By Joel Lang
So a guy walks into Bailey’s Backyard in Ridgefield looking for the bar because he’s there to talk about bourbon, which happens to be one of Bailey’s signature libations.
Except the joke’s on him because there is no bar, just two cozy dining rooms, and the bourbons are not only kept out of sight, they are not familiar brands like Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam.
There isn’t a bartender either, but luckily there is a beverage manager, Jessica Schroeder, who brings out an amber array of the corn-based whiskeys being newly discovered at Bailey’s and elsewhere.
There’s Woodford Reserve and Blanton’s, which are predictably from Kentucky, bourbon’s traditional birthplace. But there’s also Hudson’s Baby Bourbon from the Tuthilltown Distillery not too far away in Gardiner, N.Y., and Berkshire bourbon from the Berkshire Mountain Distillery in Sheffield, Mass.
Schroeder pulls the stopper from the Hudson’s bottle, which at a squat 375 milliliters has half the volume of the ordinary whiskey bottle. She takes a quick sniff.
“Some people compare it to saddle leather,” Schroeder says of the sweet smell, adding that the Hudson’s distillery is the first to open in New York State since the repeal of Prohibition. On her iPad, she plays a video that shows how the distillery booms heavy rap music from loud speakers to agitate the bourbon as it ages in oak barrels.
Next up is Blanton’s, a personal favorite with what Schroeder discerns as a fruity and oaky taste. The Blanton’s bottle is octagonal and is further distinguished by its stopper that bears the figurine of a jockey atop a racehorse. More significant is the handwritten label bearing the date the bottle was filled, the identity of the warehouse where it was aged and the barrel it was drawn from.
Such particularity is the distilled explanation of why bourbon has become the spirit of the moment, and why it goes down well at a place like Bailey’s, where the dining menu focuses on locally grown food.
“It’s farm-to-table friendly,” Schroeder says, comparing the bourbon burst to that of craft-beers (which Bailey’s also features). “These are niche products that are personally paid attention to. Every barrel has a story behind it.”
This is almost literally true. The Hudson’s Baby Bourbon distiller says it is made from a strain of locally grown, heritage corn. And part of Blanton’s story is that the long-ago eponymous owner decided the best bourbon came from barrels stored in the center of Warehouse H, which happened to have been built in a rush after Prohibition.
Blanton deduced that the warehouse’s metal walls allowed greater variations in temperature that in turn promoted blending of the bourbon with the charcoal interior of its host barrel. (Warehouse H thus was an accidental forerunner to the Hudson distillery’s “sonic maturation.”) Warehouse and barrel, though, do not tell the whole story of bourbon’s surge. A 2014 article in Atlantic magazine reported the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. had increased almost ten-fold over the previous decade to more than 600, tapping into Gen-Xers’ and Millennials’ preference for the “local” and “authentic.”
Articles in various trade publications cite complementary factors, like the earlier popularity of single-malt scotch, the emergence of the “casual dining” and “craft cocktail cultures.” Then there are resonating images from such television series as “Mad Men,” where the drinks, if not the drinking, are beautifully filmed. Blanton’s website boasts cameo appearances on “House of Cards” and “Gone Girl.”
At Bailey’s, a drink called the Black Beauty was one of the featured cocktails. Its base was Woodford Reserve bourbon mixed with ruby port, orange bitters and black cherry. Schroeder mixed one and served it in a cylindrical glass with a single extra-large ice cube. The large cube cools the drink without diluting it, she said, adding that cocktails often are the way patrons discover bourbon.
Bailey’s stocks only a half dozen craft bourbons (along with other kinds of craft whiskeys), a fraction of the variety to be found at eateries like Walrus + Carpenter in the Bridgeport’s Black Rock section that have secondary identities as “bourbon bars.”
Its drink menu lists more than two dozen craft bourbons and a slightly smaller number of craft ryes, single malt whiskeys, vodkas and gins. Single-shot bourbon prices range from $10 for a 10-year-old Bulleit Frontier to $46 for a 23-year-old, single-barrel Elijah Craig.
Vanessa Young, the bartender on duty one afternoon, pours a shot of one of Walrus + Carpenter’s newly added bourbons, Buffalo Trace, into a glass over two large ice cubes. Two quick sips confirms that part of bourbon’s appeal is that it is smoother and sweeter than other whiskeys.
Buffalo Trace doesn’t come from a single barrel. But its label does boast it comes from the similarly named distillery located at one of Kentucky’s oldest active distilling sites, where the combination of limestone-cleansed water and grains grown in rich river soil give the whiskey its special flavor.
Young volunteers to pour a finger of Buffalo Trace, straight, for herself.
“You want to smell it first,” she says, lifting the glass to her nose. “I definitely get some caramel right off the bat.”
She takes a sip. “It’s a little smoky. You get a little bit of vanilla.” Then she takes a second sniff, detecting a complex aroma she describes as floral and what else? After a pause, she settles on something like sweet curd and looks as though she surprised herself.
Young seconds Schroeder’s analysis: saying that the appetite for craft bourbons springs from the same place as that for micro-brewed beers or even wines and coffees. But among whiskeys, bourbon has an especially strong appeal because of its frontier heritage, she says. It is the whiskey of pioneers.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand with supporting local, supporting sustainability and supporting America,” Young says.
Joel Lang is an award-winning Connecticut journalist.