Cheers to National Bourbon Day
Not sure if I can chalk it up to living in the Bluegrass State in my youth but I adore bourbon, my drink of choice. And my all-time favorite cocktail — besides the Sazerac, the official cocktail of my hometown of New Orleans — is the Old Fashioned, a delicious combination of bourbon, bitters and sugar or simple syrup, depending on the mixologist, and topped with an orange slice or cherry. Naturally, there are many innovative ways to serve this classic as well and I assure you, I’m sampled plenty.
So, in honor of National Bourbon Day, let me offer a few of my favorites, Old Fashioned and otherwise.
Houmas House Plantation, Louisiana
The magnificently refurbished mansion comes with exquisite gardens, dining establishments such as the award-winning Latil’s Landing Restaurant and a few ghosts to boot. Houmas House was the site for the film “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” starring Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland and the mini-series “North and South.” But my attention was hot on the Old Fashioned cocktail served in the Turtle Bar, a converted garçonniere that serves up the perfect marriage of bourbon, sweetness and fruit. A garçonniere, for those not familiar with ancient Southern homes, was once the place where adolescent boys were sent to live to get them out of the house, hence the name (think waiter in French, garçon or boy). For many working-class families, a garçonniere could be the attic. In the case of Houmas House, it was a separate building, now used in the plantation’s logo.
The Seelbach Hotel, Louisville
This gorgeous hotel in the heart of Louisville is a story in its own right, but speaking of bourbon, F. Scott Fitzgerald was known to frequent the hotel bar when he visited in 1925. His characters of “The Great Gatsby,” Tom Buchanan and Daisy, were married at the Seelbach’s Grand Ballroom. While I enjoyed a delicious Old Fashioned in the Old Seelbach Bar, the waitress assured me Fitzgerald loved to sample cocktails in that very space. I took her word for it and hoped my Old Fashioned would inspire me to write the Great American Novel. And as an extra incentive, bourbon bottles were scattered around the hotel, filled with water and flowers to create unique tabletop adornments.
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville
This distillery tour is part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the city’s Urban Bourbon Trail. I’ve had my fill of distillery tours and worried I might receive yet another overlong lecture on the use of grains and yeast in distillation but Evan Williams offered so much more. Our tour guide delivered information in an entertaining way, accented by innovative, well-produced and acted films. Of course, it ended with a tasting, but that, too, occurred in a makeshift historic store that rivaled something Hollywood might create. And if you wish to enjoy more of its bourbon, there’s a hip bar on the third floor. I voted to purchase a bottle of single batch bourbon — the price was inexpensive — and sample my cocktails in the warmth of a hotel room, this time the city’s historic Brown Hotel, which also serves up a variety of fine bourbons.
Broken Top Mountain Whiskey, Portland, Oregon
I’m slipping out of the South to extol the virtues of this adventurous spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Broken Top distillery is female-owned, so they had me at that introduction, plus I was curious how an Oregon distillery would produce bourbon. To be clear, you don’t have to exist inside Kentucky to make a good bourbon, although folks who live among bluegrass may insist otherwise. All bourbons are whiskeys but to be labeled a “bourbon,” the alcohol must have at least 51 percent corn and be aged in American oak barrels. There’s more to the process but that’s the basics. Kentucky distillers will mention the beauty of their pure limestone water sources but in the case of Broken Top, they’re crediting pristine Oregon water “naturally filtered through thousands of feet of porous volcanic rock inside the Cascade Mountains.” I sampled their Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is 87.5 proof, that delivered a smooth drink with hints of vanilla and caramel.
Lauren McDuffie’s Homemade Pecan Pie Bourbon and Old Fashioned
Courtesy of Cane River Pecans, New Iberia, Louisiana
We can’t leave without a way for our readers to make drinks at home. Here’s a delicious Old Fashioned cocktail courtesy of the folks at Cane River Pecans, who create exquisite pecan pies and other pecan favorites.
1 cup pecan halves (Cane River Elliott or Mammoth)
2 vanilla beans
1 750 ml bottle of bourbon
1 quart-sized mason jar
2 ounces simple syrup (store-bought is fine)
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Fresh orange peel, for garnish
This recipe has two parts, writes McDuffie: "Start by creating an infused, hugely flavorful bourbon, which is followed by my favorite paired cocktail. When you’ve got the flavor of toasted pecans and sweet vanilla combined with the smoky, caramel notes of bourbon, you really can’t go wrong. Make this infused bourbon at the end of summer each year, and then give it a month to really infuse. By the time fall rolls in and the temperatures start to drop, you’ve got an amazing contribution to Happy Hour that will warm you up from head to toe."
Making the Pecan Pie Bourbon:
Put the pecan halves in a large, dry skillet over medium heat and toast on both sides until light golden brown and fragrant. This takes about 2 to 3 minutes total, stirring halfway through. The pecans typically won’t fit inside most bourbon bottles, so add them to a quart-sized lidded mason jar. Add the vanilla beans and the bourbon. Secure the lid, and set the jar in a cool, dry place to infuse. The pecan pie bourbon can be used in as little as one week, but it tastes better the longer it sits.
Making the Pecan Pie Old Fashioned:
Run the orange peel around the rim of a highball glass (optional). Add the simple syrup and the bitters to the glass, and stir to mix. Add a generous handful of ice and then pour 2-3ounces of pecan pie bourbon over the ice.