You Had Me At Bourbon
All photos by Brian Petro.
Bourbon was a long time hidden player in the drinking landscape in the Petro family. It was not always the most obvious one, but it was there. When my grandfather went to parties, they always made sure they had an extra bottle of bourbon, or any whiskey, because he could put it away. His generation leaned towards the Canadian stuff, but there was always a variety at any party. No vodka, no rum, just a wide variety of whiskey. Ginger ale was abundant as well, so all the men could drink highballs. There was every other flavor of pop there to make sure the kids stayed away from it. There was also the dirty looks of the mothers and grandmothers if your hand strayed too close to keep you from sampling. It was not until I was a teenager that I thought ginger ale was anything other than a mixer or something that you consumed when your stomach was upset. My relationship with their whiskey was not always a great one. But then my savior came from my father, and it came in the form of bourbon.
Bourbon was there, but it was mixed among the other bottles. And the bottle of bourbon everyone had was Jim Beam. In the 1980s the selection of bourbon was not a robust one; most of it would be passed over by the modern bourbon enthusiast. Whiskey in general was still pulling itself up off the floor of the bar, where brandy, rum, and vodka were kings. But my dad drank it. And we were of the generation that was able to have a sip or two of dad’s drink without getting looked at sideways. The Jim Beam he offered to me was mixed, of course, in ginger ale. Looking back at the incident, I am not sure what the ginger ale was doing there. Possibly adding carbonation. Or changing the color a little. Maybe it was in there for the propriety of not drinking straight bourbon. Because all I could taste was burning. Fire that was extinguished with a bottle of Pepsi. It was certainly not a love affair that was born that day. In fact, it was a REALLY long time before I tried it again.
To be exact, it was at least a decade. And when I went back to whiskey, I hit the Canadian stuff again. The owner of the club I worked at, Jokers Comedy Café, was a big Crown Royal drinker. I tried it and enjoyed the spicy rye notes it offered. I stuck with it for a while until it turned on me. The first bad experience should have been enough. The second one just sealed the deal. Crown is still the only liquor I have a hard time stomaching. But we all have that one bad relationship with a certain liquor, right? That is when I shifted over to Maker’s Mark, and where I took a baby step to falling in love with bourbon. We are talking in the mid-2000s and in the Midwest. Yes, I am really close to Kentucky, but bourbon was not booming like it is now. It is a relatively recent, and at the time Maker’s was the best I knew. It was smooth, had little burn, and easy to find. That is where the exploration began.
As I went to different bars around the city, I would try different bourbons and whiskies, always drawn back to bourbons. The sweetness of the corn mixed with the vanilla and toffee notes, the warmth, the smoothness with just a cube or two of ice in it, all factors that drew me deeper in. Heading to Kentucky several times during those years to taste what was there did not hurt. I had the opportunity to explore what Louisville had to offer multiple times during business trips to that fine city. That is where I first discovered Bulleit, and the love affair was sealed. It was sweet and spicy. It had a lovely balance due to the high rye content in the mash bill and the higher (by law) corn content. Even better, it was delightful with ginger ale, something I am now allowed to drink with impunity. I began to explore a wider variety of bourbons, with the periodic rye whiskey thrown in for some variety.
Since then, many milestones in my world have been centered on bourbon. One the first dates I had with my future wife was a blind bourbon tasting, which was an excellent call on her part. It was held at The Century bar in Dayton, OH, and changed the way I experienced and thought about it. The fact that I only had my nose and tongue to tell me if I liked the liquid in the glass helped me find that Wild Turkey produces some lovely bourbon, and Maker’s Mark was not the elite pour I thought it was. It began my own little tradition of every holiday I was not able to spend with my family was celebrated with Jim Beam and ginger ale, the Petro family drink. It is the best bourbon out there? No, but it is our drink, and that is part of why I enjoy it so much. I have introduced my dad to a wide variety of much better bourbons, but that is the one he keeps coming back to,
and I am more than happy to enjoy it with him. My 40th birthday party was also held at The Century, with many fine bourbons being enjoyed that evening/early morning. And this year the intertwining of bourbon and life events continued when I used the first gift my fiancé gave me, a bottle of Woodford Reserve, to help with my proposal to her.
Bourbon and I did not become fast friends until later in life, but since then it has been a great relationship. It has been all ups with this spirit so far, and I am expecting many more years of sitting with friends in dark bars, sipping a Four Roses Single Barrel with a few cubes of ice and enjoying the company of friends. Or going to Cleveland and pulling out the 1.75 L bottle of Jim Beam my dad keeps (pushing aside Knob Creek and Booker’s to get to it) and enjoy a Highball with the family. Enjoying bourbon is not just the sweet ambrosia that is in the glass; the people you are enjoying it with make any liquor a little better. Pick your bottle, grab your friends, and have a delightful time.