BY: Julie Harrington Giffin
If an American Dynasty were to exist in the spirit world, bourbon would sit atop the royal hierarchy. Other spirits may claim the noble granting of an “Honorary Knighthood” so to speak, but only bourbon would be appointed to the highest royal order by birthright. King Bourbon has a rather stately ring to it, don’t you think?
Bourbon’s royalty is deeply rooted in American history. Its heritage gives way to the privileged distinction of being named “America’s Native Spirit” as declared by congress on May 4, 1964. The actual account of the provenance of our native spirit is deficient in historic documents but European settlers of Colonial America along the Eastern Seaboard brought their knowledge of alcohol production. It wasn’t until the late 1700’s that decedent’s of the early settlers made their way to Kentucky and began harvesting corn. The production of corn was seen as a valuable commodity. As an endemic grain, it was easily cultivated, provided food, and provided an opportunity for economic advancement as a distilled spirit.
Proclamations as to the founding father of bourbon will forever be shadowed by unfounded legends. Popular tales assert Reverend Elijah Craig with this dubious honor, and yet others say it was just his accidental discovery of using charred barrels. In reality, there were many distillers experimenting in the production of bourbon at the time and most likely, the sharing of production ideas ultimately led to the great spirit we enjoy today. To proclaim just one father of bourbon however, may forever remain buried at the bottom of century old barrels-but not everything about America’s native spirit was lost with the angels share.
Credible folklore tells us that early distillers in Old Bourbon County Kentucky, exported their distinct whiskey in barrels labeled “Bourbon,” thus establishing its name after Bourbon County. Another credible source, Kentucky Historian Michael Veach, contends the name came from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which became a major port for selling Kentucky Whiskey. The truth? Perhaps it still drifts among the waters connecting Bourbon County and New Orleans. Bourbon Street, an established entertainment destination, was also the landing for the bourbon labeled barrels shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Old Bourbon County. Over time, locals and visitors alike began requesting the popular barreled spirit that eventually became known as Bourbon Whiskey.
Layers of Limestone
Kentucky’s landscape is abundant with limestone layers that act as natural filters producing premium, fresh spring water. The water is ideal for cooking the starches into fermentable sugars creating the mash for fermentation. Not to digress, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention James Crow in the context of mash, or “sour-mash” to be exact. James Crow, a Scotsman and well-educated man in science and medicine, was a distiller in Kentucky during the mid 1800’s. He experimented in controlling the consistency of the mash and began by using portions of the previous mash to produce the next. This along with using predominantly corn grain and aging exclusively in charred barrels gained him recognition for his exceptional bourbon. It would be fair to say that James Crow is the father of “sour-mash” that today, is the preferred method in producing straight bourbon.
Bourbon is more to the Bluegrass state than just big business. It is an iconic footprint that tells the story of their great history. To experience this proud heritage, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, founded less than 20 years ago, is a roadmap offering 9 distillery tours for visitors to explore a behind-the-scenes look at the art of bourbon production. Taking your bourbon experience one step further, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour opens the doors to micro-distilleries with more recent productions of small batch bourbons. Collectively, 19 distilleries makeup the complete passport for both tours.
Off The Beaten Path
If a pilgrimage through the limestone landscape of bourbon country eludes your future adventures, a journey exploring over 300 bourbons awaits you in the heart of Los Angeles at Seven Grand Whiskey Bar.
Seven Grand is a stand out among whiskey enthusiasts, housing the most opulent collection of whiskey this side of Kentucky. General Manager and Director of Single Spirit Bars for all of 213 Hospitality, Andrew Abrahamson recently gave me a few moments to share some insight into the intrigue of Seven Grand and how it became an iconic destination.
AA:“The concept was always to be a Whiskey Bar, dedicated to getting as deep into the history and love of the Spirit as possible. Throughout the last nine years, there has been an immense amount of evolution that has come through the people that have drank here and loved the bar as much as we do, but that kernel was always there. The concept was originally sparked when Cedd (the owner) noticed a keen trend in his bar down the street, the Golden Gopher, in Whiskey sales progressively going up and up. Growing up in Virginia, Whiskey was always a part of his life and his family, where he spent summers mixing his Grandmother’s Mint Juleps for her. After a trip to Ireland, the roots of the concept were planted, and in May of 2007, we opened shop in Downtown LA. I think all of that history, research, passion and flat out love of Whiskey has spread throughout every person that has ever worked here, and is felt by our customers. It’s a simple thing, but very hard to have and be able to keep alive as people come and go. Seven Grand’s magic is that Whiskey has always been a love, and never a business.”
C&S: In regards to bourbon, how many make up the list at Seven Grand and which is your most prized possession?
AA:“Speaking specifically to Bourbon, we’re sitting at around 300, while our overall list of offerings is over 700. Most prized to me? The one in my glass I am about to drink. Last night it was Ancient Age (a bottling from the 60’s, but I love the current one just as much).”
C&S: Exploring your International Wall of Whiskey, what qualifies for inclusion in this collection?
AA:“Everything we can get our hands on that is worth drinking. Irish, Scotch, Canadian and Japanese withstanding as already firmly rooted “International” Whiskies, we have English, Welsh, Taiwanese, Australian (Tasmanian), Swedish, Dutch, Belgian…the list just keeps growing. I’ve heard there is a Mexican Whiskey being made right now that is quite good. I can’t wait to try it.”
C&S: Seven Grand’s “Whiskey Society” is an awesome opportunity to learn about old, new, and even rare whiskies and their unique production process. What can you tell us about these tastings?
AA:“We meet nearly weekly on Mondays. Life happens and things come up, which can postpone events, but we gather and invite Brand Ambassadors and Master Distillers and Blenders in to taste of through their line and do comparative tastings. We have done over 250 events to date, and are very proud that this group meets to really learn about the Spirit instead of making it a high end social gathering. It’s all about the education and expansion of everyone’s palates and experiences. “
C&S: Your famed Old Fashioned cocktail has attributed to putting Seven Grand on the map with a staggering 75,000 plus served each year. What is it about this particular recipe that has become the iconic drink at Seven Grand?
AA: “It is the perfect cocktail. In fact it is the original cocktail. Back upon its inception, to order a cocktail would be to get an Old Fashioned. Spirit, Sugar, Bitters, Water. Through time, the word began referring to “mixed drinks” that ran the spectrum, but the key ingredient of Bitters has always been specific to the Cocktail, and more specifically the Old Fashioned Cocktail. When the options became too vast when ordering a Cocktail, those who wanted the original started ordering an Old Fashioned Cocktail, following that original recipe. We love it here because the star of the show is the Whiskey. If you want a modification, all you need to do is change the Whiskey you use. It never hides behind other flavors. It’s rich and boozy, but also has a refreshing quality with the ice and zests and is long enough to enjoy while socializing. I think it’s the perfect way to start your night. No one likes getting bogged down with menus of dozens and dozens of cocktails and choices. You are at a bar to hang out and have fun with friends, new and old. Walking into Seven Grand, you can order an Old Fashioned right off the bat, get the best one available anywhere, and begin enjoying the night and having a great time. Greatness only found through simplicity.”
If there exists a bourbon trail in Los Angeles it can be found under one roof at Seven Grand Whiskey Bar. With over 700 menu items to choose from, you should plan on staying awhile. A visit on National Bourbon Day (June 14th) or during National Bourbon Heritage Month (September) seems apropos. Order a flight, enjoy a cigar, live music and relax. Can’t make it to LA? Then I’ll bring the flavor of Seven Grand to you as Andrew Abrahamson has so graciously shared the recipe for their famed Old Fashioned.
And with that, my bottle of 18-year-old bourbon beckons an Old Fashioned love affair, so to speak. Quite honestly, I can’t think of a more intoxicating note to end our literary journey through Barrel Aged Royalty.
Old Fashioned, Seven Grand
1.75oz Your Favorite Bourbon
1 Demarera Sugar Cube
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Lemon and Orange Zest
Pestle the Sugar and Bitters. Add the Whiskey. Stir (with very cold, large ice) just enough to mix the two. 15 seconds should be on the money. You want the drink to start a touch stronger than most, as it does melt and dilute down and can quickly go from good to poor if the first sip is already at optimal dilution.
Zest with a peel of lemon and orange and go to town.
Julie Harrington Giffin, known industry wide as Agave Love is a Certified Mezcalier whose marketing, branding and editorial originality is delivered with a charismatic and sophisticated confidence. Inspiring others with her wit of tongue and pen, Agave Love is influential in encouraging the exploration of life’s more “spirited” pleasures.