It’s the whiskey rebellion of the 21st century.
No, I’m not talking about the eruption of a tax protest similar to the original in 1791. I’m talking about the rising prominence of actual whiskey, bourbon whiskey, to be exact.
Fortunate visitors to Rock Hill’s recent ChristmasVille, the terrific downtown festival celebrating the Yule season, might have wandered up the steep marble stairs to the second floor of the Gettys Center where, in the historic courtroom, they would have encountered a throng of people gathered around tables serving free samples of whiskey. The samples included both Scotch (which actually is whisky without the extra “e”) and bourbon, which takes its cue from the Irish spelling of whiskey.
Tasters could sample thimble-sized drams of liquor, much of it poured from expensive bottles. It was a rare opportunity to taste a lot of different variations on the distiller’s art without having to shell out thousands of dollars.
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And that is no exaggeration. For example, a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-year-old Family Reserve Bourbon will set you back about $300. Pappy Van Winkle is one of the most sought-after brands of bourbon in the nation, but hundreds of others have cropped up to tempt sippers of this magic transformation of corn, rye, barley, water and oak.
Scotch always has been an object of reverence for connoisseurs. But bourbon, until recently, had been largely just the brown liquor of choice for many undiscerning drinkers, many of them residing south of the Mason-Dixon line.
I have been consuming bourbon for a long time. At the start of my journey down Whiskey River, the choices were relatively few: Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Old Granddad, Old Crow, Weller, Rebel Yell, Jack Daniels (which technically isn’t bourbon because it comes from Tennessee).
My tastes would change, often influenced by outside forces. I drank Early Times for several years because it was the bourbon of choice for Walker Percy, the great Southern author of books such as “The Moviegoer” and “Love in the Ruins.”
I drank J.T.S. Brown for a while because Fast Eddy Felson (aka, Paul Newman) drank it in “The Hustler.”
But lately, with the increasing interest among millennials in craft cocktails and small-batch liquors, the number of bourbon brands has exploded. Bourbon lovers now have dozens of single-barrel versions to choose from.
Go into any liquor store these days, and the bourbon section is likely to dominate. And it’s not only the new entrepreneurs who are taking different approaches to an old craft; the established, traditional distillers also are producing different versions of their hootch.
Even a bourbon such as Four Roses, which I used to find on the bottom shelf, now has a highfalutin’ small-batch label with a high price tag.
I suppose some longtime bourbon imbibers could quibble with this phenomenon. Bourbon is supposed to be workingman’s whiskey. Isn’t it just moonshine that has slept for a few years in an oak barrel? Why confuse people with a million different fancy brands?
Well, yes, all that might be true to some extent. But why complain? You still can buy the cheap stuff if you want.
I have tasted a variety of these different boutique bourbons (thanks again, ChristmasVille!) and, frankly, they’re all good. Especially on the second pour.
If you can stand the often ostentatious tasting notes (“hints of nutmeg, orange peel, brown sugar, finishing with vanilla and black pepper ...”) and your taste buds are up to it, I would recommend giving some of these new bourbons a try. Or, as the season permits, pour some in your egg nog.
Just remember, many of those toys require some assembly.
James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.