Greg: Welcome to this edition of Perspectives, our real estate series brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, I’m Greg Fleischaker your host, and today on the 50th episode of our podcast I’m joined by Carla Carlton, also known as The Bourbon Babe, a great resource for all things bourbon.
I figured with Derby only a few days away now, I thought it was a perfect time for me to brush up a little bit on my Kentucky chops, maybe learn a little bit about bourbon, how to properly taste it. Carla nice to see you how are you?
Carla: I’m doing well, thanks. Thanks for having me.
Greg: My pleasure, thanks for walking all the way down to my house.
Carla: I know it was hard but …
Greg: Carla and I are neighbors, we live a couple of houses down and this might be one of our noisier podcasts, I’ll apologize in advance but we are joined by a few folks from the office. John Wurth and Jason Farabee. Hi guys, how are you?
John: Good, how are you?
Jason: Doing great.
Greg: All right. Carla should we start from the very beginning, Bourbon 101?
Greg: All right. What makes bourbon bourbon? What makes it different from whisky and maybe other spirits?
Carla: Okay. Bourbon is a type of whisky, you may have heard the saying that, “All bourbon is whisky but not all whisky is bourbon,” and that is true. Essentially whisky is a spirit made from grain as opposed to fruit, which would be wine or potatoes or whatever vodka is made of. If it’s distilled from a grain, it’s a whisky. What makes bourbon different is that the type of grain is specified and in order to be a bourbon the spirit has to be made of a mash bill or recipe that’s at least 51% corn. It can be 75% corn, it can be 80% corn but it has to be at least 51% percent corn to qualify it as bourbon.
Also the other main difference is that it must be aged in brand new charred white oak barrels. Other types of whisky can be aged in used barrels. In fact a lot of used bourbon barrels go to Scotland and they age scotch in them and that’s because even after you dump a bourbon barrel there is probably about two gallons of bourbon still soaked up in the wood so there is enough there to flavor a whisky or a beer. There are a lot of craft beers are really doing these bourbon finished…
Greg: The local people making bourbon get one shot in the barrel and then that’s it?
Carla: That’s right, you cannot reuse that barrel and call it bourbon. And these are actually, as I said, down in law there are a lot of laws regarding bourbon. One of the ones that a lot of people … The one that people often mistake is that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky and that is not true.
Greg: Bummer. I thought that was.
Carla: We do essentially own it because we make 95% of the world’s supply bourbon here in Kentucky, but Congress declared in 1964 that bourbon was a spirit of the United States, so it can only be made in America.
Greg: Why 95% in Kentucky?
Carla: Well, before Prohibition there were lots and lots of distilleries here and elsewhere. After Prohibition many of them just never came back. Kentucky is particularly well suited for bourbon production, we have great water. Water is one of the really essential components and we have this limestone karst under our Mammoth Cave and all that but it filters the water and it filters out iron which is something you don’t want to have in bourbon, that would turn it black. It also helps make it smooth and mellow. Then we have great seasonal variations, because when you are aging in those barrels … when bourbon goes into the barrels its clear and it has very little flavor it tastes mainly like corn…
Greg: Have you tasted that?
Carla: I have it’s called white dog or new-make when it comes right off the still…
John: Essentially moonshine too right?
Carla: Right, well it’s an aged whisky and moonshine is a term … it is an aged whisky and so in the summer time the whisky expands in the barrel, the bourbon expands and it goes through that char inside which does two things. It adds flavor but it also filters out things that you don’t want in the bourbon. When the weather turns cold it draws back into the barrel so every time it goes through those fluctuations it’s bringing back more color and more flavor. All of that lovely color we have on our glasses here is from the barrel and about 80% of the flavor is from the wood as well.
Greg: Is that why the longer you age in a barrel, the more seasons it go through, the more flavor, the more color, the more everything I guess that you are going to get on the back side?
Carla: Right, typically the first thing to do when you taste a bourbon is to hold it up and look at the color and typically the darker it is the older it is. It also may have a higher proof because about 4% of the bourbon in the barrel evaporates every year and that’s called the Angel’s Share because it goes up to the angels and that’s why bourbon warehouses smell so good. Obviously when you get to something like a twenty year old barrel or a twenty three year old barrel there is not very much left in there and that’s one of the reasons something like 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle is so expensive is that there is just not that much of it. There is not that much to supply, to meet the demand.
Greg: Wow okay. For those who are listening and not watching, which is everyone, it’s quite possible that we each have-
John: I’m watching…
Greg: That’s right, four of us are watching. We might each have a little glass here. Do you want to tell us what we are going to taste here and then maybe how we should appropriately taste to detect the flavors?
Carla: Sure, we are tasting Eagle Rare, which is a Buffalo Trace product. It’s a ninety proof bourbon, proof is the alcohol by volume times two, so this is 45% alcohol, and that is the main difference between doing this and a wine tasting. Most wines have about 12 to 14% alcohol by volume, so at a wine tasting they’ll typically say, “Stick your nose down in here to get the aroma.” You don’t want to stick your nose into a bourbon glass when you are doing tasting because all you get is alcohol. What I typically recommend is that you put your lower lip on top of the edge of the glass and then breathe in through your mouth and your nose. You can try so you just put your nose here and take a snort and then try it with your mouth open.
John: Not the water Jason, the bourbon!
Carla: The water probably tastes the same.
Greg: Here is some fascinating radio, as we all have the glasses up to our nose.
Carla: We’ll make more noise when we sip… so I’m getting a lot of vanilla off of this, maybe a little caramel, maybe just a little bit of spice…
Greg: The boys are … I don’t know that we are still smelling I think we are all sipping over here.
John: I’ve moved to the sipping part!
Carla: Your glass is empty.
John: What creates the spice?
Carla: The spice is created, it’s a product of the mash bill and the wood, but in this case Eagle Rare has a fairly heavy rye content along with the corn. I don’t exactly what their percentages are, but there is a secondary grain usually and for most Kentucky whisky it’s rye. You are going to have corn in there, a smaller percentage of rye and then an even smaller percentage of malted barley. The more rye you have the spicier typically the bourbon is going to taste, because if you think about rye bread versus regular bread, wheat bread something, it’s a spicier kind of bread.
That’s going to give you a lot of those nice cinnamons, or peppers, some of them will taste really peppery, and that comes from the rye. Now rye whisky is a whole other category. It’s produced in age much the same as bourbon but it’s mash bill must be 51% rye so that’s the difference there is that grain has to be rye. Then to further confuse things, several types of bourbons are what are known as wheated bourbons, and that’s because they use wheat rather than rye as that second grain so its corn, wheat and barley. Probably the most, two most famous are Makers Mark and Pappy Van Winkle.
Greg: The two most famous bourbons, or wheated bourbons?
Carla: Wheated bourbons. You’ve probably heard of those, you’ve probably tasted Makers you may not have tasted Pappy because it’s really hard to ever taste Pappy but …
John: I stole a whole bunch of cases a few months ago, I don’t know if you heard about that on the news…
Carla: Yeah I heard about that.
Greg: Carla has written about that a couple of times.
Carla: Yeah, in fact I started a movement called “Pardon my Pappy.” You know that Pappy and the bottles are still part of the state’s evidence and they say they are going to destroy it once the case is adjudicated and I just think that’s a crime on top of a crime. I have a hashtag #pardonmypappy effort going on.
Greg: I’m curious, real quickly on that, is that a fun thing or do you think that there is really a chance that someone will step up and say, “We should not get rid of Kentucky bourbon.”
Carla: I started it as a fun thing but I can see why they want to get rid of the barrels they found because there is no way to know if those have been tampered with. That’s really the concern, is they are afraid that somebody has done something to this bourbon, but the bottles are still sealed.
Greg: Someone with your palette, you could taste it and decide if it’s been tampered with and you can decide if they were good to share.
Carla: Right and I actually think that if anybody bought … What they’d like to do is have an auction for charity, and auction off those bottles. People are paying so much for Pappy. Can you imagine how much people would pay for a bottle of Pappy with an evidence tag on it? They would never open it, they would put it on a shelf and put a light on it.
Greg: A collectible.
Carla: It seems that they can make someone sign a disclaimer saying, “If you drink this and get sick it’s not our fault.” You are doing this with full knowledge of that. It seems like a really great opportunity to raise money for a worthy charity.
Jason: Is Basil Hayden also a wheated bourbon?
Carla: No, Basil Hayden is another bourbon that has rye and it’s a good one for cocktails, it holds up pretty well. Basil Hayden is part of the Jim Beam small batch collection along with Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek and they all have rye as a second.
Greg: Great. Should we get back to our tasting?
Carla: Yes, if anyone has any left now.
John: What tasting?
Jason: Who needs a refill?
Carla: A good way to taste bourbon is you don’t want to just knock it back necessarily. Take a little sip and let it coat your entire pallet and as you taste more bourbons you’ll find some of them light up different parts of your tongue, some of them come in really hot on the front and smooth out on the back, some of them will make the sides of the tongue tingle. What you are looking for in a really good bourbon is one that really activates the whole pallet and is complex enough to change as it goes through the mouth and a good finish, which is after you swallow. I don’t like one that’s really hot but a nice warming finish is a good thing to look for in a quality bourbon.
John: I noticed the spice more in the front of the tongue with this one.
Greg: Nice. I did too I just didn’t know if that was me being a wimp.
John: It lights up the side of my tongue too.
Carla: Yeah it’s more the front and the sides, there is not a lot on the back of my tongue. I feel it going down, it’s a pretty warm finish. I’m getting a lot of spice from this really and maybe a little bit of minty taste on the finish.
John: Yeah little wintergreen or something maybe, yeah.
Greg: I’m curious how did you get started enjoying bourbon? Is this a childhood fascination when you were seven years old you started sipping?
Carla: Well it’s funny. No, my parents are pretty much teetotalers so I’m sure they are really proud. No they are proud but I started drinking bourbon in college. I started with Makers and Coke and I’ve graduated now to not needing Coke but I’ve just always liked it. I’ve never really liked the white goods. Vodka is the carbon monoxide of alcohol experience. It’s colorless, odorless what’s the point really, tasteless I mean you have to add flavor to that to have flavor. Gin, I’m not a big fan but I’ve always liked bourbon because it has a lot of that sweet and spicy, and I like the flavors spectrum, I like the fact that you can cook with it, you can bake with it. It’s just a very versatile spirit. I started this blog about five or six years ago…
Greg: You can name it…
Carla: The Bourbon Babe, I am The Bourbon Babe, thebourbonbabe.com. Just noticing bourbon things were picking up a little bit, I had worked at the courier journal for most of my career and now I’m at Bellarmine University and I wanted to keep my hand in that kind of writing so I thought, “I could start, dabble in this bourbon blog.” At that time I even thought would there be enough to even write about? Seriously it could be a full time job now if I wanted it to because it’s just really exploded. The interest, the international…
Greg: The fact that your blog’s been picked up, you’ve talked to NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, several other…
Carla: Yeah the Washington Post one was fun because I don’t if you guys watch the show ‘Justified’?
Carla: They used a lot of Kentucky bourbon in that and so I started-
John: I always like to play ‘Spot the bottle’.
Carla: Yeah I started doing a recap, but what I recap more than what happened on the show was what they drank and the Washington Post writer in the last season did a story about the bourbons of ‘Justified’ and found me online and interviewed me and that was a lot of fun. What’s really fun too is that none of that was product placement. A lot of the products were Buffalo Trace but they didn’t pay to have those featured. The writers and producers came to Kentucky and wanted their show to seem authentic so they said, “What would Boyd Crowder drink?” and their PR person said, “Well I like Elmer T. Lee and that’s why Boyd Crowder’s drink of choice was Elmer T. Lee. I thought that was a really fun story.
John: I miss that show.
Carla: I miss it too.
Greg: Is it done or is it coming back?
John: It’s over
Greg: It’s over. I’m sorry.
Carla: It’s over, yeah. The bourbon was really authentic, the scenery was not at all. It was not shot in Kentucky, they’d be out there and say, “When did we get that sort of high desert land in Eastern Kentucky?” I don’t remember that but …
Greg: Is there something else we should experience with this glass or is it time to take a little noncommercial commercial break and try a new something else?
Jason: I have a quick question. We’re tasting the bourbon neat at room temperature. I know with some wines you drink them chilled or room temperature et cetera. With bourbon, does it have a different taste or flavor if you adjust the temperature if it was a chilled bourbon or on the rocks, et cetera?
Greg: Before you answer, bourbon neat means… what?
Carla: It means bourbon in a glass, bourbon with no ice, no water. Straight bourbon.
Jason: Neat, is that at room temperature type thing or …?
Carla: Typically yeah. Bourbon is really best served at room temperature. I would not chill a bourbon. Now adding ice is totally … That’s up to your own personal preference. What I tell people usually is when you’re trying a bourbon for the first time I recommend that you first sip it neat just so you can just get it’s full complexity and then if you find that it’s too … the proof is too high you can try adding an ice cube or a splash of water is actually a fun thing to do. Adding a splash of water even if you don’t think the proof is too high because a lot of times that will open up the bourbon and bring out notes that you didn’t taste when you tasted it just straight.
Greg: Does it need to breathe like a wine? Would you open a bottle half an hour or put it in a glass half an hour before you would …?
Carla: I would open the bottle, I wouldn’t put it in the glass that far ahead because a lot of it is going to evaporate. It’s flavors are going to come off. Some snobs will say, “The only way to drink bourbon is neat. If you put in an ice cube in there you’re a big wimp or something,” but I’ve heard Fred Noe, Jim Beam say, “You drink it any damn way you want to as long as you drink my bourbon.” That’s true. It’s just up to personal preference.
Jason: Neat on the rocks is great, my friends who mix it with coke or diet coke, it’s just ginger ale, what are you doing? Don’t ruin it!
John: I’ve got a question too before we go to a break. Sorry Greg. We’re taking over your podcast.
Greg: I’m taking a break, I’m filling up, you guys run it for a little bit.
John: Yeah. We’ll just take over. Right, as a beer guy and a lover of bourbon barrel stouts and porters and anything that comes out of bourbon barrel, have you tried a lot of the bourbon barrel stouts and beers that are aged in bourbon, and what do you think of those?
Carla: I really enjoy those. I like beer too. I’m a particularly a stout and porter fan but I think it does give it that extra depth. It mellows it, and you can taste some of those caramels and vanillas. It’s a great pairing.
Jason: There’s also a few wines now that soak in the bourbon barrels. Old 502 Winery I believe has a Bourbon Barrel Red wine they soak in bourbon barrel.
Carla: There’s actually a cocktail that I’ve had. It sounded crazy when I first tried a bit. Tim Laird, who’s the chief-
Greg: Drinkologist, right?
Carla: Chief entertainment officer for Brown-Forman. He was tasked with making a cocktail for a steak house and he started thinking, “Okay, what goes with steak? Bourbon goes with steak, red wine goes with steak,” and so he mixed together a merlot with bourbon and a little simple syrup and some lemon. It is fantastic. When I thought mixing them together that sounds really weird but it really works especially with a nice full bodied red, and you can find the recipe on thebourbonbabe.com.
John: Nice plug!
Greg: All right. We’re going to try another one coming up and then when we come back I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about Mint Juleps, what you think about them and then the whatever we’re tasting next.
*Editor’s Note – please check back on May 10th for Part II of our bourbon tasting with Carla Carlton, The Bourbon Babe!