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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Bourbon’s elder statesmen are real-life characters

September 1, 2009

FRANKFORT—These guys don’t look like rock stars at first glance.

Or second glance. Or third.

Yet, they travel the world making public appearances, posing for photographs and signing autographs, usually on bottles of Kentucky’s best bourbon, some of which have their picture on the label.

This is officially Bourbon Heritage Month in Kentucky. The 18th annual Bourbon Festival is Sept. 15-20 in Bardstown. The eight-distillery Kentucky Bourbon Trail is expecting a record number of tourists.

So I figured this was a good time to sit down with three of bourbon’s elder statesmen: Elmer T. Lee, 90, former plant manager at Buffalo Trace; and master distillers Jimmy Russell, 74, who has been at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg for 55 years, and Parker Beam, 67, who is celebrating 50 years at Heaven Hill in Bardstown.

Bourbon sales have been growing steadily for 25 years, especially in international markets such as Japan, Australia and Europe. Distillery production is up 50 percent since 1999.

Much of the credit is given to Lee, who introduced Blanton’s Single Barrel in 1984, launching the premium bourbon market that has been the industry’s growth engine. Single barrel and small batch recipes have transformed bourbon’s image from a commodity into a craft product, like fine wine.

You also can’t discount the marketing genius of Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark in Loretto, who taught a conservative industry how to be folksy and hip at the same time.

More than 95 percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky, creating a $3 billion industry with 3,200 direct jobs. Although some distilleries are now owned by international conglomerates, they’re almost all run and staffed by Kentuckians with old bourbon family trees.

Russell and Beam are third-generation distillers, and their sons are distillers, too. Beam’s grandfather, for whom he was named, was master distiller at the operation owned by his grandfather’s brother, Jim Beam.

I visited with Russell, Beam and Lee around a table at Stony Point, the hilltop home where Col. Albert Blanton once commanded the 110-acre distillery now called Buffalo Trace. These three friends and rivals have known each other for decades. They can, and often do, give each other a hard time—and finish each other’s sentences.

The first thing I wanted to know was how these experts drink their bourbon.

Russell sips his “neat”— or straight—from a brandy snifter so he can enjoy the aroma. In summertime, he might drink it over ice, or chill the bottle in the refrigerator. Beam also is a straight-bourbon man, although he sometimes chases it with a little water. Lee prefers his bourbon mixed with 7Up or Sprite.

Russell, whose personal brand is Russell’s Reserve, and Beam, who developed Evan Williams Single Barrel, have a drink most days, but not every day. Lee is a daily drinker, but, like the others, in moderation.

“I don’t try to drink it all every night,” Lee said. “Just one good highball.”

Does Lee, the namesake of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, give bourbon any credit for his living to be 90? “I give it a whole lot of credit,” he said. “It ain’t hurt a damn thing.”

Beam jumps in: “Booker Noe, my cousin (and former master distiller at Jim Beam in Clermont) always said, there’s too much living proof bourbon won’t hurt you. Look at all us old-timers.”

Decades of practice have taught these men what good bourbon tastes like, but they have a hard time describing it — and sometimes chuckle when others try. They talked of hearing bourbon aficionados wax poetically about hints of caramel, vanilla and spice — and even tree leaves, leather and tobacco.

“I’ve always said when you’ve got some of those kind of tastes in your bourbon, you’ve probably got problems,” Beam said with a laugh.

Lee then had to tell one on Russell. One time, at a tasting in Missouri, someone began equating a particular bourbon’s taste to exotic fruits and vegetables. Russell leaned over to another distiller and whispered: “I don’t know about y’all, but we don’t put any of that crap in our bourbon.”

These three seem to enjoy being international bourbon ambassadors almost as much as being distillers. They have a lot of funny stories, such as the time Lee called down to the front desk of a hotel in Japan to ask for a bucket of ice. The bellman delivered a bucket of rice.

Lee, Beam and Russell were born and raised within a few miles of the distilleries where they have spent their lives, and their most common travel stories involve how people sometimes react to their folksy charm.

“One time, at a tasting in California, I introduced myself and after I poured the product this guy kept kind of staring at me,” Beam said. “Then he pointed his finger and said, ‘You’re a real person! … I thought you were just some fictitious character they had come up with in marketing.”

Beam, Russell and Lee are real, all right. But they’re characters, too.

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