When I was stationed in Kentucky I never drank bourbon. It wasn’t until I came to London that the drink became something special to me. I always passed a bowling alley on Brick Lane with fluorescent lights and unmarked taxis waiting by the door. One night they had two for one drinks, so I went inside. It was just as I suspected: clattering pins and certified drunks. But the barman, Mike, loved bourbon.
‘People here only have this with Coke,’ he lamented, and snuck a drink from a small tumbler without ice or water. Booker’s, an uncut, small-batch bourbon made by Jim Beam, was his choice. But behind him on the shelves there were about 20 other options.
Bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, and many distilleries are based in the hills of the Bluegrass region in the northern corner of the state. By law, bourbon must be distilled in the US and made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 per cent corn. It is aged in new charred oak barrels, which give the drink its characteristically rich colour.
Mike stirred several ingredients together in another tumbler. It was stacked with ice and the drink, infused with bitters, glowed a sort of furious red.
‘Some kind of Old Fashioned,’ I said, after a sip.
‘Plus a secret ingredient. A drop of Grand Marnier.’
‘That’s how Kingsley Amis made them.’
‘Amis was a bourbon drinker?’
‘Thought it was a bit bland, but yeah, he drank it. Only thing I do different from him is with the Old Fashioned, I mix the sugar beforehand.’ He held up a plastic bottle of homemade simple syrup. ‘Otherwise you end up putting warm water in your glass.’
‘How’d you get into this stuff?’ I asked.
‘My mum always cooked with bourbon. Poured it in the mix for pecan pie when she was whisking the eggs. Carrots too. She browned them in a skillet on the stove first. Then she made a sauce with butter and this here.’ He took a slender bottle down from the shelf.
‘My favourite for cocktails, too. Has a higher percentage of rye so it cuts through with some spice.’ He took down another bottle, this one with a narrow neck and a fat body.
‘It’s aged 12 years and the mash has a high wheat content so it finishes nice and soft. Can mix with it as well.’ He pointed to a squarish bottle of Knob Creek. ‘Another small batch that’s good for drinking neat. Depends what you want, really.’
I sipped my Old Fashioned and my mind drifted. The citrus smell reminded me of the orange tree in the back yard of the house where I grew up in Florida. The colour was tannic, like the dark Wekiva River. This is what bourbon is all about, a drink of empty rivers and hot afternoons, of flattery and fighting words, of lonely nights in crowded bars. It reminded me of home.