My First Taste
by Richard E. DarshwoodRemember when you just turned 21? LEGAL drinking age!?!? When you could finally walk into a bar and order a drink and no one had any reason to stop you… As long as you were polite about it, right?
Let me ask you this – do you remember the first thing you ordered on your first trip to the bar?
SHOTS OF TEQUILA!!! (And that was such a bad idea.) That was the beginning of a night that I ended up NOT remembering very well and I do NOT drink tequila ANYMORE. Maybe someday I’ll pick it back up but I have a new love now… Bourbon.
In those early days, when I was still figuring out proper bar etiquette – you know, after I learned that demanding multiple rounds of tequila sans lime and salt is not exactly appropriate for a gentleman’s drinking behavior – I had the great fortune of receiving the tutelage of a seasoned pro; my friend Jono.
Jono was already 24 when I became legal so he had TONS of nightlife experience. He knew exactly how to enter a bar with total confidence, stroll up to the bartender and bark out the name of a beer or mixed drink without thinking twice so he could focus on which pretty girls he was going to talk to next and which drunk guys to ignore in order to avoid conflict. Jono had it ALL figured out.
Now Jono’s drink of choice was Maker’s and Coke. And I had no idea what I was doing the first time I towed behind him one Friday night. So MY drink of choice became Maker’s and Coke. I think I may have been aware that Maker’s Mark was a whisky and that it made Coca Cola Classic taste very much like vanilla Coke with a mild burn but that was about the extent of it. I had no idea then that my first sip from that glass would make me a lover of brown liquor because even then I had no real appreciation for what I was drinking… I was too focused on talking to pretty girls and avoiding drunk guys. Because that’s what you do at a bar when you’re 21-24.
Looking back though, that was a great night and I’ll never forget my first introduction to bourbon even if it was not a proper one. I dabbled a little bit in bourbon diversity for the next few years; tried a little Jim Beam with Coke next time around, might’ve tugged on some guys Old Crow or Wild Turkey bottle at a bonfire party or something too. But I had a tendency to stick with beer for several years. I was lost; in search of a righteous path.
My proper introduction to bourbon came MUCH later and – unlike tequila night – it was an experience I will never forget.
These days I have the great fortune of being surrounded by a number of bourbon enthusiasts and industry folk since I started hosting a monthly magic dinner show at one of Louisville’s premier whiskey dispensaries; Down One Bourbon Bar. And when you make friends in the bourbon world you just can’t help but establish an appreciation for it. (In my next blog, “Bourbon Passion”, I’ll tell you all about why – if you don’t already – you should absolutely LOVE America’s native spirit too.)
So one night a couple years back I was hanging out at a pub with a chef friend of mine I call Fonzarelly who heard that I didn’t really know a damn thing about bourbon.
I think I said something along the lines of, “So I’m doing this show at a bourbon bar and I don’t know a damn thing about bourbon.”
To which Fonzarelly replied, “Well then, we need to go to my house right now.” So we threw back what last bit of Four Roses was left in our rocks glasses, hopped in my minivan (Yeah, I drove a minivan back then. DON’T YOU JUDGE ME!) and headed back to his house up on the hill. As we entered his kitchen I felt like I could hear the blast of angel’s horns and a golden choir when what did I see atop his refrigerator and along the cabinets but the most incredible collection of rare bourbons I had ever laid my eyes upon! There were Pappies and Cask Strengths and Birthday Bourbons and Antique Collections and so many many more!!!
After picking my jaw up the off the floor and checking my pulse for erratic beats – all good – I kindly asked him, “May I please have a glass, sir?”
He instead offered me six glasses and proceeded to pull down six different bottles. That night, at his dinner table a man I call Fonzarelly gave me the most extensive bourbon education I have ever received. I learned how to nose a Glencairn glass. How to chew. I learned about the Kentucky hug. I learned the unmistakable difference between a high rye and a wheater. I learned how adding just a touch of water will drastically change the palatability of whiskey. And though I did have a Pappy 15 that night (He didn’t pull down the 23 for me… Sad face, I know.) I did discover that my absolute favorite name in bourbon is Elmer. (If you’re down with Elmer than I’m down with you.)
I also learned that night that Fonzy has an incredibly comfortable couch that his dog hates sharing and that his French Toast game is totally on point.
It was a magical evening for sure filled with the many wonders of barrel-aged delight. I will forever be grateful for my friends Jono and Fonzarelly for the part they played in bringing me into their world of bourbon.
The next glass I pour I toast to them and to you for reading my story.
May your glass always be filled and feel free to send me a message anytime. I’d love to hear the story of YOUR first tastes too.