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Jack Daniel’s, 1968

Jack Daniel’s, 1968

Jack Daniels 1968 Whiskey

I never really considered that tasting a Jack Daniel’s whiskey that was bottled in 1968 might be a possibility in the year 2016. Where would I find such a thing? How could it have escaped thirsty lips for nearly 50 years? How much would it even cost if I did find it? And, of course, how would it taste?

Well, I was recently given such an opportunity: a bottle of 1968 Jack Daniel’s, right in front of me. Clearly worn by time on the outside, but surely – hopefully – in wonderful spirit on the inside.

I didn’t find this bottle of Jack – it found me. I don’t know how it lived this long without being devoured. I have no idea how much it cost, nor the nature of any transaction involved. But I was soon about to find out how it tasted, and I quickly recognized that a bottle of Tennessee whiskey from 1968 should not just be considered in the sense of taste, but in the sense of time.


If you look at the history books, 1968 was not a particularly good year for this world, nor for Tennessee. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles just two months later. On the other side of the globe, North Vietnam launched the infamous Tet Offensive against South Vietnam and the United States. That’s a lot of awful for one span of 366 days (1968 was a leap year).

But, also in 1968, Star Trek treated American viewers to TV’s first interracial kiss. A bold (and controversial) act by three men in support of human rights took place on one of the world’s greatest stages – the Olympics. And the year came to an exhilarating finish with Apollo 8 orbiting the moon and offering the world an incredible look back at itself. So maybe it wasn’t all bad, after all.

In 1968, Jack Daniel’s (the distillery, not the man) was 102 years old, past the heralded Lem Motlow era, and well into the Brown-Forman years. Jack Daniel’s was already much-loved in Tennessee and throughout the United States. Thirteen years prior – in 1955 – Frank Sinatra had famously uttered onstage: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Daniel’s, and it is the nectar of the gods.” But Jack was not yet a global brand experiencing massive growth, nothing like the behemoth that it is today. That would start in earnest in the 1970’s.

So what would you expect of a bottle of Jack sent forward from 1968 into the future? Would you sense the tumult of history? Would there be a glimmering sensation that man was about to step foot on the moon after just having zoomed by for a good look? I had never asked myself those questions, but that changed last week when this bottle of 1968 Jack Daniel’s was set before me.


The setting for this taste of history was Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, itself a tribute to Tennessee’s whiskey past. Sean Brock, the executive chef and partner at Husk restaurants in Nashville and Charleston, was holding forth on the topic of Tennessee whiskey to a crowd gathered at the Southern Foodways Alliance summer symposium. He was joined by Charlie Nelson of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery and Nashville journalist Jim Myers. And then they starting passing around little plastic cups of brown water. The gathered crowd had no idea what we were in store for.

Brock has earned something of a reputation as one of the nation’s foremost hunters of rare bourbon. He has dished on the drink with Anthony Bourdain on TV, and all you have to do is look at his cabinet of collectibles in the bar at Husk to know that he is serious about tracking down – and sharing – rare and yearned for bourbons. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he had an unexpected bottle for us.

Like I said, I have no idea where Brock found this bottle – this 1968 Jack Daniel’s that was now before us. I have no idea how much he paid for it, or what dark closet floor it must have been inhabiting for decades. I was just thrilled to be given a chance to taste this whiskey that was born roughly a decade before I was, when stalks of corn harvested from Tennessee fields (at least I imagine so) soon met up with the limestone-rich spring waters of Lynchburg and artificial anything was nowhere in sight. GMO? What’s that? Fireball? Never heard of it. 

We smelled. We sipped. We savored from our small plastic cups. The 1968 Jack tasted unmistakably… Jack. If you’ve ever had Jack Daniel’s, you know what I mean. If not, feel free to remedy the situation in the near future. But the 1968 Jack also tasted unmistakably… long-lived. It had a haze of elusive maturity to it, not deeper, or richer, or even necessarily better than typical Jack. But it was more full of character. Actually, yes, it was better than typical Jack. Much better. If I had to peg the age-added notes dancing on my tongue, I’d lean towards almond extract or even baked almond meringues. But this tasting wasn’t about the tasting notes.

We turned our thoughts from almond aromas, and notes of caramel, to timelines and Tennessee.  We thought about what 1968 took from us, and what it left behind. We pondered the extent to which the world has taken in the lessons of 1968, of Martin Luther King, Jr., of trips to the moon. If only a glass of whiskey contained enough wisdom to answer any of that.

Closer to home, my mind turned from the historical landscape of Tennessee to one particular geographic corner – Memphis – where my late grandfather had already reached 55 years of age in 1968. I remembered being told that he had long ago joined the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Squires association, which bestowed upon him a small plot of land in “the Hollow, Lynchburg.” That may seem gimmicky today, but I have to think that Jack Daniel’s in 1968 was simply a source of Tennessee pride in the midst of sometimes shameful times. Maybe it still is.

Either way, there’s little doubt that my grandfather sipped some 1968 Jack Daniel’s back in his day. That very same year, my father turned 21 while studying at Memphis State University, and had his first opportunity to legally take a pour. So, as I sat in a Nashville distillery, three generations of my family shared a symbolic sip, looking at once back in time and towards the future, through the amber lens of Tennessee whiskey.

Nelson's Green Brier Distillery Nashville Tennessee

Drinking the 2016 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

Drinking the 2016 Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

FOMO-OSAD was in full effect this past weekend at the AFWF. That would be “fear of missing out -on some amazing drinks” at the “Atlanta Food and Wine Festival.” For those not familiar with the event, the highlights usually come in the numerous learning seminars on Friday and Saturday, where industry savants share wisdom on all manner of topics related to food and drink. The cool thing is, they don’t limit the topics purely to the American South – so things like sotol and raicilla and West Indies rhum agricole easily find their way in to the sessions.

I did my best to hop around in order to squeeze in as much goodness as possible, but I also know I missed quite a bit. That said, here are the 10 most excellent spirits I tasted during the event – spanning Mexico, Kentucky, and South Carolina, with a touch of Alabama thrown in for good measure:

Clayton Szczech mezcal sotol

I first met Clayton Szczech (that’s Spanish for “educated gringo,” I think) of Experience Tequila during judging for the IWSC Spirits of the Americas competition. To say he knows his stuff is putting it very mildly, and I’m always eager to see what rarities he might have in his bag. This time, it was a trio of artisanal spirits from Mexico – a bacanora, a sotol, and a raicilla, all of which are variations on mezcal, and all of which will play havoc with your spellcheck. Sotol Clande, Marques de Sonora Bacanora, and Don Chalio Raicilla are not likely to be found in the states at all, but they are a good reminder that exploring lesser known Mexican agave spirits is a worthy endeavor. Clayton was nice enough to provide details on each on his tasting mats (below), and I just love all the detail on the Sotol Clande bottle seen above (Grinding………. Axe; Oven………Underground Conical). Without fail, these were nuanced, far-too-drinkable spirits – the Clande sotol being earthy and green, reminiscent of desert brush; the bacanora being incredibly complex, with hints of caramel and white pepper; the raicilla full of intricate spice notes. Love it.

Mezcal

The awesome folks at High Wire Distilling hosted a party in conjunction with BevCon Charleston, at which Atlanta bartender extraordinaire Jerry Slater was pouring a drink including High Wire’s wonderful Southern Amaro. The cocktail was great (of course), but I must admit to enjoying sipping the amaro all by itself even more. Made with regional ingredients like Charleston black tea, foraged yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine, and mint, this amaro is spicy and deep, yet still bright.

High Wire Amaro

I ponied up $100 to attend the “master class” led by chef Sean Brock and featuring Drew Kulsveen of Willett Whiskey fame and Preston Van Winkle of, well, Van Winkle fame. The topic was rare bourbon and rare country ham, so you know it was going to be good – and the $100 entry fee ended up being a bargain. The bourbon lineup included Willett’s new four year old bourbon – bottle 223 of 235 bottles from 4 year old Willett Family Estate Barrel 651, 111 proof –  and one of the rare 23 year old bourbons they’ve been safeguarding for the past eight years. This was bottle 80 of a mere 81 bottles filled from Willett Family Estate “Barrel B60” – that means this 23 year old bourbon had yielded about 70% of its nectar to the angels over the years, since a new bourbon barrel holds about 266 bottles worth. Yes, it was heavenly stuff, especially at the 132 proof barrel strength. And Willett seekers beware, Drew said there are only TEN barrels left of this ultra-aged stock they purchased eight years ago. As for the four year old, this is Willett-distilled, and our bottle came from just the eighth barrel released thus far (all only sold at Willett’s gift shop in Kentucky). It’s impressive for a younger spirit, with a cherry cola profile and a cinnamon-amaro finish.

Willet Single Barrel Bourbon

If you know anything about Sean Brock, you know he loves Pappy Van Winkle and the Stitzel-Weller lineage. Preston Van Winkle poured us the 10 year old Old Rip Van Winkle, the 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot B, and the 15 year old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. These are all wonderful bourbons, and having them all side by side was a good reminder that the seldom seen Lot B remains a knockout bourbon that doesn’t command quite the same stratospheric fanaticism of its older brethren. It’s exactly what a bourbon should be, without the fireworks of its older brothers. The 15 year old? Still one of my favorite bourbons of all time.

Old Rip Van Winkle Pappy

Number 10 on my list? Another one you’re not going to find in a store – which is really the great thing about a festival like the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. This was a “Ham Fat Whisky” from chef David Bancroft of restaurant Acre in Auburn, Alabama. I’m pretty sure it was plain old Maker’s Mark with some 2 year old ham fat thrown in, from that 2 year old Alabama prosciutto in the background, but really it was the combination of 2 year old ham, ham fat whisky, and the remarkable Poirier’s pure cane syrup that proved to be one of the best bites/sips of the festival. Awesome stuff – sweet, salty, fatty, powerful stuff.

Pork Fat Whiskey

There was plenty more – especially all the wonderful cocktails from Nick Detrich of Cane & Table, Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club, Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve, Kellie Thorn of Empire State South, Miles Macquarrie of Kimball House, and the gentlemen from Cure in New Orleans. Plus too much to even remember in the festival’s tasting tents. And I just know that I missed out on just as much amazing stuff – like David Wondrich making Chatham Artillery Punch. Dang. Anyway, in case you’re hungry, here are two more of my favorite pork porn photos from Sean Brock’s session, with a lagniappe of pork cracklin from New Orleans chef Isaac Toups thrown in for good measure:

IMG_0391

Sean Brock Ham

Cracklins

 

Playing with the Pappy Old Fashioned

Playing with the Pappy Old Fashioned

I’ve always been hesitant to use long aged (AKA $50+) whiskey in cocktails, thinking that a 6 year old rye or 10 year old bourbon offer a better balance of approachability and complexity from time in the barrel. A bottle such as Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old bourbon has always been reserved for neat drinking in my house, due to its amazing character and its cost, quite frankly, but also because it just seems a bit sacrilegious to mix anything beyond a few drops of good water into something so fine. Now, I’ve heard of Pappy cocktails being served at pairing dinners with Julian Van Winkle III himself at the table, but it wasn’t until I read John Kessler’s brief chat with Charleston chef Sean Brock that I had a strong desire to explore Pappy in a cocktail. Chef Brock shared an approach for making a Pappy Old Fashioned that Mr. Van Winkle himself had recently offered up – a slightly unorthodox approach that, I’m sure, plenty of thought and experimentation went into. So with the Van Winkle-endorsed recipe in hand, I joined a few Pappy-appreciating friends to tinker with the recipe and contrast it with the standalone bourbon. The fact that we were playing with the Old Fashioned eased my apprehensions as well, given that it’s one of the simplest of classic cocktails, one that focuses on the primary ingredient (here, bourbon), layered with the interplay of aromatic bitters and the sweetness of a bit of sugar.

The test was this:
Glass A – Pappy 15
Glass B – a conservative take on the Pappy 15 Old Fashioned, adding a cube of brown sugar doused in Angostura and orange bitters
Glass C – following Mr. Van Winkle’s lead, taking the above and adding a small wedge of orange to the mix
Glass D – blending the Glass C approach with another common Old Fashioned technique, the addition of a touch of club soda

So, we started with the bourbon itself and progressed step by step to cocktails that layered on extra dimensions. The results were fascinating to say the least…

Glass A – Pappy 15 – a genuinely great bourbon worthy of slow contemplation on its own. The first thing that hits you is the depth of the nose that the time in the barrel has provided, caramel, leather, cedar, on and on. There is the evident heat, it is 107 proof, but it’s kept in check amidst the layers of spice and toasty caramel. Close to perfection in a bourbon. How can you mess with this?!

Glass B – Pappy 15 Old Fashioned, with brown sugar and bitters – wow, the nose now is completely changed, gone are the deep aged notes, in are the bright aromatics of the bitters, which really take over. Bitter orange peel, cloves, sharp floral whiffs. Where’s the Pappy? But then you take a sip, and the Pappy emerges, now a bit sweeter indeed, a bit more rounded, present but definitively altered – a cocktail rather than a bourbon in the glass. Is it better? No, not really. Is it good? Yes, definitely. And as the drink sits in the glass, the cube of ice melts a bit, the bitters take more of a back seat and integrate into the bourbon more effectively.

Glass C – Pappy 15 Old Fashioned, with a wedge of orange in the mix – OK, now this is interesting. The orange muddled into the bourbon increases the orange notes (duh) that hit your nose up front, but the sweet acidity of the orange also somehow manages to make the drink “fuller,” smoother, rounder. Dare I say more interesting? This is an excellent cocktail, no doubt, with a LOT going on between the citrus, the bitters, the bourbon itself. It respects the bourbon, but adds a playful element of surprise to the Pappy experience.

Glass D – Pappy 15 Old Fashioned, now with a touch of club soda – a little bit of water can go a long way. Here, alas, the way it’s going is a dead end, a distraction, a verge off into too sweet and too mellow that basically diminishes the glory of the main ingredient. Fail. Well, maybe not a FAIL, but does not compare well to the other versions tested.

Conclusion: Pappy 15 is a glorious thing on its own. It’s hard to justify making a cocktail out of it, BUT… if you are hankering for a cocktail that respects a fine bourbon, there is an Old Fashioned that works delightfully well, that is interesting and engaging, that is OK to put Pappy 15 in! Julian Van Winkle III clearly knows his stuff, and the combination of the brown sugar, bitters and orange is a fine partner for Pappy.

So, here it is, a slightly modified take on Van Winkle’s Pappy Old Fashioned:

Ingredients:
1.5 oz Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon
1 brown sugar cube (roughly 1 tsp brown sugar pressed into a cube)
Angostura Bitters
Orange bitters
Orange wedge, peeled, fruit only (Satsuma or similar is a good choice)

Preparation:
Place sugar cube over a paper towel on top of an Old Fashioned (AKA rocks) glass. Add 6 drops of Angostura bitters and 6 drops of orange bitters to the sugar cube, then let it settle through the sugar – a good portion of the bitters will absorb into the paper towel. Drop the sugar cube into the glass, and add 1/4 oz Pappy and a small wedge of orange. Muddle well. Add one large ice cube and 1 oz Pappy, then stir well. Once stirred, add a final 1/4 oz Pappy. And enjoy!

Notes:
Chef Brock uses a touch of sorghum over a regular white sugar cube instead of brown sugar. Mr. Van Winkle commented below to be sure to peel the orange and use the fruit only, so that the bitterness of the pith is taken out of play.