It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.
‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.” – Bond. James Bond.
To call James Bond a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment stand-in for author Ian Fleming is to make the hilarious presumption that there’s any veiling at all. The Bond of the novels was basically a walking, talking catalog of everything that happened to interest and delight Fleming at the time he happened to be writing that particular novel (the movie Bond, on the other hand, was modeled somewhat more closely after British director Terence Young). Whether it was a drink, a meal, or “Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos,” just about everything that fills James Bond’s universe was ported over wholesale from his creator’s life. And as anyone familiar with the books or the movies knows, alcohol occupies an important — more likely the most important — place in Bond’s life. Not to mention my own. And perhaps yours as well.
Dev was secured to the rotating chair and flanked on either side by bald goons wearing a tight t-shirt and flamboyantly colored scarf. The man standing behind the vast desk was wearing a silver Nehru jacket accented with ribbons and golden cords of a vaguely military style. Behind the desk was a Plexiglass window looking out into the deep blue of an aquarium filled with sharks, and on the desk was the oval shaped viewscreen the fiend sometimes used to randomly call up and taunt officials in Mumbai. Dev’s own lime green shirt with a playfully clashing tie that seemed to contain more colors than exist in the known universe was a splash of sharp contrast amid the austere modern decor of the room. The man behind the desk smiled at his captive.
After more hours than I want to count neatly folded into the capsules that comprise coach service on most major American air carriers; after finishing two Jim Butcher “Dresden Files” novels; after Justice League: Doom and Nameless Gangster; after all that, I stepped into Sydney, Australia with only a single thought in my mind: I needed a drink. Or two. Luckily, Sydney is a drinker’s paradise, overflowing with dens of indulgence that run the gamut from historic pubs to modern cocktail bars with an eye focused on the American speakeasy. With an absurdly mild definition of winter greeting me, I knew I was in for a proper drinking adventure. While almost everything in Australia costs twice as much as it does in New York, the odd exception is the alcohol (purchased in bars that is). Australia’s best drams of whiskey are poured for you at more or less the same price you would pay in a whiskey bar in the United States. Cocktails are comparable in price (but not always quality) to what you’d pay at any one of the many speakeasy-revival style bars in the States. And beer prices hover at about the same level as you’d pay for a pint of quality American micro-brew. So with those amazingly indestructible and colorful Australian dollars in hand, and after a brief stop at the hotel to freshen myself a bit, I was off.
Some time ago, I jetted off to London to spend a few days with a companion exploring the rich history and richer beer of that fine English town. Normally, when I travel I leave it up to myself to plot an itinerary and seek out the spots I want to visit. But in London, we had naught but a couple days and plenty of history to cover, so we signed up for one of those guided theme tours that sounded like it would appeal to me: Sinister London.
I don’t usually go to celebrity restaurants. Unfair though it may be, I associate them with average food, higher prices, and a willingness to coast on the name of a disinterested star who was willing to slap their name onto the outside of the establishment. I’m in New York after all, and why would I sit with the tourists at Mickey Mantle’s or Don Schula’s or Michael Jordan’s when I just go to Keens and get an infinitely better meal for around the same price — and sit next to Teddy Roosevelt’s pipe to boot? However, I’m nothing if not a sucker for something marketed seemingly directly at me, so when legendary Knicks court general Walt “Clyde” Frazier appended his name to a Hell’s Kitchen eatery, my interest was piqued — first because I love Clyde, and second because it wasn’t a steakhouse.
“There must be a few hundred men who are fairly behind the scenes of the Burma War—one of the least known and appreciated of any of our little affairs. The Pegu Club seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.”
In the past couple months, two of the whiskey world’s heaviest hitters — Jack Daniels and Jim Beam — have released “white whiskey” products in an attempt to (somewhat belatedly) jump on a perceived white whiskey trend. Most spirits writers have reacted to these releases with a resigned sigh and a rolling of the eyes. I’m hard pressed to come up with a more appropriate reaction. I don’t fault a company crass marketing ploys — Steampunk Cider is a pretty crass attempt to appeal to steampunk nerds like me, and I bought two bottles without having ever tasted it because, you know, <em>steampunk</em>. Luckily, it was fantastic, but the point is companies do marketing, and that’s A-OK with me. Sometimes though the marketing crosses a personally drawn line and really gets on my nerves (stop telling me you’re a distillery when you are just buying barrels from other distilleries and bottling them). Beam and Daniels have managed to poke a spot on me that was already sore as I am not the biggest fan of white whiskey, be it unaged white dog or simply filtered to be colorless. I also think this bandwagon onto which Jack and Jim are adding their weight is pretty rickety already, if it exists at all.
“We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” – Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle
The intersection of Dixie Highway and Ralph Avenue (Ralph Street on some maps) marks more or less the southern boundary of Shively’s former bourbon district, and so it makes as proper a place as any to begin your tour. Assuming you are heading north toward downtown Louisville, when you approach the intersection, on the corner to your right you will see what remains of the old Four Roses distillery: a group of brick warehouses, now sitting on the property of Louisville Cartage Trucking. Note it for later in this series, but for this part of the tour we’re taking a left onto Ralph Avenue and heading just a little ways down to then make a right onto Fitzgerald Road. Be careful, because it’s easy to miss. The street intersects some train tracks at an odd diagonal that can make it look like you are actually turning onto the railway. It all becomes clear once you commit though, and immediately on your left you will see the imposing warehouses of the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery.
Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is one of the most enjoyable and best developed touring trails one could hope for, unless of course one happens to be the designated driver. The Trail winds through picturesque country roads, mostly centered around the historic town of Bardstown where many of the major bourbon distillers cluster (more or less, anyway), but it also meanders out to Lexington and the state capitol of Frankfort, home of Buffalo Trace. Wel, sort of. We’ll cover that in a second. All told, the official Trail hits seven distilleries: Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and the newly added Town Branch (also known by it’s much more cumbersome name, Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company). The addition of Town Branch fills the space left by the departure of Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace and their associated Tom Moore distillery from the Trail program. Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac felt they were doing pretty well on their own with attracting tourism and so opted not to chip in for the officially blessed Bourbon Trail. However, most anyone who has done the tour doesn’t realize Buffalo Trace is no longer part of it, so they sort of get lumped in regardless.