Cozy Spirits

Columbians warm up to bourbon

By Shani Gilchrist

Photography by Jeff Amberg
























Since America’s television screens were first graced by the swagger of Don Draper, vodka cocktails and Cosmopolitans have been nudged out of the limelight in order to make room for bourbon.

Or have they? “In the South, bourbon has always been big, and Columbia in particular, being a big SEC town. We’ve always laughed that football season is bourbon season as well,” says Josh Streetman, bartender at Motor Supply Company.

Either way, there is a certain romance that goes along with the idea of gripping a glass that contains the ideal combination of large, square ice cubes and caramel colored liquid. Over the past few years, bars and restaurants around the country have embraced that romance with the addition of bourbon themes to their repertoires.

Bourbon currently accounts for 35 percent of all distilled spirits produced in the United States, according to the Kentucky Distiller’s Association. Production of bourbon must adhere to a code set forth by the United States Congress in 1969. According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, in order to be called “bourbon,” a whisky must be produced not exceeding 160 proof from a fermented mash of grains that is at least 51 percent corn, and stored at not more than 125 proof in new charred oak barrels. If whisky has been aged for two or more years according to the aforementioned standards, it can then be called “straight bourbon whisky.”

As the sultry liquor’s visibility has increased, so has its demand in Columbia. “The popularity of all things retro has brought attention to this category of spirits,” says Tammy Smoker of Ben Arnold Beverage Company. “For example bartenders are making classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Sidecars instead of just vodka and orange juice.”

While television shows like “Mad Men” may have increased bourbon’s visibility in the American market, it is the renewed sophistication of the American diner’s palate that should really be credited for the drink’s resurgence. Over the years, Columbia’s interest in quality dining experiences has resulted in a more careful study in home cooking and an increased discernment in choosing restaurants. In response, more restaurants feature carefully cultivated menus that focus on dishes to match these interests, such as food from local sources like Caw Caw Creek Farms in Calhoun County and City Roots Farm in Columbia. Chefs in fine dining establishments are now expected to create menus that surprise and inspire, and this expectation has come to extend to the front of the house, as well.

“A bartender is like a chef with liquor,” says Josh. “Many of them are astutely realizing that they can do a lot more things with cocktails than traditionally expected and that it reaches a broader fan base.”

Many diners who appreciate fine foods and wines have come to appreciate bourbon, which is, like wine, a barrel-aged drink.

Kristian Niemi, who will be opening Bourbon, a restaurant dedicated to the beverage and to New Orleans cuisine, sees another connection between the two drinks. “Bourbon is a lot like wine in that you can find some basic bargains, or you can pay upwards of $100 for a bottle. It’s up to anyone’s personal taste as to which they prefer. In a lot of cases someone would rather have four bottles of a great $15 wine than one $60 bottle of wine.” 

As drinkers have expanded their knowledge about wine and spirits, a culture has grown around both. “Just as with wine,” says Tammy, “bourbon aficionados follow particular distillers and distilleries and also seek to try new types and styles of bourbons. They attend bourbon dinners, subscribe to blogs and magazines on the topic, and so on.”

Fan bases have been established around certain brands, including old standards from larger houses such as Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve, which have kept their reputations strong for a reason, according to Kristian. “I’ve noticed that the best bourbons come from older distilleries that have a library or catalogue of barrels of bourbon that date back from four years all the way to 20. The newer distilleries have bourbons that are good, but they don’t have the kind of depth and character that older ones have. And really the bargains — the best bangs for the buck out there — will come from the older bourbon houses.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that smaller brands should be discounted. Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve have earned such notoriety that they have attained prominent places on shelves in many homes and restaurants.

While it’s long been known that a filet mignon is best paired with a Bourdeaux blend or Cabernet Sauvignon, the carefully crafted depth and character of a barrel-aged bourbon also has a place at the gourmet table. As a result, “mixologists” like Josh at Motor Supply Company have armed themselves with a wealth of knowledge about the chemical makeup of different liquors. Josh has developed a reputation for creative cocktails, and diners enjoy everything from a Bloody Mary made with bacon-infused vodka to a house-made limoncello. Using a variety of ingredients, bartenders around Columbia will concoct special medleys that show off the many ways that liquor can complement or enhance other flavors.

One of the most popular cocktails at The Oak Table is The Lumberjack, which features Woodford Special Reserve Kentucky bourbon, hickory, maple syrup and fresh lemon juice. The headiness of the bourbon and distinct sweetness of the maple syrup make for a particularly autumnal treat. This past summer, during Motor Supply’s Harvest Week, Josh prepared a Bourbon Smash that was immensely popular. “It’s local blueberries smashed with Maker’s Mark, accompanied by a little ginger syrup and a really nice vermouth,” he says. The result was a refreshing flavor just light enough for the steamy June climate.

For the upcoming cooler autumn months, Columbia restaurants will have plenty of bourbon cocktails to choose from that are heavier and evocative of the season. Shows like “Mad Men” may have a temporary shelf life, but the series helped remind viewers of a sophistication that doesn’t have to be lost to the 1960s. Bourbon is a little luxury that is sure to remain in season for years to come.

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