Bourbon Memories, From Istanbul to New York
All images by Bozkurt Karasu.
Growing up in Istanbul, Turkey in early 80s, I witnessed a lot of changes in the country. We were blending into the capitalist world and for the first time in my life I was witnessing imported goods hitting the shop windows, taking over slowly but surely. As a kid, I wasn’t too aware of the social and economical aspects of the change, but was very excited about the new toys filling the stores. That period was also hard on Tekel, the alcohol department of the government, which didn’t have the necessary preparations to fight against the cheap booze from abroad that was now flooding the country. Tekel, which literally means "monopoly" in Turkish, weakened over the years, got sold to Mey Icki in 2004 and then eventually to Diageo. A true capitalist story!
Istanbul is a big rock town and Jack Daniels didn’t miss that opportunity. It was the first big American Whiskey brand distributed widely and we all did our best to welcome this iconic brand. It was Slash’s choice after all. Who were we to judge? But then, soon enough, Jim Beam entered the competition. I don’t remember exactly why, but I started to favor Jim Beam and continued to do so for a long time.
Jim Beam White Label was my first bourbon that I deliberately chose to order. Every time I see that bottle it triggers beautiful memories from my hometown. Let’s count it as my first memorable bourbon.
In 2003 I moved to New York as a burgeoning whiskey enthusiast and was hungry to learn and to taste as much as I could. While I was educating myself with different expressions of old established brands like Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Wild Turkey, I was constantly making new whiskey friends and also meeting people from industry almost every day. I was on the clouds.
There is one bottle in particular from those days that stands out though: Booker’s. I first tasted it in a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when Williamsburg had only a few bars on Bedford Avenue, and I instantly fell in love with it. That bourbon was nothing but glamour. It’s artisan-looking label and bottle was very clever marketing. It was hard to believe that it was a Jim Beam product. It was expensive for a bottle of bourbon but certainly affordable, especially when you consider that it was over 120-proof. (At least that was my excuse.) Over the years it changed from time to time, but it’s never disappointed.
Moving from a major city to another is not an easy thing to do. I knew that I couldn’t keep my long distance love relationship with Istanbul and I desperately was trying to be a New Yorker. I started to follow the Yankees and Giants, was on a mission to learn every street in the city by walking for hours every day, was attending every possible social gathering to meet people in my neighborhood, was trying to support local artists and also to be more conscious about using local products. So discovering Hudson Whiskey was a logical progression. When they launched their first line-up I was all over their products. I loved the idea, the story behind it, and most importantly their spirits tasted good. I really don’t know how and when I met Gable Erenzo from Tuthilltown Spirits exactly but his personality sure did help to reinforce my thoughts. Since then I visited the distillery twice and, if I am not mistaken, sampled every single product they’ve bottled till now. I am still a big supporter and hope to see them continue to keep up the spirit.
After years of tasting whiskey I started to grow a different kind of appreciation for good cheap whiskeys. I really think that it is an extremely hard job to find a recipe that will yield a good whiskey with a reasonable cost and then age, bottle and distribute it worldwide and still be able to sell it for around 20 bucks. I think it is mind-blowing and way harder than releasing a superb single cask whiskey with a four-digit price tag! I started to have my favorite low shelf bourbons — Evan Williams Black Label and W. L. Weller Special Reserve.
I think the most exciting thing about bourbon is that by law bourbon distillers are allowed to try so many different recipes. We know that 51% has to be corn, but the rest is all left to the master distiller’s vision. The possibilities are endless. Personally if I walk into a bar the thing that makes me most excited is to see a bottle on the shelf that I've never tasted before. It is Bourbon Heritage Month after all, and I think that’s the best way to celebrate it — go out and taste a bourbon you’ve never tasted before. And maybe you can share your thoughts below in the comments box. I would love to hear them all!