NOTE: With Nicky unable to attend the recent “American Luxury Whiskey Tasting” sponsored by Pearson’s Wine at Prohibition, I was joined instead by Bernard (aka The Woodpecker) for an afternoon of some fine whiskey and conversation.
My adventure starts with a message from the sultry and beguiling Katruska asking me to act as a last minute stand-in for a bourbon and rye tasting at the heavily-touted but mysterious Prohibition Bar.
Prohibition is, as its name implies, a hidden speakeasy, nestled somewhere in Buckhead. At first flush you wouldn’t even know it’s there; at least, I didn’t as I stood in the atrium of East Andrews. Then I began to notice small groups of people slip into a single red phone booth , dial a number on the phone and then disappear through a door that appears, as if by magic, behind the wall. This was the only way to gain access. Fortunately, Katruska had the number.
The bar is delightfully secretive; a windowless room, with dim lighting and faint musk of tobacco. We cozy up to the bar, tuck into a robust Negroni to waken the senses, and then cleanse our palettes with water as the official tasting begins. The bartender-in-chief (since I don’t know his name, I’ll assign him the pseudonym ‘Clyde’ in keeping with the 20s theme) begins by giving us a brief history of alcohol, bourbon and rye and, of course, the effect that prohibition had on its production.
Distillation was invented by the Chinese and was brought to Europe by way of pilgrimaging monks via Arabs. The monks brought the process to, amongst other places, Ireland, the Irish took it to the Scots, the Scots took it to England, and ultimately, the British brought it to America. God bless the Chinese.
Bourbon and rye are both members of the whisky (or whiskey) family, and the word whisky is from the Celtic word meaning water of life. Whisky is made by taking a grain base, milling it, adding water to make a mash, fermenting the mash to make a wort, adding yeast and further fermenting the wort to make a wash, and then distilling the wash to make the alcohol. It’s just that simple.
Rye is made from a mash that must contain at least 51 percent rye, and must be aged in charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof. Rye is far less common than bourbon largely due to the fact that rye production was all but halted during the prohibition era. Bourbon is very similar to rye except that its mash must contain at least 51 percent corn, and must be aged in new, charred American Oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
And now, the tasting
The Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI) gave this fella 92 points and described it as “very stylish.” In my opinion a generous score since it smelled and tasted of pure alcohol, not unlike the tequila you used to buy as a college student. Clyde interjected at this point of my ruminations that the aging process on this rye was not measured so much in years as it was in mere minutes. About 30 minutes to be precise. It is “unaged.” While Katruska thought it would act as a nice vehicle for other flavor profiles, I certainly would not make a habit of drinking it.
NOTE: Bernard was not off by much when he made the comparison to tequila. The lack of aging and distillation process makes this silver whiskey quite akin to a blanco tequila. OLN is actually riffing on some tequila cocktail recipes using the HW Siver, as well as trying out some infusions.
High West Double Rye
This particular rye is a blend of two ryes, one aged two years and one aged 16 years. The bouquet was very pleasing with light floral notes and just a hint of cinnamon and vanilla. There was also a rather surprising unctuousness about this particular rye that caused the flavors to coat your throat and tongue. Not all together unpleasant at all, still had that familiar Rye burn on the back of the throat.
This one was my favorite drink of the evening. The BTI apparently agreed with me and gave this a 96-100 points and it was also rated on of the top 50 Spirits of 2010 by Wine Enthusiast. This rye, like the previous, was a blend of two ryes, one of six years, and the other of 16 years. The aroma was spicy and deep with undertones of pepper, vanilla, honey and oak. The flavor was robust and strong, giving a pleasant burn all the way down. If I were a rye maker, I would want my rye to taste like this.
The first of the bourbons, and this one did not disappoint. As I picked up my glass to get a good whiff, Katruska pointed out that you can achieve two different aromas from a glass depending on where you put your nose. If you put your nose at the top of the glass, she said, you would get the flavor notes, and if you put your nose at the base of the glass you get the alcohol. I’ll be damned if she wasn’t right. At the top of the glass I got a powerful aroma of sweet pipe tobacco and corn. The taste was light and smooth with a warm spice on the back. Ol’ Clyde said that this particular bourbon was outstanding for making cocktails, but I really enjoyed it all by itself.
Wathens Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Katruska’s favorite of the evening, a straight bourbon with a whole nose full of aromas. I heard people say, apple, honey, vanilla, and even chocolate. I smelled warm vanilla and flowers. The flavor was smooth and easy with no burn or spice. I caught just the smallest hint of mint.
The last tasting of the night, and certainly a high note. This was another favorite of the Wine Enthusiast, bestowing a 96-100 score on this small-batch bourbon. The nose gets strong aroma of smoke and pepper but a sweetness pervades. The taste was full flavored, to say the least with a powerful, lingering spicy flavor that was pleasant and sweet on the palate. Clyde called the sweetness butterscotch, and far be it from me to disagree with the man.
At last the tasting came to a close; a very enjoyable way to spend a late afternoon. I had been educated, and treated to new and exciting flavors. My taste buds, however, not used to being made to work so hard on a Saturday, were beginning to fail me. So it was time to push back from the bar and head out. Besides, you never want to stay too long at one of these juice joints; you never know when the boys in blue are going to show up and frog-march you downtown to do a stretch in the slammer.
Thanks, Bernard, for sharing your thoughts and experiences, as well as sharing a spot at the bar.
And a big thank you to Pearson’s Wine in Buckhead for sponsoring this fabulous afternoon of bourbon and rye! Pearson’s carries a wide line of bourbons and ryes, including the six we sampled at the tasting.