Photos by Robin May
My bourbon experience began and pretty much ended at the Tiger Drive-In Theater in Baton Rouge. A Lee High classmate smuggled in a bottle of “Old Somebody,” and we passed it around. The night’s hero was a worldly junior who knew enough to add Coke so we could swallow the stuff but not enough to tell us when to stop.
Over the years, I settled on beer as my go-to alcoholic beverage for the usual reasons: cost, convenience, commercials. Recently, however, due to medication for failing eyesight first detected years ago when I was a soccer referee, I have literally lost my taste for beer. I drank Scotch for a time but found it similar to golf. It’s not the liquor or the sport but Scotch drinkers and golfers who give me pause.
So when I introduced myself to Joey Beyt prior to The IND’s recent bourbon-tasting event at Joey’s I was not surprised when he asked, “Why did they send you?” My guess was that Joey underestimated what was obvious to others and soon to me: his natural ability to entertain and inform.
Bourbon is America’s liquor, literally. Back in 1964 when Congress still could pull itself together to accomplish something meaningful, bourbon was declared “a distinctive product of the United States.” Bourbon is a barrel-aged distilled spirit made primarily from corn. Federal standards require the grain mixture (mash bill) for bourbon to be at least 51 percent corn. After the mash is ground and mixed with water, yeast is added and it is allowed to ferment. Next the mash is distilled to between 65 percent and 80 percent alcohol and then stored in newly charred barrels made of American oak. A bourbon’s color and flavoring come from the caramelized sugars in the barrel’s charred wood. The longer the aging process the greater effect. But time alone doesn’t make a bourbon better. Reaching maturity is the goal and achieving that, as we know, is more than a factor of age.
We used maturity as one selection criteria for our three bourbon tasters, Jason El Koubi, Sterling LeJeune and Dr. Andy Blalock. The other qualifications were an appreciation for bourbon and its history and a thirst for knowledge. The latter was especially important as Joey began what he called a “Libation Education.”
The process was simple. The proprietor of Joey’s Lafayette on Bertrand Drive, Joey would offer each of us a half jigger or less, we would sip a portion and pour the remainder in a common glass. The contents of the remainder glass were to be consumed by the loser of a competition yet to be devised.
The first bourbon tasted was an Evan Williams single barrel, which meant that all the contents came from only one of the 4.9 million 55-gallon barrels of bourbon that are at any point in time aging in Kentucky. Yes, that is more than the people who live there. From the first sip I knew I was no longer at the Tiger Drive-In. The dreaded “bite,” the shiver-inducing jolt I had always associated with bourbon, was replaced by a warm, expansive feeling, “an opening of the throat” as one of my classmates described it.
In all, Joey offered seven samples of the 72 whiskeys and bourbons he has to offer. And each one had an accompanying story about its origin or distillation process Joey could share. That is not surprising since bourbon has long been associated with the story-telling South and favored by legends from William Faulkner to Walker Percy to Willie Morris to Barry Hannah.
Joey was justifiably proud of the role he played in some of the bourbons. “Barrel select” offerings are the result of Joey himself choosing a particular barrel to be bottled and labeled for his distribution only. The distillery sends medicine bottle samples of different barrels from which the choice is made. In return Joey commits to selling that barrel’s entire contents, between 180-216 bottles. Apparently he’s pretty good at selecting bourbon by the barrel. A “barrel select” Evan Williams sold out in one month last summer. And the 1792 Barrel Select was my favorite during the tasting.
Although 95 percent of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, Joey offered a taste of a Colorado’s Stranahan’s that was notable for its resemblance to Scotch and the free shot glass that comes with it. Another outlier, available but not sampled, was LA 1, the first bourbon from Louisiana since Prohibition.
Soon after trying Stranahan’s, Andy looked over my shoulder, glanced at my notepad and remarked, “I can’t read your handwriting and I’m a doctor.” Not much later another classmate started singing an old Beastie Boys hit. Like any good instructor, Joey can sense when student distraction sets in. So, as a grand finale he concocted some miniature Old Fashioned cocktails using the wonder mixer Bittermilk No. 1 (“all you add is bourbon”) and enlivened by Luxardo maraschino cherries — without doubt the best any of us had ever tasted.
Instead of waiting for our designated drivers out on the curb (responsibility is integral to maturity) the Libation Education Class of 2015 moved to the bourbon section of Joey’s to begin graduate work. Although another bourbon-tasting is not scheduled for the immediate future, Joey’s always offers samples for those interested in self-directed study.
Evan Williams Single Barrel ($26)
Col EH Taylor Small Batch ($39.98)
1792 Barrel Select ($25.98)
Calumet Farm ($45)
Slow & Low Rock & Rye ($24.98)
Purchased by the Class of 2015: Calumet Farm Slow & Low 1792 (2)