Louisville Magazine

FEB 2019

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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52 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 2.19 distiller of the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace), had picked out for an employee, who then passed it down to a granddaughter. at one was valued at $10,000 and sold for $10,500. e Pappy? No one bit. "Most of the buyers at high levels don't value Pappy as much as the rest of the population," Minnick says. "ey know the whiskey; they know what else they can get that's similar to it. I have no doubt it probably would have sold for $15,000." While wine and mead have been col- lected for centuries, Minnick says bourbon didn't start seeing this type of hype until about 10 years ago. "American whiskey was kind of always thought to be the poor man's drink, whereas scotch was for the Wall Street guy," he says. It's not just age and rarity that draws collectors. Bourbon is history. It's time travel. Minnick pours a taste of Wild Turkey, barreled in 1977 and bottled in 1985, and says, "is is to an era of leaded gasoline and people still using typewriters." In December, a stash of vintage spirits sold for $3 million at Chris- tie's Auction House in New York. Among the stockpiled supply were 40 cases of unopened pre-Prohibition whiskey. It all came from the family of a California millionaire who had built secret vaults in his mansion, anticipating Prohibition. And just a few months ago, Marianne Eaves, master distiller at Castle & Key in Versailles, made headlines for re-creating a 100-year-old bourbon she found at the distillery, once the home of Old Taylor. She figured out the chemical compounds and determined the recipe. Chet Zoeller used to find bottles on eBay for $150 to $250. e historian, author and co-founder of the Louisville brand Jefferson's Bourbon started collect- ing bourbon about 20 years ago, when he and his son Trey (now head of Jeffer- son's) were just starting out. Many are pint-sized medicinal bottles. ose same bottles — pints — can go for $1,000 to $1,500 today. "About four or five years ago, somebody whispered in eBay's ear that you couldn't sell those on the site, so that dried up and went away," Zoeller says. Since September, the Frazier History Museum downtown has had many of his 160 bottles on display as part of a "Spirit of Kentucky" exhibition. In early January, Butchertown Grocery chef-owner Bobby Benjamin closed his restaurant for renovations that included adding shelving for his antique bourbon collection. His love of bourbon has been a progression, from when he grew up in Rhode Island and Tennessee watching his dad drink Wild Turkey 101 to now, running a restaurant that often does events with the brand. Bourbon is not just a beverage for Benjamin. He's constantly coming up with new ways to use its by- products, like mash and barrel staves. He works closely with Matt Jamie at neighbor- ing Bourbon Barrel Foods and has a shelf of 16 jars of quinoa, peanuts, cherries and other ingredients — all bourbon-infused, in one way or another. He currently has olive oil and balsamic vinegar in used bourbon barrels. "It's almost like bourbon is the new umami," Benjamin says. "You can manipulate food with bourbon. A smoked grit is nothing like you've ever had in your lifetime. It's kind of like, 'Oh, wait a minute, what just happened?'" He plans to showcase some of his vintage bourbons in these ingredients. "We'll have a lock on here, obviously," he says. "I would love to compare the uniqueness of antique bourbon next to the uniqueness of bour- bon-infused ingredients." He and beverage director Nic Christiansen have recently picked 14 private barrels — meaning the bottles come from a single barrel of a type of bourbon, say, Maker's Mark, rather than being blended with other barrels, allowing for a unique taste and color profile — and they plan to do 20 more this year. "When we were thinking about this year, we were like, OK, what barrels are we pickin', and then what antiques are we buying?" Benjamin says. Many of these coveted vintage brands, and the majority of those in Zoeller's collection, ceased production long ago. "Bourbon was huge before Prohibition," Zoeller says. "It literally paid for the oper- ation of the federal government. e aver- age consumption was two to three gallons a year, including children and teetotalers." A lot of his bottles have prescriptions on the back, as bourbon was touted as having medicinal properties up through Prohibi- tion. "Whiskey that they made back then is considerably different than whiskey that they're making today. It's almost become more standardized," Zoeller says. "I'm delighted to say, I've opened a few (really old) bottles and tried them, and the whiskey is just wonderful." He says that, if a bourbon is bottled well, it should taste like it would have the day it went into the bottle. "Once you take it out of the barrel, everything stops," he says. On a recent Friday night at Bour- bons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue, bartender Mike Downs — "Like Chur- chill," he says — spots me eyeing the list of bourbons in the $1,000-to-$5,000-a-bot- tle range. "Oh, you want to see the owner's closet list?" he says, handing me a wrinkled paper that lists owner Jason Brauner's bottles for sale. ey range in price from $1,500 (for a 1978 Jim Beam Red Cor- vette, a decanter that actually looks like the car) up to $15,000 (for a bottle of I.W. Harper Prohibition whiskey, aged from 1916 to 1934). Downs starts pulling out different decanters — a 1978 Jim Beam telephone decanter, a 1972 Cabin Still Ducks Unlimited bottle, one of the Old Crow Chessman bottles. "Someone once bought one of these and returned it, said it was musty. And?" Downs says. Butchertown Grocery's Christiansen says that taste is part of what makes older bot- tles so fascinating. She recalls a time when Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell was at the restaurant and introduced her to some guys from Boston who had a bottle of 1990 Wild Turkey 12-year (aka "Cheesy Gold Foil" because of its gaudy label). She recalls Russell saying that he always asks his dad, longtime master distiller Jimmy, "How did you make that stuff? I've tasted from barrels, different parts of the warehouse, different floors, trying to find it." And his dad says, "I didn't do anything different. I just made bourbon." "e mouthfeel of antique bourbon is just different," Christiansen says. "It's dusty, almost. I'm sure when there wasn't Minnick owns some bottles he probably won't ever open. "I think to myself, you know, this is a little bit like my son's college savings," he says.

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