Sketches of Bourbon

By David Grinstead

Published on February 3, 2007

_David Grinstead was a New York-based writer with Kentucky roots who tended bar at the Algonquin Hotel's Blue Bar and the Four Seasons restaurant. He had tasted every important brand of bourbon at one time or another, he noted when he wrote these sketches shortly before his death in 1996, "as part of my American spiritual heritage."

When I was in Vietnam, clinging to a dusty ridge, the adjutant brought over a new corporal. "Where you from?" I asked. "Glasgow, Kentucky," he replied. "My family's from there," I said. "Thought so. Lot of Grinsteads there." "What'd you do before you came in?" I asked. "Ran moon." Local entrepreneurs, he continued, made corn whiskey high up wooded draws, putting it in Mason jars, stacking cases in the trunks and on the floors of powerful sedans fitted with stiff springs, huge brakes, and souped-up engines. He'd poke his rifle out the back window and watch for "the laws" while they raced down the night roads to supply the thirsty, just as the church supplied the temperate with piety during the daylight. I told him that I'd had great moonshine myself on occasion. The best is as clear and honest as any French marc, without the kidney punch two hours later.

When I was living in Europe in 1970, I visited a charming inn under the cliff in Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, home of Cro-Magnon Man. In the bar, the barman was handing out pots of coffee and glasses of wine and brandy—and bourbon poured from a blocky Jim Beam bottle. "Les gens ici savez bourbon?" I asked him. "Oui," he replied. "Pas mal, pas cher, plus suave que l'eau de vie"—it's not bad, not expensive, smoother than fruit brandy.

I like my bourbon straight, at room temperature, in one of the heavy cut glass crystal tumblers my family used in Kentucky 150 years ago. I particularly appreciate it after a good meal, which could be Kentucky-style—a nice broiled pork chop and okra with red pepper—or even something like cassoulet or English beef. I swirl the bourbon in the glass, breathe in, and take a sip, letting the whiskey wash over the back of my tongue and send tendrils of aroma up the back of my nose. The cogitating and introspection bourbon does in the cask gives it remarkable depth. Just as you get flashes of dusty Spanish sunlight in good brandy de Jerez or of biting sea and smoke in a single malt from Islay, you can find in good bourbon reminders of that gentle Middle South climate, the sweetness of the air over pasture land, the clean spring water, and the sunbursting corn.

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