BY ALEX MCDANIEL
I met bourbon expert Jennifer Cole—a native Mississippian and former deputy editor of Southern Living—at a Southern food-writing conference years ago. She gave a talk on bourbon and treated everyone in the room to a generous pour of Weller 12-year—better known to bourbon lovers as “Baby Pappy”—an inexpensive, deceptively delicious wheated bourbon that’s also extremely hard to find. I was 25 at the time, only a few years into my newfound love of whiskey, and too broke to have discerning taste.
Sitting next to me was a woman who had just graduated from the University of Tennessee and with whom I had become fast friends. Neither of us had heard of Weller, so (in typical SEC fashion) we downed the Weller in one gulp like a shot of Old Crow we didn’t actually want to taste. When we looked around the room of food writers and culinary experts sipping from the cups like dignified human beings, I wanted to slide to the floor and die right there under the table. Not my best moment, but it was also the thing that made me want to pursue more than personal interest in drinking bourbon. I wanted to study it from all angles and better understand its cultural significance.
Bourbon tastes like a million stories I’ll never have the time or space to tell. It’s the Grove in September, served over ice in a Solo cup. It’s a sunset view from the City Grocery balcony, blended with bitters and muddled fruit. It’s the obscene number of bottles my college friends and I left at Faulkner’s grave. It’s the celebratory nip of Woodford the day I brought my newborn son home from the hospital. It’s ending up at Boure after my father’s funeral for a double-shot of liquid calm served neat. It’s the flask of Maker’s I smuggled into Bryant-Denny Stadium when Ole Miss beat Alabama in 2015. It’s the contraband Bulleit my best friend drained when she realized there was no hope for her beloved Tide.
These days, my whiskey fixation includes a broad spectrum of ryes, scotches and Tennessee exports, among others. But my attachment to bourbon surpasses them all, despite it being somewhat cliche when someone professes their love for it the same way bandwagon fans cling to the Dallas Cowboys or, you know, Alabama. (Roll Tide, Liz.) Now its own spoke on the wheel of Southern culture, bourbon has emerged as a widespread brand of sophistication with variety and accessibility that bridges the gap between aficionados and casual drinkers who can’t discern between Blanton’s and Beam.
Of course, bourbon isn’t all I like. I’m fond of martinis, wine and the occasional IPA. However, none of those has the power to reconnect me with significant memories with little more than smelling a newly opened bottle. And that’s all the discernment I need.
And that’s all the discernment I need.