a bourbon from the harried bartender and covertly glanced at the woman to my right. Her hair was a long, tangled mess. She couldn’t be local because she was only wearing a t-shirt that was belted at the waist with what looked like rope. Her arms were pasty with blotches of sunburn. Her wrists had too many bracelets to count. I thought perhaps she was somebody coming home from a vacation or perhaps a hippy escaped from her commune. In front of her sat a extra large screwdriver with an extra shot of vodka on the side. She looked a little bleary and I didn’t really feel like talking to anybody anyway so I just sort of closed myself off. It’s like that scene in the movie Sharky’s Machine, where the black cop goes completely blank. I was doing that imitation to avoid speaking to this drunken stranger.

“Sssso are you headed home or headed ssssomplace elsssse?” the woman slurred at me. Home, I answered. “Me too, I’ve been in Phoenix… my mom is sick. I was staying at my brother’s house.” Now that she had played her sick mom card I had to come out of my Sharky’s Machine zen place of detachment and at least talk with her. I could tell she was hammered. “I got stoned with my niece, I’m the cool art teacher aunt.” Sure, lady, sure.

The TV was tuned into CNN and suddenly beady-eyed candidate Scott Walker was on the screen. My bar mate became extremely agitated…I guess because she was a teacher and Gov Walker had done a lot to destroy the teacher’s union in Wisconsin. “This fucker is the devil…” she exclaimed loudly. When I saw the rest of the bar turn toward her, I considered egging her on but returned to my zen quiet place. “Who are you  gonna vote for?” she asked me suddenly. Geez lady, why not ask me if I go to church or if I masturbate? “Uh, I don’t talk about politics, ever…” I had hoped that response would shut her down. But after slamming her vodka shot, finishing her screwdriver and quickly ordering another, she asked me again. Suddenly I found myself trapped in a conversational loop that didn’t appear to have an end – she’d ask who I was voting for and I’d decline to answer. It was like that comedy routine, “who’s on first?”

“You remind me of my brother…I bet you’re a Republican.” I was dressed in a suit and tie and looked like an off-duty narcotics agent, I could see where I might give off that vibe, but again I declined to give her a definitive answer. My politics are more “fluid.” “You remind me of my brother she repeated.” At least she’d stopped asking me who I was going to vote for. I hadn’t asked her but suddenly she volunteered, “I feel the Bern. I’m 100% behind Bernie Sanders and I say fuck anybody who isn’t.” She was significantly more agitated and in order to deal with her, I quickly ordered another bourbon. I was wondering when the jack booted thugs in airport security were going to burst into the bar and club her into submission. I only hoped I wouldn’t be collateral damage. She ordered another large screwdriver but said she’d settle for a shot of vodka… the elderly bartender gave her a glass of orange juice and said, “Sweety, I think you’ve had enough.” Wow, here was something I’d never seen before, a person cut off in an airport bar. It’s like a crack dealer turning down a junkie with money. You just never expect to see that.

Being cut off seemed to jar her back to reality briefly. She started asking every 2 minutes, what time it was. Her flight was in another ninety minutes and she had to get back to Green Bay. When I looked at my watch the third time, to verify that only 2 minutes had passed since her last asking me, she noticed my wedding ring. “So, you’re married?” Uh, yes. “I am too, but I have to tell you, I’m very attracted to you…” Uh, oh this was getting weirder. I’ve been married a long time… nobody had seriously worked me for ages. I went back to my zen place of blankness. I didn’t respond at all. I sipped my bourbon and wished they allowed smoking in this bar, even though I don’t smoke. Now seemed like a good time to start.

“Yes, I’m very attracted to you. You remind me of my brother.” I had to pause and consider that sentence for a while… Before I could truly digest her simultaneous attraction to her brother and me, she leaned in and conspiratorially whispered, “Do you think there’s a unisex bathroom around here… we could lock the door.”

Um… no.

I wasn’t sure what kind of incestuous fantasy this vodka crazed socialist was working on, but I’m happily devoted to the Rock Chick… I was having none of this. Maybe my suit made her consider me “the man” and she wanted me to “stick it to her” in a literal way. I considered saying, “I’m flattered” but by this time she had a death grip on my forearm and I was wondering how I’d explain getting into a fist fight with an art teacher in the MSP airport to the authorities.

Thankfully, the bartender, who had been intently listening to all of this, likely with the idea he was going to have to restrain this woman at some point, set another bourbon in front of me, it was apparently gratis, and gave the socialist art teacher her bill. Jumping on his train of thought, I said, “Quick, you must get to your gate, it’s almost flight time…” despite the fact that only a few additional minutes had passed and this woman had another 70 minutes until flight. It seemed the appropriate time to motivate her movement.

As she staggered slowly away, she turned to say good bye and I whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ll never vote for Trump…” It was the most I’d said publicly about politics in years but I felt she’d earned it. I don’t begrudge anyone their politics and I admired her devotion to Bernie Sanders but I just wasn’t going to talk politics with her in an airport bar. I certainly wasn’t going to join her in the bathroom either, but that goes without saying. And off she staggered, a tangle of scarves, coats, and luggage. I’ll never know if she made it home alive or not. I just thank God she didn’t locate a unisex bathroom…

It did turns out the bartender, who had been highly entertained by the entire exchange, did charge me for that last bourbon. Oh well, it was worth it to get her out of there…

Cheers!

The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel

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I am occasionally, like all professional types, required to go to Las Vegas a few times a year for various conventions in my industry. I’ve always hated Las Vegas. I once said to my old friend from Arkansas, Joel (*named changed to protect the guilty), that when I die, if I wake up in a casino and hear the bells and whistles of slot machines going off I will know I’m in Hell. Conversely, I remember mentioning that when I die, if I awake in a beer commercial, on a beach somewhere surrounded by bikini clad young women, that I’ll know I was in Heaven. As my only devout Christian friend, Joel was a little underwhelmed by my world view.

This last winter I was once again forced to go to Vegas for some training and then a customer convention. I was in Vegas so long I was beginning to worry I’d have to register in Nevada to vote. I was absolutely miserable. I was about to lose my mind when suddenly I got a text from my old friend from Arkansas, Joel, alerting me that he and his wife were heading to Vegas the next day. I met Joel over twenty five years ago when I lived for a brief time in Arkansas. I consider those my years in “exile”, like Dante when he was kicked out of Florence. While I was unhappy in Arkansas, the people were nice, and I made a friend for life in Joel. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll and bourbon guy just like me. Joel had a young family at the time, a wife and two young boys, but he always managed to find time to step out for a drink or two with his shiftless exile friend, namely me. He was the only person I knew who could quote scripture and Radiohead in the same conversation. I imagine it was a lot like drinking with Johnny Cash or maybe Dylan post-Christian period.

After I moved back home, Joel and I stayed in touch. At one particularly dark period in my life, Joel came to KC and we were out drinking. I was lamenting something and he asked me if I knew the story of Esau and Jacob. I remember saying, “Joel, the only biblical story I seem to recall goes something like this: “God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”/Abe says “Man you must be puttin’ me on/God say “No”, Abe say “What?”/God say “You can do what you want Abe, but next time you see me comin’ you better run/Abe says “Where you want this killin’ done?”/God says “Out on Highway 61.” My photographic memory of Dylan songs aside, Joel was not impressed. He went on to tell me about Esau selling his birth right and compared it to me. He said I was taking my eye off what was important. It was a good story and it’s stuck with me for years.

While I was excited to see Joel and his wife, Tiffany (*named changed to protect the innocent), they were getting in at a really early hour in the morning, but I was still required to attend the conference I was enrolled in. I had meetings scheduled. Joel and his wife were meeting with U.S. Customs at McCarren Airport and would be free by lunch. My advice to Joel was that he should nap, while I did my conference and we’d meet later in the early evening. My phone started ringing around noon, it was Joel. He was apparently ignoring my advice about the nap. I let the call, (then the calls as he kept calling every thirty minutes) go to voicemail.

Finally, around mid afternoon, I relented and answered the phone. “Kenneth, it’s time to roll… Tiffany is taking a nap, but I’ve stayed up, drinking beer.” This was a bad sign. I wasn’t going to be able to put him off much longer. I begged off for another hour but we made arrangements to meet at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I ordered a Stella, which apparently irritated him even more. Once a decade Joel turned into what we both describe as “Hostile Joel”. This was heading that direction. “Bubba, when you’re in a bar like this, you don’t order a beer, you just tell the guy to mix you up something special with bourbon.” I was impressed that he actually ordered in that vague way and the guy brought him what looked like an Old Fashion. I killed my beer quickly and ordered “what the gentleman from Arkansas was drinking” but had to almost chug the Old Fashion as Joel had an odyssey of sorts in mind.

“Kenneth, I want you to take a journey with me. It’s going to be long and arduous, we’ll have to walk quite a ways, but in the end, we will find some treasure.” Who was I to argue, Joel was hammered and this sounded like fun. We left the Chandelier Bar and headed toward Caesar’s Palace. Joel seemed to know the way by heart. He had several gift shops and lobby bars he knew about on the route we were taking, so we were able to refresh our beers about every 100 steps. Outside the Caesar’s theater, we ended up hanging around in the gift shop. Elton John and Rod Stewart both do residencies there and they were selling CDs, t-shirts and other memorabilia. I held up a pair of leopard spotted lycra tights and asked if I should buy a pair and wear them the rest of the day. I have a vague memory of singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the amusement of the shop clerk.

We ended up having to circle back to the Cosmopolitan when Tiffany woke up and called. She was hungry. At the rate we were drinking, I figured a little food couldn’t hurt. When we got to the Cosmopolitan, Joel announced that he was going to share one of Vegas’ greatest kept secrets, known only to the initiated. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I saw a flash of Hostile Joel when he said, “I don’t think you’re prepared for this. You’re not worthy of this kind of insider information…you’re not showing the proper reverence.” I thought of Esau, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I tried to act contrite. We ended up walking down an unmarked hallway and discovered a hidden pizza joint and it was awesome. We took the pizza up to the hotel room and met Tiffany. Joel quickly bolted for the lobby to grab a six pack of beer, since he considered the mini bar prices to be outrageous. I’ve never really known Tiffany that well and was worried about what to say, when she plopped down on the couch across from me in the living room, and blurted out, “You know I always hated you back in Arkansas.” Jeez, first Hostile Joel and now Hostile Tiffany. Where was this evening going?

“Joel would disappear on weekends to go drinking with you. I couldn’t stand you. Of course, I didn’t know you back then, and knowing what I know now, I think you’re kind of a funny guy. I wish I’d known back then, what I know now. I was just a young mother and you were a threat. But, I’ve learned a lot since then…” she said wistfully. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d learned that had changed her opinion of me. I always got this from the wives and girlfriends of my pals. I was the single guy. It’s so much easier to get pissed at the drunken friend than the boyfriend/husband, and I was always the target. I was hanging on every word, hoping for some real wisdom, when drunken Joel burst back into the room with a six pack. Saved by the drunken bell it appears.

Finally, after hours of drinking and eating pizza, we managed to make it over to the Venetian. One of the bars off the lobby was apparently the location of Joel’s promised “treasure.” Unfortunately they were doing a private dinner for Home Depot or some other retail outlet. Joel bribed the hostess and we slipped into the bar. I quickly hit the bathroom and when I got up to the bar, I realized why we’d taken this long odyssey in the first place. Sitting on the bar, in front of Joel, were two glasses and a bottle of the infamous, rare and hard to find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – Do I think you’re sexy, God damn right I do. The bar actually had the 15 year, the 20 year and the 23 year bottles. The 23 year was $250 a shot, so that was out of the question. We did a shot of the 15 year followed up by a shot of the 20 year. Bourbon, served neat. I was in Bourbon Heaven. I’d never had Pappy Van Winkle but now I am a big fan. It may be the best bourbon I’ve ever had. The difference between the 15 year and the 20 year was amazing. I can only wonder in awe what the 23 year was like. It had been a long, drunken, crazy day with Hostile Joel, but it was worth every moment to taste the nectar of the Gods… Pappy Van Winkle. There were many moments during the day I thought of bailing, but unlike Esau, I hung in there… Although I must admit, I wish I’d bought the Rod Stewart leopard-skin tights. It would have been a great picture for Instagram…