Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Bluegrass Tavern - Lexington, Kentucky

The Bluegrass Tavern
115 Cheapside
Lexington, KY 40507

by Shayla Lawson

I can give you good reasons why a woman drinks bourbon. But you need only one. It is the kind of drink you have a relationship with—you get a taste of it, you break up, you get back together all in one glass. Although not the most widely known, it is arguably one of the most well-respected of the five major types of whiskey and the only spirit native to the United States. Kentucky distills 95% of the world’s bourbon. Whiskey does not have to come from the great Bluegrass State to acquire the name bourbon, contrary to what a hometown girl like myself might tell you, but if you find bourbon distilled anywhere else I would not recommend drinking it.

“Bourbon is like candy,” says Nathan Barker, bar tender at the Bluegrass Tavern. Opened in January 2007, the independent bar owned by Larry Redmond celebrates bourbon’s Kentucky heritage. I visit the bar an hour before its Saturday night opening and ask Nathan for tasting tips. If you want to drink bourbon in the social environs most closely akin to how Kentuckians do, this is the place to come. The bar is warm and well lit. It has a faint oak scent complimented by the dark cherry stain of the bar counter and a clean seating arrangement fashioned from bar stools and reclaimed bourbon barrels. Bourbon is not flamboyant liquor. It has never really had its day as the go-to drink of the hipster crowd. Kentuckians typically share bourbon after dinner with friends or by leaving a bottle beside the Coca-Cola at family gatherings for the older folks (and the adventurous bad cousins). Like the Bluegrass Tavern it is quiet, internal, and enjoyable.

Nathan pulls out two shot glasses. He pours Basil Hayden’s 80 proof Straight Bourbon Whiskey and the Thomas H. Handy 134 proof Straight Rye Whiskey in each for comparison. Bourbon must come from a mash of at least 51% corn and contain an alcohol percentage of at least 80 proof. It has a nose and a mouth, like wine. I put my nose over the Basil Hayden’s as instructed. It is tan in color and sweet with a hint of licorice. It has a taste reminiscent of Sambuca but decidedly more visceral. Even at its mildest, bourbon has a complexity not kind to those who trust their front palette. The taste that hits the tongue is smooth but momentarily painful. Its heat settles in the stomach much lower than other liquors. The 134 proof Thomas H. Handy Sazerac felt like drinking a really fantastic western. It had the translucent color of dried magnolia petals in the glass. On the way down it tasted like smoke.

“Older men will come in here and they won’t even talk,” says Nathan describing the Tavern’s clientele of bourbon aficionados. A mature bourbon drinker usually prefers it neat (straight) from a snifter and will spend 45 minutes to an hour on one glass. But the Bluegrass Tavern does not discriminate. In addition to a selection of 162 bourbon varieties, and counting, it also has a full-service bar. As I prepare to leave, Nathan serves an already inebriated couple a bottle of Bud light and a pint Stella Artois on tap.

Drink Suggestions

A Manhattan—The Bourbon Cocktail
Bourbon with a touch of sweet vermouth, shaken, with a three cherry garnish in a martini glass lined with grenadine.

Mint Julep—The Horse Racing Mojito
Bourbon poured over crushed ice mixed with mint leaves and granulated or cane sugar.

Bourbon Barrel Beers
Beers brewed from the charred-oak barrels of finished bourbon batches. Incredible. I am a long time fan of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale for its sweet, elegant texture, but the The Bluegrass Tavern introduced me to the Bluegrass Brewing Company’s Jefferson Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout. It has a rich coffee bean flavor that catapulted Guinness and Young’s Double Stout out of position as my favorite dark beers.

Sources/ Additional information:
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association website
“Straight, or with a Splash of History.”
“The Best Bourbons"

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