Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Category: Romance

Derby Day, Bourbon Barrels and Woodford Reserve

It’s Derby Day Saturday, Kentucky’s National Holiday, which involves many ponies and enough mint juleps to drive you to drink. Want a recipe? You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. The April 2010 post Talk Derby to Me has recipes given to me by some distilling luminaries: Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve; Booker Noe, Jim Beam’s grandson; Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey; Kevin Smith of Maker’s Mark and their legendary like. [Fred Noe, Booker’s son, possibly aware of the huge brogans he must fill, provided two, one based on Beam and another on Knob Creek.] They’ll keep you adequately lubricated for the whole weekend.


My personal Derby pick is Stay Thirsty [above, with Ramon Dominguez up], whose cheerful name recalls not only my devoted Thirsty Reader but Dos Equis beer’s Most Interesting Man in the World TV and radio commercials, memorably taglined ‘Stay thirsty, my friends.’ The MIMW’s sophistication, worldliness and craggy good looks blend Marlboro Man, Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway and Ricardo Montalban [in his Rich Corinthian Leather Period]; finding a face for that was a tall order*. That plus the patended deadpan narration of Will Lyman and good copywriting makes ads that are funny, witty and imaginative; unlike, for example, most wine commercials. So funny and witty they inspire the same from viewers: quite an accomplishment, considering that as a rule YouTubers’ comments are usually moronic when not worse.

Of the 15 spots in the series so far my favorite opens deceptively with an idyll in the Italian countryside but goes wild very quickly. Most can be seen online: start with Google and YouTube, then check out www.facebook.com/dosequis; it has more spots, plus details of the upcoming ‘League of the Most Interesting’ contest. Unfortunately, the contest doesn’t involve overhand bowling or being thrown out of an airplane in a kayak [perhaps due to some PR-side fretting over ‘liability’].

My backup is Pants On Fire [Rosie Napravnik in irons], again for the name. Both names, in fact. Just imagine the track announcer excitedly shouting ‘Napravnik’s taking Pants On Fire to the rail!’? Not quite the same if it’s Mucho Macho Man, say, or Archarcharch? To say nothing of Comma to the Top, a horse unreliably reported to be owned by a renegade international copy-editing cartel.

When last in Louisville [say Looville, never Loo-ey-ville] I was not on the rail or in the infield or at the clubhouse turn but was immersed in whiskey and baseball at two of the city’s finest wood-working institutions. One is the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, which got a magnificent makeover, renovation and general glorification in 2009. You know the drill: immerse thyself in the National Pastime; see trees become bats; soak up the wisdom of Ruth, Aaron, Williams and other great hitters; and learn about women and minorities in the game. Then play with the many interactive displays and achieve photo immortality while clutching an immortal’s bat. That’s me [below] with the Model B220 warclub of the great No. 7**]. It’s the real thing, hence the white cotton gloves.

Bill and Bat

Then came the Brown-Forman Cooperage [née Blue Grass] which makes 1500 barrels a day for Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Jack Daniel’s, Early Times, Canadian Mist, El Jimador and Herradura. Among spirits companies only B-F has its own cooperage, and despite the addition of modern equipment and constant updating, the plant still has a 1940s look and feel—and smell: the air is rich with the aroma of furnace-charred American white oak.

Chris Morris, B-F’s master distiller, guided me safely through and warned me about the perils of the barrel railway, while saying the aromas are his favorite part. Mine was the hand-work. The hand tools of the cooper’s mystery—the sun plane and the croze, the long joiner [a plane about 6 feet long], the bung auger, the chince or chincing iron [‘used for driving the flag into the groove’] and such—were vanished even by the time the plant opened in 1945. Even so, barrels are still raised by hand [N.B.: not made, assembled, built, erected or slung together; the term of art is raised]. An expert can raise a couple of hundred per shift, and there are hushed whispers of veritable Stave Gods known to have raised 350 and even more. The cooperage has since opened to the public; it’s a treat for kids and factory-tour fans who delight in seeing raw material become parts become products, also for fossils like your correspondent, who is so old he can remember a time when American workers actually made things. See www.mintjuleptours.com or call 502 583-1433 and seek ye the peerless Joanie. And just watch your step anywhere near the barrel railway.

This is no drill, as they said at Pearl Harbor. Barrels come down the rails without warning, swiftly and silently; they weigh more than 100 pounds apiece and will flatten anything and anyone that gets in their way.

It’s thirsty work watching so much barrel-raising, and it called for a drink or few, which Chris elected to lay on at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, down the road a piece near Versailles, which you’ll want to pronounce Ver-sales. You don’t want anyone thinking you’re French. The building, a handsome limestone structure dating to 1838 and added to on several occasions since, sits serenely in a bosky dell beside Glenn’s Creek.


The setting inspires romantics to dream of colorful artisan moonshiners, but Chuck Cowdery, author of the superb Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, has said that modern ‘shiners, who merely cook bulk sugar into crude booze, deserve not folkloric halos but sojourns in the Waddy-Petrona Correctional Facility and Dental School. Max Watman, whose delightful Chasing the White Dog : An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, would no doubt agree.

Brown-Forman has restored the distillery to a thing of rural-industrial beauty, and visitors are welcome to stop in and see Woodford Reserve being made. It’s awful-looking, awful-smelling stuff you see pumped into the big wooden fermenters, but then chemistry takes over the ancient practices of pot distillation


and oak-aging work their miracles, first in the three big Scotch-built copper stills, then in the barrels stacked for six or seven years in the rickhouse.

Tours of varying length are but $5 and $10 [call 859 879 1812] and there are spaces available to rent for festive events, but weddings and wedding receptions are excluded, most likely for reasons of self-defense. Wedding-rehearsal dinners? They’re another story because they’re reliably less boisterous events [859 879 1934]. Whatever the reason for your visit it will be the part of wisdom to call the tour office first, for precise directions are required. The taped message warns that ‘due to our distinct location’ [i.e., the 19th Century], ‘using GPS is not advisable.’

The distillery is a landmark partly for its beauty [it’s considerable; this is Thoroughbred country, after all] but mainly for its importance in bourbon history. It was here under Oscar Pepper [son of the distillery’s founder, Elijah] that Edinburgh-born Dr. James C. Crow pretty much created modern bourbon by innovation and experiment. He created the sour-mash process and maintained rigorous cleanliness in thesearch for product consistency, and he was the first, so far as is known, to sell exclusively whiskey that had been aged in new charred oak barrels. Before the Good Doctor made bourbon, most of what Kentucky made was mere whiskey, and often very mere whiskey at that.

Our farewell drinks that afternoon came from a barrel in the rickhouse: Chris tapped it with an electric drill and I came thirstily to the rescue when the bit jammed in the dense wood. All those hours of This Old House turned out to be useful after all. Imagine that.

Stay thirsty, my friends.



*well filled by the actor Jonathan Goldsmith. You were expecting maybe Ludwig Stössel?

**Mickey Mantle. You had to ask?


The distillery became a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Dr. Crow did indeed practice medicine, and he gave his services, according to Chuck Cowdery, ‘mostly without charge.’ Cowdery adds that he ‘was fond of reciting the poems of Robert Burns’ and that after his death his name became part of one of America’s first brands, Old Crow. Once famous, it is now no more than a bottom-shelf ‘value brand.’

© Bill Marsano

Valentine Wines: When Beauty Whispers Low Thou Must the Youth Replies I Can

“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” may be Tennyson’s most famous line, but his timing is suspect. For one thing, the British poet laureate came late to pitching woo, be-ing a ripe 27 before making cow eyes at his beloved and 41(!) by the time he married her. And in picking spring he was late in the calendar, too. Proposals limp along at some 6,000 a day in the U.S., then jump to 200,000-plus on V-Day itself. Now it’s that time again, so let’s broach the bubbly in glad salute.

But there are problems to solve (modishly known as issues to address). What bubbly? What to do, and not, if proposing? What about Relationship Issues?

As for which bubbly, I say almost any except Cham-pagne. Most Americans have it too seldom—when celebrating New Year’s Eve, say, and christening ocean liners—to develop a taste for it; they recoil from aggressive acidity. Unaccustomed to the stuff, many men will knock theirs back with a grimace and many women will simply ‘wear’ it, like a prop or an accessory, then abandon their seldom-sipped flutes unobtrusively, even furtively after the toasts. For both sexes, then, Champagne is often more of a gesture than a pleasure.

The solution is Italy’s gentler, sweeter, low-alcohol sparkling wines, which also happen to be quite inexpensive most of the time (often enough they’re under $10, one of the last times romance will comeJEIOlabel cheap). Prosecco, which comes from the Veneto, has become an American favorite in recent years. Asti or Asti Spumante), the best-known of Italy’s sparkling wines, comes from Piedmont, which also gives us (in far smaller quantities) Moscato d’Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui (a.k.a. Acqui). Leading names in Prosecco include Bisol (left)  and Mionetto, and there are many others. Generally, the least-expensive bottling of any given brand will do splendidly. As for Asti, a.k.a. Asti Spumante it’s still sweet but no longer the gooey, cloy-ing stuff of yore. Martini & Rossi and Cinzano are every-where; other notables include the like of Ceretto, Nando, Bosca Ver-di, Nino Franco, Villa Rosa, Elmo Pio,  Zardetto and Borgo Reale.

Moscato d’Asti is half as sparkly but twice as good. Its Durante Nose offers one of the great moments in the history of human nostrils, so do not, not, not use a flute, lest you stifle the fragrance. Generous, big- bowled, goblet-style glasses like the Italian coppa are required. A list of notable producers would in-clude Contratto, La Serra, Cascinetetta, Michele Chiarlo, Bosio, La Corte, ceretto_26Saracco, Castello del Pog-gio and Ceretto (again). But note that total output is very small, so you’ll be wise to grab almost any bot- tle that you are lucky enough to lay hands on.

Brachetto d’Acqui, red and relatively rare, is full of straw- berry aromas and tastes, and
I could swear that it’s just made for love and choco-late—dark chocolate especially. 

It too is from Piedmont, and it comes from a vine that is  Rosa_Regale_Bottle HRcantankerous, ungenerous of yield and rather picky  about growing sites. Small wonder it was nearly extinct only a few decades ago; equally small wonder that it was saved: Italians have a soft spot for desperate causes. And grazie tante for that, because the wine is a delight even if the vine it-self is a pain, or what used to be called a pill. You’re most likely to find Banfi’s Rosa Regale in its  dis-tinctive trumpet bottle (left) at retail; others in the market include Coppo, Marenco, Sant’Evasio and Rinaldi. Here too, limited production means taking what you can get when you can get it.

So, as the British say, there you are: the Sweet Swain of Valentine’s Day, ready to see which of you will be first to go weak in the knees. And pay no mind, by the way, to all those who cock a snook at sweet wines and the Thirsty Readers who love them. Sweet, sort-of-sweet and extremely sweet wines are produced in all wine-making countries and have been since Moses was a pup. Those who sneer at the “American taste” or “Coca-Cola palate” are snobs, mere and mean. They should be hunted for sport.

If, on the other hand, you are a Champagne devotee, see whether you can pass the test:

The PWP Champagne Challenge

One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same . . . as they say and sing, all too often, on Sesame Street

josephperrierlprectperrier-jouet2oerrier waterimagesCA6OB0UM

OK, kids! The answer is Lower Right! That’s the label of Perrier water. Forget that. (The knockout red-head was supplied for sales appeal. Eventually it was realized that a better way to sell bottled water was with a combination of high prices and spurious health claims, especially if the product has to be shipped from somewhere obscure and ridiculously far away, like Fiji or New Zealand.)

And so, if you are what Jane Austen called with her radar-targeted perception, a single man in possession of a good fortune, knock yourself out. But if you flunked the test, then buy and bury yourself in a copy of Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies. And don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to get up to speed by V-Day. It won’t happen, so you, like the Mets, must wait till next year.

So now that you’ve got the girl (you hope) and the ring (I hope), you must at last cause the twain to meet. Which is not so easy, the whole business being stressful. As a fretful colleague put it, “She could say no. Or she could say yes. Pretty scary either way.”

There’s a mania for proposals in extravaganza mode these days: swains sky-diving from airplanes, beaux proposing on the big screen in Times Square, dolts popping the question while driving the Zamboni machine out to center ice in a noisy arena filled with complete strangers. If that’s what you’re thinking of, I’m not talking to you. Ever.

No. You want a nice, pleasant and above all familiar place or ‘venue.’ Your usual restaurant should be fine—you’re regulars there and they know you; all will seem normal. There’s only one thing about this night that should be different from all other nights, so don’t tip your hand by booking some fancy new place. (Odds are she’ll know what’s coming anyway and has practiced for hours feigning surprise, shock and fly-me-to-the-moon, but she’ll play her role and you must play yours).

Order lightly—you may want to skip one course—but otherwise proceed as usual. You’ve ordered the wine ahead of time; have it brought with or in lieu of dessert, and make your move. Hands across the table is fine, but if you want to take a knee be sure you first scope the aisle for, say, incoming busboys. It’s pie-easy, and she’ll love you for it.

There’s just one really important DON’T here: Don’t slip the ring into her glass. At best she’ll have a wet, sticky ring that’ll have to be washed before wearing. At worst—well, there’s nothing remotely romantic about a bride-to-be being doubled over and Heimliched in a crowded restaurant.

And if you think you can save the situation with a lighthearted ’One day we’ll look back on this and laugh,’ think again.

© 2011 Bill Marsano