In The Spirit

America’s Spirit

Bourbontown, U.S.A.

By Tony Cross

In past issues, I’ve mentioned how my first encounters with almost every spirit were terrible impressions: everything from Jose Cuervo to Aristocrat gin. Let me fill you in about my first dance with whiskey.

I was with a friend at the lake on a beautiful day in June. We were fishing and having a few beers while music was blasting from a little speaker. My friend brought some snacks with him that were in his book bag. One of those snacks was a bottle of Jack. He grabbed the bottle, unscrewed the top, and took a swig.

My turn. Acting like I was a seasoned vet, I snapped my head back, raising the bottle vertically to the sun, and took a decent-sized “swaller.” I screwed the cap back on, sat the bottle on the grass, and grinned. I couldn’t breathe. As my buddy was rambling on about something, I just nodded my head, and stood there as that you’re-about-to-throw-up saliva secreted from the glands in my mouth. Thirty seconds later, I dizzily walked away from our poles toward the woods, fell to my knees, and yakked. Man, last summer was crazy. Joking.

But, I’m still not fond of Jack Daniels. What I am a fan of is other types of whiskey (I see you, rye). Canadian whiskey was my puppy love stage, and bourbon whiskey was my first full-fledged relationship. Even though that sentence makes me sound like a full-fledged alcoholic, I am not (I see you, Mom). My first days of bartending were during the bourbon boom, if you will. And even though we have strict ABC laws in North Carolina, we were able to get great bottles on a regular basis. These days that is certainly not the case. Most ABC hubs have to have an auction-style drawing to see which bar or restaurant gets that one (yes, one) bottle of higher-end whiskey. I wish I were joking.

One of those bottles is Blanton’s bourbon. It’s a pity, too; Blanton’s is one of my favorite whiskies. Blanton’s was so popular last decade that their distillery, Buffalo Trace, put out a press release stating that demand was higher than their supply. Unfortunately, it still seems to be. Either that, or North Carolina is not allocated many bottles at all, compared to when I could order from my bar. I could wax poetic on how lovely Blanton’s is, and why I would marry her, but instead I’m going to share some facts about bourbon. However, if you ever see a bottle of Blanton’s anywhere, buy it. Even if you’re not a whiskey fan, I guarantee that you will have someone over one day, and when they find out you have a bottle, they just might faint.

Before I drop knowledge, please note that some of my info comes from whiskey sommelier Heather Greene. I purchased her book years back, Whisk(e)y Distilled — A Populist Guide to the Water of Life. I highly recommend it. I know that there are hundreds of books on whiskey, but Heather’s is as easy to read as it is informative.

• Bourbon is an American spirit.

• Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in America. Contrary to belief, it does not have to be produced in Kentucky.

• With that being said, Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon. They craft 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.

• Kentucky has the perfect climate for bourbon: ideal soil for growing corn, iron-free water, access to rivers for transportation (when distillers first began making bourbon in the early 1800s), a multitude of trees for making casks, and hot summers/cold winters, which allow the casks to expand and contract.

• Bourbon can be called bourbon only if the mash bill is at least 51 percent corn. The other 49 percent can be any other grain. Bourbon can also be made from 100 percent corn.

• Bourbon must be aged in charred new oak. Time is not an issue; even if it’s only for 10 minutes, as long as it’s in the barrel, it’s bourbon.

• Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof (80 percent ABV).

• Bourbon must be put into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV).

• Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent ABV).

• As of 2018, Kentucky had 68 distilleries. That’s a 250 percent increase from the decade prior. There are 32 counties with at least one distillery, compared to only eight in 2009.

• “Kentucky is on pace for record growth (this year) — more than 24,000 people will owe their paychecks to the distilling industry for a total payroll of $1.2 billion annually and $10 billion in economic output.” (

I enjoy my Blanton’s neat, sometimes with a flick of water. If you’re looking for a recipe, here you go:

2 ounces of your favorite bourbon in a rocks glass. Ice or water optional.

Sláinte, ya’ll.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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