BEIRUT: From billboards to bars, when it comes to whiskey in Lebanon, Scotches dominate. But where cocktails are concerned, bartenders and distributors alike attest that the drink’s American cousin bourbon is gaining notable traction. Taking time out from his busy National Bourbon Heritage Month schedule, Bernie Lubbers – officially the whiskey ambassador for Heaven Hill Distilleries but more commonly known as “the whiskey professor” – spoke to The Daily Star by phone about an unpretentious specialty born of “beautiful mistakes.”
Q: What’s special about bourbon? How does it differ from Scotch or Irish whiskey?
A: Bourbon is distinctive from the whiskeys of Ireland and Scotland because those are made with barley because that’s what grows in that area. Over here in the United States we have corn and wheat and rye. That’s what makes ours different.
It [bourbon] is much sweeter because of the corn, and [also] because we use a brand new charred barrel [to age the whiskey].
They [the Irish and the Scots] don’t have any specific ways that they have to age their whiskey, so they can use whatever barrels are at their disposal.
Basically when it comes to aging, [it] was all beautiful mistakes, because they were just trying to get their whiskey to market. Everybody used barrels – the Romans were using barrels 2,000 years ago ... it was just a means of conveyance.
So when folks ... were getting known for making great whiskey (Beam ... Adam Williams, Elijah Craig: these were some names back in the 1700s that were known for making ... whiskey), they had some demand [and] they would ship [the whiskey] down the river.
For the most part these people were not rich people so they had to use whatever barrels they could. ...
They had to be watertight to hold liquid, so usually those used barrels had [previously] held stuff with brine in them – pickles, things like that.
Well you wouldn’t want to put your good whiskey into a pickle barrel, would ya? So they scraped the inside of that barrel and then they lit it on fire on the inside.
People had toasted barrels for a couple of thousand years, but there’s a difference between toasting a barrel with a passive fire and actually lighting the inside on fire, and that’s what makes bourbon totally different than any other whiskey in the world, because now by law we must use a charred barrel.
It’s the corn and the brand new charred oak barrel that makes us distinctively different. And the fact that bourbon must come from the United States of America.
Q: Can bourbon be made anywhere in the United States or must it come from Kentucky?
A: Yes, it can be made anywhere in the United States. That’s one of those myths that even some people in Kentucky still think [is true].
But still 95 percent of bourbon in the world comes from the state of Kentucky. There’s 4.3 million that live in the commonwealth of Kentucky ... but there are 4.9 million barrels of bourbon.
Q: How do you taste bourbon to appreciate it properly?
A: Well, we always say drink it the way you like it. We don’t have a lot of rules like the Scotch people do. We’re simple folk here in Kentucky. But when you’re tasting it’s good to taste it neat: just by itself – no ice, no water.
If you’re going to taste more than one or two to compare them, you want to taste lower proof to higher proof, and when you taste it you want to look at the color, see how deep the color is. Usually the deeper the color the older it is, or the more strength it has of alcohol per volume.
You look at the color, then put your nose into it, part your lips a little bit so that you don’t force all the alcohol up into your nose, [and] give it a smell.
You put the whiskey into the middle part of your palette, onto your tongue, then give it a chew. You actually chew it. You swish wine to taste it. With high proof spirits you want to chew it, that way you gently distribute it throughout your mouth, and then you see how you like it.
If you ever drink bourbon and make a face, it’s too strong. Add a few drops of water and it’ll open it up a little bit and water it down a tad. See where it’s pleasing for you.
But you know you can drink it [as you like it]. A lot of people enjoy it with different sodas, we often mix bourbon with ginger beer or ginger ale, because that compliments some of the flavors from the barrel.
Q: Is there a wrong way to drink it?
A: Oh, there could never be a wrong way to drink it.
Some people say you should never mix it with coca cola but if you like it with coca cola by all means drink it with coca cola. Whiskey is a very personal thing.
If you like your bourbon on the rocks, drink it on the rocks. If you like it neat, drink it neat. If you like it with a ginger beer, drink it that way. If you want to take the bottle and throw it on the street, we don’t care, we’re selling it.
Q: What about bourbon-based cocktails? Does bourbon belong in a cocktail?
A: My goodness, yes! We just had 150 of the top mixologists and bartenders from around the country here in Kentucky. They take time off work. They spend their own money to come here and they learn about bourbon and they share cocktails with each other.
The Old Fashioned is the first cocktail we know that was definitely made with bourbon, and not any other type of brandy or whiskey. ...
The way people used to make cocktails was in a punch. They would muddle up fruit, they would use spirits and they would make a punch. Well this was a bourbon with some muddled fruits and some water and ice and sugar – it was a bourbon in the old fashioned way.
Q: How do you choose a bourbon?
A: I look at age and proof. The older a bourbon gets the more the different notes like vanilla and caramel and the different beautiful flavors come through. But it’s so personal. Some people like younger whiskeys. Some people like lighter.
I always try to find out what the person drinks. If they drink rum, they are going to like a sweeter bourbon. So when someone says, ‘Oh, I like rum,’ I give them [something like] Old Fitzgerald, a wheated bourbon.
The wheat allows the sweetness from the corn to come through more ... If someone says, ‘I like ginger beer,’ well they’re going to like something that’s more spicy, so I’m going to give them Elijah Craig. It’s 12 years old and it’s got a lot of wood notes, so it’s woody and spicy.
You know they might not like whiskey [at all], but they have more of a chance to like something that’s already pleasing to their palette than just throwing darts and hoping they like something.
To learn more from Bernie Lubbers visit whiskeyprof.com.