Expert helps me taste-test a 112-year-old bottle of family bourbon

January 2, 2013

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell prepares to taste some Old Barbee, distilled in 1901 and bottled in 1914. Photo by Mollie Eblen

 

You don’t have to be a bourbon whiskey expert to know that age is good and more age is usually better. But how old is too old?

I have pondered that question for 25 years, ever since I was given a pint of Old Barbee. It was distilled in 1901 when my wife’s great-grandfather was president of the company that made it.

This bourbon was aged for 13 years in a charred, white-oak barrel to acquire its color and flavor, just as bourbon is made today. It was bottled at 100 proof in 1914, according to the tax stamp, but never opened.

I always wondered: Would this Old Barbee still taste good? Or, after almost a century in a bottle, would it be nasty — or even poisonous?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to find out.

I took my grown daughters, Mollie and Shannon, to Anderson County to open and taste my Old Barbee with one of Kentucky’s bourbon experts: Jimmy Russell. The third-generation distiller has worked at Wild Turkey for 59 years and been the master distiller there since 1966.

Russell explained that bourbon does all of its maturing in the barrel. Once bottled, the process stops. As long as the amber liquid remains clear, he had told me, my Old Barbee should taste as good as the day it was bottled.

The cork stopper and celluloid wrapper had started to disintegrate in recent years, causing nearly half the bottle’s contents to evaporate — distillers call it “the angels’ share.” As Russell readied some snifters, I removed the cork carefully.

I had heard about Old Barbee since the late 1970s, when my wife, Becky, and I began dating. According to her family lore, it was a smooth bourbon with excellent flavor.

My wife’s great-grandfather Herman Volkerding was born in 1869 to a German family in Cincinnati. He moved to Louisville and worked for John T. Barbee & Co. By the early 1890s, he was the distillery’s president.

The company’s offices were on Louisville’s Main Street, then known as “Whiskey Row.” The distillery was in Woodford County, along Griers Creek near the Kentucky River, within two miles of where Wild Turkey is made.

John T. Barbee & Co. prospered, and Volkerding and his wife, Mary, lived in a West End mansion with their eight children. But he died in 1912 at age 42, and his partners sold the business to the Weller distillery.

When Prohibition came in 1919, the remaining stock of Old Barbee was sold as “medicinal whiskey,” which required a doctor’s prescription. The Woodford County distillery was abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

I have researched Old Barbee over the years, and that led me to the person who, in 1987, gave me the unopened bottle.

My daughters and I watched as Russell poured small samples into four snifters. He swirled his glass and held it up to the light.

“It’s got a great color, that good, bright, which means it should still be a good-tasting product,” he said. “When it stays that same color all those years you know it’s well-made, been aged well.”

Russell took several deep sniffs. “It’s got a great nose on it,” he said.

Then he took a sip, rolling it around his mouth for several moments as Herman Volkerding’s great-great-granddaughters and I held our breath.

“Typical old-fashioned bourbon,” Russell finally said with a smile. “It’s got the sour mash, it’s got the caramel, vanilla, the sweetness. And that age it’s got a lot of woody, oaky taste to it.

“The thing I really like about it is the finish. It’s got a great finish on it. To me, that’s one of the most important things is the finish. What kind of taste does it leave in your mouth?”

With Russell having pronounced Old Barbee good, my daughters and I took sips.

Then, as if drawn by a sixth sense for special bourbon, Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, and Rick Robinson, Wild Turkey’s distillery director, walked in, and I offered them a taste.

We all agreed that the oldest bourbon any of us had ever had was mighty good stuff.

When Becky’s family came to our house for Christmas, I put eight small glasses on an Old Barbee serving tray she had inherited and poured everyone a taste. Then we offered a toast to Herman Volkerding for a job well done.

Click here to watch a video of Jimmy Russell taste-testing Old Barbee.

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A short history of Kentucky bourbon, sip by sip

September 22, 2012

Aging bourbon at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

What is the best way to end a fine Kentucky day?

Try this: A front porch with a pleasant view. A comfortable rocking chair. A friend with interesting things to say. A glass with enough fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey to float an ice cube or three.

The first sip should burn, but not too much. Hints of caramel and charred oak bounce off the back of your tongue. It is an intoxicating mixture of corn, barley, rye or wheat, limestone-rich water and a lot of Kentucky history.

Legend has it that bourbon was invented in Scott County in the late 1780s by Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher. That may not be true, but it makes a great story: Nectar of the gods created by minister to teetotalers.

Bourbon has become a Kentucky icon, a signature state industry. What makes bourbon unique? First, it is the mixture of grains: at least 51 percent corn, malted barley, rye and/or wheat. It is aged in new, white oak barrels that have been charred by flame. The char is what gives bourbon its distinctive amber color and smoky flavor. That happens as clear whiskey is drawn in and out of the wood with the change of seasons.

Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon — and all that’s worth drinking. And don’t confuse bourbon with that charcoal-filtered whiskey that Jack Daniel and George Dickel make in Tennessee.

Bourbon has been big business in the Bluegrass since before Kentucky became a state in 1792. Settlers found the rich soil good for growing corn and the limestone water good for turning it into whiskey.

Why was it called bourbon? Again, there’s more legend than proof. But it probably had something to do with early Kentucky whiskey’s biggest export market: French New Orleans.

Bourbon making became a popular Kentucky enterprise. My great-great-great grandfather inherited a Jessamine County distillery from his father, according to an 1825 will. In the early 1900s, my wife’s great-grandfather was president of a Woodford County distillery that had its offices on “Whiskey Row” on Louisville’s Main Street.

Prohibition in 1919 was a kick in the gut to Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Only a few distilleries survived by making “medicinal” whiskey for people with enough connections to get a doctor’s prescription.

Bourbon distilling rebounded with Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, but as the industry consolidated, quality suffered. Sales plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Samuels thinks it was because most bourbon then wasn’t very good.

About that time, Samuels was building his father’s Maker’s Mark distillery into an industry powerhouse by focusing on better quality and marketing. That sparked an industry turnaround.

Soon every Kentucky distillery was making high-quality bourbons — unique recipes that began attracting new fans around the world.

When friends used to ask me to recommend a good bourbon, I would offer a few suggestions. Now, I tell them that almost any Kentucky bourbon costing more than $20 a bottle will be good, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.

There is a lot of variety in bourbon, as there is in the way people drink it. Many bourbonistas turn up their nose at sweet mint juleps, and laugh out loud when someone mixes good bourbon with a carbonated soft drink.

Many purists like their bourbon on ice or “neat” — straight or with a few drops of water at room temperature. Some people keep their bourbon in the freezer to avoid diluting it with melting ice.

Bourbon is likely to remain trendy so long as creative distillers come up with tasty new recipes. But, please, let’s not get all snobbish like some of those wine and Scotch connoisseurs.

I once met a legendary distiller, a guy who helped developed some of Kentucky’s best-tasting bourbons. He even has a fine bourbon named for him. So I had to ask: how do you drink your bourbon?

He mixes it with Sprite.