The Bourbon Trail, Beyond Kentucky

On his 24-city book tour, chef Ed Lee vowed to drink bourbon with a different chef, bartender or random stranger in each place to find out how his home spirit fits in with the rest of America.

I’m a creature of habit and I take my bourbon pretty ordinary. A few drops of water and a small ice cube just to open up the perfume behind the initial layers of caramel and vanilla.  You have to wait for bourbon, and let it come in waves.  If you focus on the immediate, you’ll miss the hay and leather underneath.

I drank bourbon in college, but mostly stuff like Jim Beam and Rebel Yell.  Back then bourbon was cheap whiskey that got you where you needed to go and fast—nothing fancy. It wasn’t until I moved to Louisville, Kentucky that I was introduced to, what the enthusiasts now call craft bourbon. But folks here have been making bourbon with reverence and patience for generations. This stuff is not to be mixed with Coke or shot back like a fix of medicine. Bourbon, the good stuff anyway, is something to be contemplated, reflected upon and even argued about.

For me, half the fun in drinking bourbon is the ensuing debate. Purists say you should pour it neat while others say a little water is necessary to draw out the nuances and lengthen the flavor. Still others swear by a handful of classic cocktails like the Manhattan. Personally, I don’t drink Manhattans. It’s a lot of booze at one time, and you have to quaff one down quickly before it gets warm. That’s not what bourbon is for. So I say a wide rocks glass, a few drops of water and an ice cube, sometimes with an added dash of bitters.

It’s humbling to think Kentuckians have been drinking bourbon this way for generations, contemplating the same aromas trapped over and over again inside a nondescript glass.

You see, technically you can make a bourbon in four years. Technically, you can make it anywhere in the U.S. But the spirit of bourbon is more than a bulleted list of regulations. It is a narrative and an ethos—a shadowy, colorful and imprecise piece of American lore that grips our imagination and won’t let go.  Drink enough of this stuff and you will believe in heaven and hell.

As a chef in Louisville by way of Brooklyn, I’ve adopted and championed regionalism in food and drink since I put down roots here. Kentuckians have always been fiercely protective of their heritage, especially the part that includes sitting down for a drink of bourbon, even throughout its darkest days. These stubborn people are the ones who kept the bourbon industry alive when Prohibition hit—and then again when the rest of the country was drinking gin and vodka. A generation ago, we saw a mass casualty of distilleries when the demand just wasn’t there. But bourbon is back, and now that we’re seeing an unprecedented demand (bordering on fetishism), the copper stills are cooking up that corn mash like never before.

In Kentucky, where the appreciation never really went away, it has always been collected, served in homes and poured in taverns as a way of life. The people who run the cooperages eat at my restaurants. The distributors are friends. The distillers check in on me frequently. And they’re all damn opinionated about their bourbons. You see, technically you can make a bourbon in four years. Technically, you can make it anywhere in the U.S. But the spirit of bourbon is more than a bulleted list of regulations. It is a narrative and an ethos—a shadowy, colorful and imprecise piece of American lore that grips our imagination and won’t let go.  Drink enough of this stuff and you will believe in heaven and hell.   

The diaspora of bourbon culture has spread to American cities, small and large, whose burgeoning food cultures have continued to take the gastronomic world by storm. While recently traversing the country on a 24-city book tour, I realized that bourbon is no longer just a Kentucky thing—it’s become an American thing. I learned you don’t drink the same way in Milwaukee as you do in New Orleans or in San Francisco. And every night I found myself winding down in some kind of watering hole—some polished, some dank. All of it I called research.


Ed Lee’s Guide to Drinking Bourbon Around America

I was delighted to find that each city had found its own passion for craft bourbon. Even five years ago, it was a rarity to observe more than a few standard bourbons on a menu. But today you can see the evidence in any craft cocktail joint’s Old Fashioned or on saloon bourbon lists around the country, as it seems almost customary for bars to dedicate an entire page to Kentucky’s brown water.

Houston, TX: Houston is a city that seems to be redefining itself as an extension of the American South, so naturally bourbon has gained a foothold in Texas’s traditionally tequila-soaked culture. While ambling through, I spent the day with chef-owner of Reef, Bryan Caswell, drinking margaritas around town and discussing the finer points of Tex-Mex cuisine.  When we made it to Reef and I ordered a whiskey, a tall glass of Texas bourbon with too little ice was slid across the bar to me. It was actually pretty tasty, but I’m a purist and I like my bourbon from Kentucky. Eventually, we ended up at a local haunt called Anvil where Chris and Ryan from Underbelly, Houston’s most daring restaurant, joined me and Caswell for a Knob Creek served in Texas-sized glasses. I’m not used to tall pours, and Margaritas and bourbon don’t mix.  But in a late-night, hazy stupor, I saw that they do coexist quite harmoniously, much in the same way Houston’s chockablock food cultures live peacefully overlapping within one bustling mega-city.

Washington D.C.: I rarely drink bourbon cocktails but, when in capable hands, I’ll try one here and there. While passing through Washington, D.C., I made my way from Reagan National directly to barmini, José Andrés’s boozy addendum to minibar, a pocket-sized tasting menu cove next door.  If ever I was going to discover an avant-garde bourbon cocktail, this would be it—a place where progressive cuisine meets a temple of design (epic glassware collection included).  I requested the bartender make me his best Kentucky whiskey drink. He responded in kind with a Pen Pal: rye, vermouth and Aperol—a twist on the Old Pal. I grew suspicious. Where I was expecting off-the-wall, I found something almost staunchly classic.  After a few sips, I sat back on my stool and closed my eyes. This cocktail defined for me what all good cocktails should be:  Simple and unadorned, yet harmonious.

Milwaukee, WI: In Milwaukee, beer is king. It’s what bourbon is to Louisville, and I never realized how deep it ran before I visited. After a book signing, a pack of locals graciously took me out for beers to a place called Rumpus Room. Whereas in most places you pick your whiskey first and then a beer chaser to match, in Milwaukee you pick your beer and the booze pairing comes second. It’s an interesting upending of drink philosophy. The Wisconsinite’s vocabulary for beer is so much more complex than in other cities, and not in a pompous way. It’s just beyond the norm, and not unlike Kentucky’s adoring language for bourbon. Generally, I don’t mix bourbon and beer, but in Milwaukee the bartenders were so fluent in pairing the two, I found myself beginning to enjoy the foreign combination.

Portland, OR: Portland, for one reason or another, has an incredible bourbon culture, and I can’t quite figure out why. I think it has something to do with the city’s appreciation for craft culture and its similarity to Louisville’s prideful scrappiness. Also, its citizens like to drink a lot, and they drink in the same democratic way we Kentuckians do. Some say bourbon is a masculine drink, but in Kentucky we don’t abide by that standard. Women in dainty sundresses and hats will gladly order a bourbon neat, and it appeared that the ladies in Portland were happy to do the same. Clyde Common is one such place to observe the democratic Portlander. Hipster hangout? Yes, but in a decidedly unadorned, unpretentious way.  And when there are more craft bourbons on the list than seats at the bar, you know you’re in a place worth staying.

Chicago, IL: Big Star is a bourbon bar on steroids—a place that took all the history and tradition of bourbon, blew it up and added tacos. Tacos are for tequila, I thought. Without being disrespectful Big Star said to me, “We’re going to disregard what you think a bourbon bar should be.” But that’s what its owner, Paul Kahan, does—he spins a project into being from his own mad genius with pairings that would otherwise never intersect. So I ate Mexican, listened to Johnny Cash and drank a whole lot of bourbon. And at the end of it all I left shaking my head and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Photo excerpted from Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Grant Cornett.

Chef Edward Lee is a Korean-American who grew up in Brooklyn, trained in NYC kitchens and now owns and runs 610 Magnolia restaurant in Louisville, KY. Lee's innovative cuisine has twice earned him a finalist nomination for the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef: Southeast. He is the author of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen. His writing has also appeared in Gastronomica and Food & Wine, among others.