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Bourbon tasting: it's a tough job, but somebody did it


We drank beer, smoked cigars and sipped bourbon. Despite appearances, this was not a gathering of retrogrades. Well, maybe it was, but we were retrogrades with scoring sheets and pencils. That made us connoisseurs.

The occasion was a beer, bourbon and cigar bash held at Cafe Tattoo, a restaurant, and yes, adjoining tattoo parlor on the 4800 block of Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore. About 30 participants forked over $20 for tickets to the tasting. I was happy to be one of them.

I have been a fan of Cafe Tattoo ever since I tasted the chili made by Elayne Catalano, who, along with her husband, Rick, presides over the establishment. Ms. Catalano, whose long, dark hair and reed-thin frame remind me of Cher, is an accomplished cook. Her fiery chili has won local contests and has paid the couple's way to national chili cook-offs.

Moreover, a few years ago Ms. Catalano passed along the key to domestic happiness in Baltimore. It was: "Don't Forget Your Trash Men at Christmas." If you give the guys who pick up your trash a little something at Christmas, she said, they will be there for you in August, when you have extra crab shells that gotta go. It was advice that has served me well.

Her husband, Rick, looks something like a guitar player for the Grateful Dead. He wears his hair in a ponytail and wields a sharp wit. He noted, for instance, that the bourbon we were tasting was different from the kind he guzzled years ago when he worked down at the General Motors plant on Broening Highway assembling Monte Carlos.

"Back then I drank with my eyes closed because if I saw what I was drinking it would have scared me," he said. Now, he said, it takes him "an hour and a gallon of water" to finish off a small glass of the finer bourbon. He takes small sips of the bourbon, he said, and follows the bourbon sips with drinks of water.

Unlike conventional bourbons that are mixed in large tanks and then bottled, the whiskey in bottles of better bourbon comes from single barrels or small batches. Giving the bourbons such treatment is supposed to result in whiskey with deeper, smoother flavors. It also costs more, with prices running from $20 to $50 for a bottle, easily double the price of conventional blended bourbon.

The bourbon makers' idea that people are now drinking less but drinking better is similar to the one Scotch makers used recently to push their highly flavored but expensive single-malt Scotches.

"Out here on 'Blair Road,' " Catalano said, adopting the neighborhood's pronunciation of Belair Road, "we don't go for that single-malt Scotch." So after trying a variety of boutique bourbons, Catalano ended up with four for the tasting: Booker Noe's, Blanton's, Makers Mark and Old Weller Antique 107.

He also served four big-body beers, Samuel Adams Cream Stout, Paulaner Salvatore Doppelbock, Anchor Steam Old Foghorn, and Oliver's Black Friar Stout. His wife whipped up some food for the tasting.

Catalano passed out scoring sheets, which asked sippers to rate the bourbon and the beer for color, aroma, taste, body, and aftertaste. He also passed out some Don Melo cigars, which he had discovered on a recent vacation in Honduras.

So we sat and sipped, scribbled and smoked. And, of course, solved the problems of the world. Nathan Beveridge, a bartender at Citronelle, Chris Cockey, a bartender at Turf Valley County Club, Cathy Hart, a purchasing manager for a chemical-manufacturing company, and I decided that the problem with the National Football League was that it is "a monoply that we bear." It made sense at the time. We toasted the memory of the late Bonifacio Miranda, who during his career tended bar at the Owl Bar in the Belvedere Hotel and at the Eager House restaurant. And we decided Cincinnati chili was overrated.

My favorite bourbon was the Booker Noe's. It tasted the best. But my second favorite, Makers Mark, smelled the best. Beveridge's favorite was also the Booker Noe's. Somehow we got outvoted. When the cigar dust settled, Old Weller Antique 107 was declared the crowd favorite. Booker Noe's finished second, Makers Mark third, and then Blanton's. The favorite beer of the crowd was the Old Foghorn, followed by the Paulaner, the Samuel Adams and the Oliver's Black Friar Stout.

I am not sure how I feel about the results. But I enjoyed the research so much, I plan to do more of it.

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