BEER CLINIC :: Why I drink bourbon, not beer, in Southern Indiana

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on December 19, 2011

The Beer Doctor
December, 2011

I was recently posted to Madison, IN for two weeks, filling in for a local doctor. It’s a small town in southern Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky.  Madison is a unique place.  In the 1800’s it was the busiest riverboat town on the river — until the big boats became extinct.  So its roots are rough, tough, drinkin’ and carousin’. That probably explains why there are so many great bars with live music every night, in a town with a population of less than 12,000. I had a great after-hours time here.

But why can’t I get a good draft beer in this town??

Most bars have a few taps, but Madison beer drinkers prefer to quaff the mass market stuff. The premier beer is Guinness (ho hum). My local bartender, Matt, who pours a killer black-and-tan at my local hangout, JoeyG’s  said they had no IPAs on draft because they can’t give them away. They just never caught on. There is one brewery in town, but it was never open, so I had no chance to taste a local beer.

Finally I discovered why I can’t get a good draft beer in this town — because they drink bourbon! Every bar had good bourbon, and many carried premium bottles that are as pricey as good scotch (no, they don’t drink scotch here either.  It never caught on).  They sip it straight up or on the rocks, not as part of a cocktail, just as a fine spirit. I tried it that way and I agree. The better the bourbon the tastier the drink, and the slower the sipping.

So I made it my business to learn what I could about this spirit, and help refine my taste for it. Madison is just across the bridge from Kentucky.  Drive 50 miles south of here and you are in Bluegrass Country, on the Bourbon Trail. If you have a chance to do so, it’s worth the trip; you’ll have a great time, learn a lot about bourbon, taste some good ones, and probably get some good barbecue along the way– the food of choice to go with sippin’ whiskey.

One Saturday, Rick and I drove into Kentucky to visit Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve distilleries. We had noteworthy tours at both places, and a chance to taste some wonderful spirits.

I learned that bourbon was originally the name of the county in Kentucky that was settled by bootleggers fleeing the revenuers in Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1790.   Bourbon County had wonderful, clear limestone water and land especially suited to growing corn.  The “beer” made with corn, malted barley and rye, was distilled into a clear spirit, and American ingenuity developed the method of aging it in charred oak barrels.

Here is the legal definition of bourbon in the US, as specified by the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits:

It must be produced in the US

It must contain at least 51% corn

It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels (the old barrels are sold to Scotland, France, or Home Depot)

It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol)

It must be entered into barrel aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol)

It must be bottled at 80 proof or more (this is true for all whiskeys)

To be called Straight Bourbon, it must be aged at least 2 years, with no added coloring, flavoring or other spirits.

If you try a taste comparison, you will find that the difference between a standard whiskey and a single-barrel, aged bourbon is like the difference between J&B and a premium 18-year Macallan scotch. Or between Bud Light and a craft IPA. There is no comparison.

I believe that bourbon is still evolving: most distillers don’t want to make the investment in long aging, which wastes time and loses precious volume. But I predict that when the bourbon producers finally realize that a good barrel gets better and commands a much higher price after long aging–as the scotch distillers recognized a few decades ago–we’ll start to see some great stuff. A few forward-looking distilleries are now releasing well-aged bourbons–for example, Pappy Van Winkle releases highly-prized 20-year and 23-year bottles. Keep your eyes peeled for select cask, aged bourbons; though pricey, they are a real treat.

Thank you, Madison, IN, for introducing me to life on a river town.  Madison has a slow, relaxed life style, a bit behind the times.  And when it comes to liquor trends, this town is so far behind that it’s ahead of the curve.  I predict that premium bourbon will be the “next big thing” in alcoholic spirits. But for now, back to my beer.  I’ll have the IPA, thank you.

ADDENDUM

The last day in town I discovered a great restaurant with a very respectable draft list.  The 605 Cafe and Grill, has 8 taps, and a 25-oz sampler.  Noteworthy on their draft list was Upland Brewery’s Komodo Dragonfly, a very, very black IPA, brewed in nearby Bloomington Indiana.

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Anne Moffat December 22, 2011 at 10:09 am

Did you bring any of the good stuff back to share with friends?

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