On a dark and howling night I sat in a friend's home, pencil in one hand, glass in the other, and took notes on six premium bourbons.
These were among the slew of better bourbons that have arrived the market recently. Sometimes called "single-barrel" or "small batch" bourbons, these are the corn whiskeys that distillers have taken extra care in producing, drawing them from selected barrels that have spent years in the middle rows of the rackhouse, the spot according to lore, where temperatures remain moderate and bourbon ages gracefully.
These pick-of-the-litter bourbons generally carry higher proofs, that is more alcohol, and more distinctive flavors than their fellow bourbons. They also carry bigger price tags, selling in the $30- to $40-a-bottle range.
Rather than definitive sampling of every premium bourbon on the market, this was a small excursion into the land of better bourbon. My fellow taster was a colleague from The Sun, Fred Rasmussen, who like me, regards himself as a friend of well-made whiskey. We poured a sample of each of the six bourbons in glasses and examined their copper colors. We sniffed their aromas. Then we sipped, noting the flavor and finish of each sample, and scribbled comments. No ice. No mixers. No singing. A passer-by would have thought we were two thirsty auditors.
When we tallied our results we had come to virtually opposite conclusions. His favorite of the six was Booker's, named after Booker Noe, the reigning whiskey maker at Jim Beam. This was whiskey Rasmussen found "Rolls-Royce smooth." I rated it fifth, saying its high-octane 124 proof could "knock your gums out." My favorite was Blanton's. Drinking this silky smooth bourbon, I wrote "must be what it feels like to be rich." Rasmussen, on the other hand, thought Blanton's was "a little shy" in aroma, and rated it third among six.
His favorites were Booker's, then Baker's, Blanton's, Basil Hayden's, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit and Knob Creek. My rankings were Blanton's, Basil Hayden's, Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, Knob Creek, Booker's and Baker's.
Besides tasting bourbon, I learned a bit about its Maryland roots. Ed O'Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, told me his theory that the original bourbon makers came to Kentucky by way of Southern Maryland.
Years ago, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland made their way to St. Mary's and Charles counties, he said, but were lured to the Kentucky territory by "corn grants." The grants, dispensed by the governor of Virginia, who then presided over the Kentucky territory, gave land to settlers who promised to grow corn.
The Kentucky settlers ended up growing much more corn than " they needed. And so, these Scotch-Irish folks "did what they knew how to do," O'Daniel said. "They made whiskey."
The whiskey makers did have to change an ingredient. Before they came "west," the whiskey makers made their liquor with another readily available grain, rye. But once they got past the Cumberland Gap, they made their whiskey from the abundant supplies of corn. Then they shipped the whiskey in barrels made from the native white oak trees, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans, and the American bourbon industry was born.
This theory of the Maryland heritage of Kentucky bourbon makers is strengthened, O'Daniel said, when he visits Southern Maryland and reads the names in small-town telephone books.
"When I read the names in the Leonardtown phone book, it is like reading the names in the phone book of Lebanon, Ky. There are all those Scotch-Irish names . . . like Mattingly and O'Daniel," suggesting, he said, that the families are linked. O'Daniel added that his own family hailed from Charles and St. Mary's counties.
Nowadays, the buzz in the bourbon industry is the willingness of some consumers to pay more for a better bourbon.
"If you are the kind of person who is into appreciating locally made beers, or single-malt Scotch, then premium bourbon is right in there," Chuck Cowdery told me.
Cowdery is a bourbon enthusiast. He worked in the industry for 15 years, and he wrote, produced and directed a public-television documentary about bourbon called "Made and Bottled in Kentucky." He also writes for special-interest publications. For instance, in The Malt Advocate, a new magazine from Emmaus, Pa., sold in Baltimore-area liquor stores and "dedicated to the discerning consumption of beer and whiskey," Cowdery explained how Jim Beam uses two formulas, or mash bills -- one using 77 percent corn and 13 percent rye, another using 63 percent corn and 27 percent rye -- plus 10 percent malt to make its various whiskeys.
When I talked to him, Cowdery said the interest in premium bourbons was one of the few bright spots in the otherwise drab bourbon industry. Overall, Americans are drinking about half as much bourbon as they drank about 20 years ago, he said. But sales of the better bourbons are increasing.
Cowdery views the industry commotion over the high-end bourbons as a mixed blessing. He points out, for instance, that a number of the bourbons are made from the same recipe. Differences in their flavors could come from the way these bourbons are filtered, proofed or aged.
At the end of our tasting, Rasmussen and I decided that while the chemistry of the better bourbons was daunting, we were not discouraged. We liked the taste of the good stuff. We added the names of several top-dollar bourbons to a couple of Christmas lists -- ours.