Old bourbon has always been a mystery to me. The real and not-so real stories of its American roots from the days of Independence to the Industrial Revolution seemed to always read like a history textbook from an author who had swallowed all the passed down lore (and a fair amount of whiskey!) along the way. It’s always felt a bit convoluted with all of the names and families endlessly and confusingly entwined…
This distillery made a whisky then changed their name for no apparent reason and moved to greener pastures and sold most of the barrels that were stored in the former General Penobscot‘s personal barn (which shockingly burned down after Paul Revere‘s lantern mysteriously spontaneously combusted) to another distillery whose owner was the uncle of the master distiller (and pig farmer) of another distillery that was closed after some sort of war or Indian suppression or tax evasion scandal then reopened when the government needed whiskey for soldiers overseas but times were tough, weren’t they?, so another distillery down by the river stole the recipe handed down for generations (as well as the handmade still, whiskey name and Victorian era elegant artwork labeling) from the first distillery to make their own proprietary bourbon good enough for airplane fuel for Howard Hughes, teeth brushing and mint juleps with a pretty lady on a warm summer afternoon, and by chance that pretty lady went on to take over her great-grandfather’s distillery long-shuttered after he fell to the pox but not before he discovered America’s favorite beverage…the glass of water. And now you have…the rest of the story.
But the barrel proof is in the pudding with these legends, and all of the history in the county library on Main St., USA doesn’t mean squat if the whiskey doesn’t or didn’t taste good. Which brings us to Old Crow Bourbon. Its history is long and rich. Others have documented its significance well beyond what I could here. Suffice it to say, Old Crow has the legend, history and chops to be once called the best whiskey in the United States. Today, it can be found at shoe level in most of your best grocery and drug stores. Don’t hurt your back bending down to grab a 1.5 liter jug.
The 1970’s era version that I tried looked like caramel mixed with dark maple syrup. It smelled musty like an old copy of Riders of the Purple Sage that had been forgotten in grandpa’s bottom bureau drawer next to his grand-daddy’s faded war medals. It tasted acrid and bitter like biting into a metal fork, and salty like polyethylene glycol (just say Miralax!) about 6 glasses into a colonoscopy prep. The finish was longer than the ride from Lexington to Louisville but shorter than the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the bitterness lasted like the oily exhaust from a band of nefarious motorcyclists speeding by at 75 mph on a smoggy day.
In contrast, a sample of current Old Crow looked like weak tea, a bit watery for my dark Chai tastes. It smelled of black licorice (Go Red Vines or go home!), cinnamon, #2 pencil shavings and Vicks VapoRub like me dear old mum would boil up when I had a bout of “The Consumption” as a wee lad. Syrupy, thick, warm and salty under the tongue, the flavors stunned my mouth and coated my teeth with an oily feeling of a liquefied Heath Bar mixed with WD-40. Bitter, burnt vanilla lingered afterwards while the alcohol “burn” such as it is, warmed my cheeks unlike the Shag Carpet Era version.
In one of those Thomas Edison moments that we all have, I noticed on my table just to the left of the whisky samples, shockingly left out for any passerby to nab (silly offspring), a Cadbury Caramel bar from the local British goods store laying about waiting to be eaten. Not one to leave a poor immigrant refugee piece of chocolate to be wasted and left for dead, I decided to see what effects if any it would have on the Old Crow. Can’t hurt! The Magnum PI Era version after a portion of the delicious chocolate became intensely coffee-like and less salty as one would expect. The Millennial version grew more bitter, metallic, rusty, sooty and charcoal. Ok, let’s not do that again. The next science project will be a working volcano spewing molten potato salad.
In a similar vein of mined glory and history, we have Cabin Still bourbon from the 1970’s. Cabin Still was a popular brand with legendary names of Weller, Van Winkle, and Stitzel in its lineage, for better or worse. Today it’s made by Heaven Hill and probably resembles nothing like its original versions. The All in The Family Era version I sampled reminded one of a light wood stain for a cabinet that should have been discarded but Uncle Dave built it and mom just won’t let go. That stain carries through to the smell. There’s varnish making it sniff higher than its 40% ABV but not enough to fake me out. There are dates and bananas, and there are dates who are bananas that eventually become smothering girlfriends leaving all kinds of bad tastes in your mouth. This has both – on the nose and on the tongue. Lemon Pledge, fresh cut onions, a stale vanilla car air freshener and chalk. But enough about my grocery list. The finish is long and sweet but doesn’t connect when it needs to (think Dave Kingman).
So, what’s so great about being old? My 92 year old mother-in-law asks that question a lot (I’m sure she’d rather be NAS at this point.) I think the same can be asked about many old whiskies too. What’s so great about being old? It seems the back stories are always more interesting than the actual whiskey. I know many folks who relish in the search for these “dusties” in liquor stores off the beaten path on the backroads and bi-ways of America the Beautiful. Their stories of search and discovery are every bit as interesting if not more than the legends behind their little found treasures. Those are the stories I relish to hear because they come from a place of hope, adventure and heart which I shall consider in greater detail over my next bowl of stale corn flakes.