Make Mine Bourbon

A connoisseur celebrates that most American of whiskeys, bourbon

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Story Rufus Ward | Photographs Birney Imes

For 250 years there has been a special relationship between Southerners and American whiskey, especially bourbon. The thing about really good bourbon, though, is one can’t afford to drink too much of it.

At least that’s what has happened to me. I have enjoyed a glass of bourbon in the evening since my days at Ole Miss. The problem is my favorite bourbon could once be purchased for $24 a fifth for a 10-year-old bottle and $35 for a 15-year-old bottle. Now, that same 10-year-old sells for about $500 a bottle, while the 15-year-old goes for $1,200. Small-batch bourbon is no longer a well-kept secret.

My first real realization that bourbon was not just another alcoholic beverage came when I was about to leave home for Ole Miss. My grandmother, who once was interviewed by Eudora Welty about the quintessential Mississippi mint julep recipe, informed me that, before I went to the University, I needed to know the proper way to make a mint julep.

She showed me how to make our family’s traditional Whitehall Mint Julep the way she’d been shown by her mother, who in turn had been taught by her mother. I recall her saying that traditional julep cups were not the preferred vessel, as the warmth of your hand would melt the ice, diluting your drink and destroying the frosting on the outside of the cup. She said always use a silver goblet and hold it by the stem. And the most important ingredient was not just whiskey, but “good” bourbon. I realized then, a proper drink was not just any old drink, and bourbon was the royalty of Southern libations.

Like so much history in the South, the story of bourbon is oversimplified. Bourbon is just part of the story of whiskey in the South. It has been said the origins of present-day whiskey come out of medieval monasteries in Scotland and Ireland. The word “whiskey” evolved from the Gaelic word for “water of life.” In its American beginnings, the making of whiskey was a small-scale operation, often in a farmer’s barn.

One of the first large-scale distilleries was George Washington’s at Mount Vernon. There he operated the largest distillery in America, which in 1799 — the year he died — produced 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey. His personal recipe called for the whiskey to be aged six months. Today, Virginia allows Mount Vernon to make and sell a limited quantity. It is made in Washington’s reconstructed distillery there, using the original recipe. I think it tastes horrible, but who can enjoy history and whiskey and not have a bottle of Washington’s own from Mount Vernon.

Bourbon took its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, though whiskey from adjoining counties — when shipped from the town of Limestone on the Kentucky River — sometimes also took the name bourbon if it was made from a majority corn mash and aged in a charred oak barrel.

Elijah Craig has been called “the father of bourbon” though his distillery was in an adjoining county. Craig probably did not invent bourbon, but he owned a distillery, and he was a Baptist minister. That he was a Baptist minister with a bourbon distillery made the spirit more marketable for all distilleries, especially if it was reputed to have been developed by a man of the cloth.

Whiskey from Kentucky made its way to Columbus by river as soon as the town began growing in 1818. The whiskey’s route was down the Ohio River, then down the Mississippi to the Gulf, across to Mobile and up the Tombigbee, first by keelboat and later by steamboat to Columbus.

Columbus newspaper ads from 1837 show this trade. S. S. Franklin advertised that he had “just received from New Orleans and Mobile a full shipment of liquors,” including 10 barrels of whiskey and 35 barrels of Monongahela whiskey. Mosely & Murdock reported that the steamboat Ploughboy had arrived (from Mobile) bringing 150 barrels of “domestic liquors.”

During the antebellum period there was no shortage of whiskey in Columbus.

Some of that whiskey and especially some local whiskeys were not what you would think. An 1853 book on the manufacture of liquors describes what was called Tuscaloosa Whiskey. It was made from various blended or mixed whiskeys to which was added pale ale, Jamaica rum and coloring. There was even a recipe to make “Old Bourbon” using “clear spirits,” peach juice, sulfuric acid, nutmeg and oil of wintergreen. The concoction was colored with burnt sugar. It was recommended that such “inferior liquors” be well colored. It almost makes today’s moonshine seem tame.

One of my prized family possessions is the Billups’ portable bar c.1850. There are decanters for whiskey and for brandy with glasses for each. It is the size of a small square suitcase and made of wood. And yes, they are some of my favorite glasses.

One of the questions I’m asked most often is the type Bourbon I like. Two years ago we had a tasting at our house featuring 16 top-shelf bourbons and American whiskeys. The unanimous winner was Van Winkle. That’s the $500 to $1,200 a bottle stuff (which I bought before the price went up), and that’s the last time I will ever pull out a bottle of it at a party. Finishing second was John Bowman, a Virginia whiskey (about $50 a bottle) and third was Clyde Mays Alabama Whiskey (about $30 a bottle). Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve were close behind. 

Those are all very good, but for evening sipping I prefer Jim Beam Signature Craft (about $45 a bottle). There are a lot of good, less expensive whiskeys out there, but an advantage of a more expensive one is you can’t afford to drink too much. And no matter what you read or hear it’s really just a matter of personal taste. My favorite, and to me nothing else is close, is 10-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle.