The first bourbon I bought was Early Times.
Obviously, growing up in a teetotal household in Alabama, I had very little knowledge of whiskey in general or bourbon in particular, aside from the occasional reference in a country song. I honestly thought the good ol’ mountain dew that Willie Nelson was singing about was the vaguely urinary soda until probably grad school era. So I don’t think I actually imbibed any whiskey until undergrad, and when I did, it was as likely as not some rail-brand Scotch at a sorority function. But there we were, a week after the biggest blizzard in the history of Birmingham, about to get on a bus for a 16 hour drive to Kansas City, and I was recently of age, and so with twenty minutes to go before the bus left, I dashed to Mr. Bottle Stoppe and bought a 2-liter of Coke and probably a plastic split bottle of Early Times for $10 alltogether. By the second hour of the trip, it had permanently been re-christened Easy Times, and by the time we got to Kansas City, I was over Easy Times forever.
I went into a martini phase almost directly my senior year began, mixing gin and vermouth in the afternoon to watch Moonlighting reruns at the honors house, and pretty much stayed there for hard liquor until spring of ’95, when we went to my eponymous bar in the Village and I ordered a Manhattan on the spur of the moment, which a colleague (female, of course) said made me look like someone with nothing to prove. And thus began a twenty-year relationship with the good old brown liquor. Naturally, being grad students, we were getting through a lot more Red Dog than hard stuff, but if there was occasion to order a cocktail, it was a Manhattan.
Flash forward to the spring of ’98, when my then-girlfriend was in a wedding in Louisville. I sat at the back of the church at the rehearsal for about five minutes until a little old lady seized my arm and said “you look lost, come with me” and led me across the street. Turns out the bride’s Aunt Pat had taken it upon herself to collect all the significant others and look after them, and that’s how I was introduced to Maker’s Mark. I vaguely remember Maker’s being the well whiskey at the reception, but given that my only other memories of the reception are a rendition of “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” and the DJ finishing the night with the theme from the Love Boat, my recollection may be hazy. But I now had a brand of whiskey I called my own, and that was significant.
Because this was the era of Paul Harrington, the Alchemist, cocktail columnist for Wired magazine, the 90s era revival of swing music and cigars and proper cocktails. Maker’s Mark was a sort of shibboleth – a bourbon that was quality without being outrageously expensive or unobtainably rare, something any decent bar would have behind the counter but also the sort of thing that could be served on the rocks in any establishment where you didn’t want any guesswork from whatever swizzle-jockey was on duty. It was simple, it was reliable, it seemed like the ultimate in nothing-to-prove, and it stayed with me. I might sample Irish whiskey when pressed, I might taste Scotch on the honeymoon, I might down Jack Daniel shots at a wedding, but when in doubt, it was always Maker’s, rocks. I was gifted a huge bottle of Maker’s from the staff of National Geographic Television months after moving west. I finished the last bottle of Maker’s at the Park Lane Hotel in London on the second night of our honeymoon. I was granted a Makers Mark Ambassadorship which I probably still hold and got one random yet welcome Christmas gimmick from them every year for a decade or so.
I think the simple devotion first began to slip, ironically enough, at a place called Bourbon and Branch, a San Francisco speakeasy on the cutting edge of modern mixology in the latter half of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I can’t remember when I first darkened their door – probably a Vanderbilt event, possibly in 2008 – but rows and rows of exotic bourbons under dim light against brick wall backdrops left a remarkable impression on me. There were names from antiquity – Four Roses, I.W. Harper – and names I’d never heard of, with labels that evoked something that might have sat in the attic for sixty years. And that’s when cocktails suddenly took priority. And I was in an ideal place for it. Well, close to one, anyway – San Francisco had, apart from Bourbon & Branch, such dispensers of adult libations as Swig and Rickhouse and Local Edition and the Comstock Saloon and the Burritt Room and the Clock Bar in the St Francis Hotel. And then closer to home there were places in San Jose like Paper Planes or Singlebarrel. Or Martins West in Redwood City. Or the British Bankers Club in Menlo Park. What need whiskey on the rocks when there was a cornucopia of flavor and sensation to be had almost anywhere you turned?
Then, in 2016, it abruptly came to a halt. I may have just caned it too hard the entire month of January and needed to dry out a little, but it was as if a switch had been thrown. I was 44, and it was time to sit in the pub and nurse an Imperial pint or three and call it an evening. And that’s how it went. And stayed that way. I began filling growlers even when it wasn’t Christmas. I found more than one place to fill up from. I found myself ending up in bars that had thirty or more drafts on tap, always gravitating toward Smithwicks or Boddingtons or something that approximated the British pub ale experience. And I stayed there, comfortably, and didn’t think any more of it. And that’s how I came to the realization that I haven’t bought a bottle of bourbon in two years, and the one I bought then – a 375ml split of Clyde May, the official spirit of Alabama – has maybe an inch missing off the top in those two years.
I suspect society has a lot to do with that. You can have yourself a nice leisurely pint at home without comment, but if you’re drinking bourbon at home by yourself, you’re either a retired Confederate colonel or something is amiss. Bourbon seems to call out for someone to drink with, a condition that prevailed at home a lot more a decade ago when we had steady boarders (all of whom have moved away). The days of an Old Fashioned as the just reward for having emptied the sink of dirty dishes are long past. Things being how they are, more than ever, “the pub” is not a place but a state of mind evoked with the cunning use of a recliner, a 32 oz growler, a Yeti tumbler, an iPhone with AirPods and a stream from RTE Raidio na Gaeltachta.
Bourbon, aside from a cheeky julep in the spring when mint is readily available and someone else makes syrup, has become a very specific thing. It implies patio furniture, maybe a fire pit, and the presence of friends you haven’t seen in a while or have just met, from Half Moon Bay to Asheville and anywhere in between or beyond. At my age, it probably implies the use of a Pepcid beforehand. If I’m in Nashville, it might mean Gentleman Jack, in deference to middle Tennessee’s own original spirit. But friends, ice, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark as the sun sets…feel free to go ahead and put that on my wish list for The After.