An Ode to Bourbon

In light of the recent 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition, it seems appropriate—and not just a little necessary, since we are also in the midst of an especially fraught holiday season—to meditate on America's great contribution to the world of spirits, bourbon whiskey. First produced in the late 18th century in the "Old Bourbon" region of Kentucky, bourbon was recognized in 1964 as "a distinct product of America" by Congress, which also laid out the "Federal Standards of Identity." It must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn, distilled in America at less than 160 proof with nothing added but water, and aged for a minimum of two years in new, charred-oak barrels.

George Washington distilled bourbon at Mount Vernon, Abraham Lincoln's father was a seasonal distillery hand, and Lincoln's General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant, was a dedicated consumer of bourbon. The novelist Walker Percy wrote an oft-reprinted essay in praise of the stuff, but he was no connoisseur, since, like me, he spent the bulk of his early life in Mississippi, which remained dry until 1966. Consequently, we were able to avail ourselves only of the brands the local bootlegger had on offer, which, in the case of bourbon, was generally Old Crow— a favorite of Grant, Mark Twain, and our postman, for whom my mother left a bottle in the mailbox every Christmas.

Percy preferred Early Times—in his "Love in the Ruins," the protagonist holes up in an abandoned Howard Johnson's with 15 cases of it, along with three good-looking women and the world's great books—mainly, he said, because at 80 proof he could drink more of it. Percy would likely be amused at today's profusion of artisanal-style "small batch" bourbons, brands like Blanton's Single Barrel, Woodford Reserve, and Eagle Rare. Crafted by "master distillers," they recall bourbon's heyday at the opening of the 20th century, when almost 200 hundred brands of straight bourbon, each with very distinct characteristics, vied for drinkers' approval.
Bourbon's individuality comes from the quality of the oak barrels in which it is aged and the environment in which they are stored, as well as the length of aging and final strength. The resulting range of nuances can be so varied that a tasting vocabulary not unlike that which is ordinarily reserved for fine wine is often used to describe them. Percy happily settled for "the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasophayrnx," but were he alive to drink, say, a 16-year-old A.H. Hirsh Reserve, he might have also detected, as one critic did, "smoky, floral aromas" and flavors of "fruit and chocolate." Likewise, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 1998 is said to boast aromas of "brown banana, cloves, and glove leather," while 12-year-old W.L. Weller has a "complex and toasty palate" and a "sweet and oaky" finish.

A life-long Scotch drinker, I have never shared the tendency of my fellow Southerners toward American whiskey (Percy said drinking Scotch was like looking at a picture of Noel Coward; Faulkner said if forced to choose between Scotch and nothing, he'd take Scotch). But some of the small batch brands have finally made me a believer, and I'm not alone: since 2002, sales of super-premium bourbons (those costing more than $30) have risen by more than 60 percent. My favorite, 20-year-old Pappy van Winkle's Family Reserve, is as suave and rich as a fine brandy—and, at about $100, as expensive. But for less than half the money, I am also happy to sip, neat or on the rocks, Knob Creek or Basil Hayden's—both Jim Beam brands. (I think the real reason I abjured bourbon for so long was that so many drinkers of my generation inevitably mixed it with Coke.)

Though I have come late to drinking bourbon, I have long understood the benefits of cooking with it. Bourbon balls (a mixture of crushed vanilla wafers, chopped pecans, corn syrup, bourbon, powdered sugar, and sometimes cocoa) are a traditional Christmas treat, and my mother always puts a healthy dose of bourbon in her holiday charlotte russe. My friend Robert Carter at Charleston's Peninsula Grill features bourbon-grilled shrimp with creamed-corn sauce, Hoppin John and green-onion hushpuppies on his menu, and at Birmingham's excellent Hot and Hot Fish Club, Chris and Idie Hastings offer up a sublime toddy made with fig-infused bourbon over ice and garnished with a bourbon-soaked fig.

In these trying times, bourbon, with or without the fig, is a wholly American and appropriate indulgence. Percy would approve. Dr. Tom More, his character who took refuge with the Early Times, was doing so because in the "dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.", pure "wickedness" abounded in "high places" and all hell had broken loose; he was anticipating nothing less than the end of the world. If that scenario sounds scarily familiar, take heart. At the novel's end, not only is the world still in tact, but More has married the best of the three women and is outside on his patio, merrily barbecuing a turkey on Christmas Eve. His accompaniments are the songs of Sinatra and several restorative shots of bourbon. There are worse remedies.

1. Place milk in a small saucepan and sprinkle-in gelatin. Set aside for 5 minutes to soften, then stir over low heat until dissolved. Set aside to cool.

2. In a large bowl, whip heavy cream with 1 cup of the sugar until firm peaks form when beaters are raised. Set aside.

3. Place egg yolks in a large bowl and gradually beat-in remaining sugar. Beat at high speed for several minutes, until mixture is thick and pale yellow. Stir-in gelatin and bourbon. With a rubber spatula, fold-in a quarter of the whipped cream to lighten mixture; then fold-in the remaining whipped cream.

4. In another large bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form when beaters are raised. Fold into cream mixture. Line an 8-cup charlotte mold with ladyfingers (or thin slices of sponge cake cut into strips measuring 1 1/2 ½by 4 inches), spoon cream mixture into prepared molds and chill in refrigerator until set.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Fig-Infused Small-Batch Bourbon
Makes 1 (750mL) bottle
1 pound fresh ripe figs, such as brown turkey, mission, or celeste
1 (750mL) bottle good quality small batch bourbon, such as Basil Hayden

Wash figs well under warm running water and pat dry. Remove stems and cut fruit into quarters. Place quartered figs into a 3-quart sterilized jar. Fill jar with bourbon (reserving the original bourbon bottle) and secure the top of the jar. Allow bourbon and figs to sit in a cool, dry place for at least two weeks or until the bourbon has a distinct fig aroma and flavor.

Strain the infusion through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean container. Place bourbon-soaked figs into an airtight container. Refrigerate and reserve for the Fig-Infused Bourbon Toddy recipe. Pour the infused bourbon back into the original bourbon bottle. The bourbon is ready to use and will keep at room temperature for up to a year.

Fig-Infused Bourbon Toddy
By definition, a "toddy" is a drink of brandy or whisky, with hot water and sugar. But Idie Hasting's father Jim's toddy was always part whiskey and ginger ale over ice cubes. This updated version uses bourbon and ice.

Makes 1 serving:
3 tablespoons fig-infused bourbon
1/2 bourbon-soaked fig, cut into quarters
1 cup ice
1 preserved fig or maraschino cherry, for garnish

Combine bourbon, bourbon-soaked fig and ice in a martini shaker. Muddle until fig-half is well mashed and ice is somewhat crushed. Pour mixture into a rocks glass and garnish with the preserved fig, or cherry. Serve immediately.