My autumn transition from white liquor to brown isn’t going too well, and I’m not sure why. It is true that gin season was especially gratifying this year, owing in part, I think, to my new habit of laying in spare handles of Tanqueray out in the garage. “Just to be safe, in case of an emergency shortage,” I told Mrs. Banks when she asked what all those bottles were doing there. “You can’t put a price on piece of mind.” Rather, it’s the whiskey part that’s had me addled. For as long as I can remember, my go-to brand of bourbon, which you’ll understand I’d rather not name, is one from the very bottom shelf at the liquor store. It’s nice and cheap, and comes in handles made of shatterproof plastic rather than glass, which can be a blessing whenever I’m afflicted with a late-night case of the dropsies. But for years Mrs. Banks has been urging me to upgrade. “It really is a bit of an insult to serve that to guests,” she’ll say, and perhaps have a point. So this fall I resolved to switch to one of those newer premium bourbons, the ones with names like “Old Boot Hill Reserve” that come in bottles that look like something out of the Old West. I chose one that seemed particularly authentic, and brought it home. My wife was pleased.
You’ll have your own ritual for evaluating a bourbon you’re unfamiliar with. Some people, for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, will have it neat, even though they never drink whiskey that way in real life. Others will add a splash of water, which seems more sensible. For myself, I go straight into production: I’ll pour the bourbon onto some ice in a short glass and add a splash of soda, as is my normal routine. It was thus, and with great anticipation, that I sampled the Old Boot Hill Reserve when I got home from the liquor store. I took a sip. At first I felt enveloped by a warm cowboy-campfire glow, but that dissipated once I realized I was still being mesmerized by the design of the bottle. Then I took another sip, and a third, at which point it dawned on me—and I can’t say this makes me especially proud—that this new, premium whiskey didn’t taste any better to me than the cheaper stuff I’ve been drinking for forty or so years. This reaction says more about the quality of my palate, I’m sure, than it does about the quality of the bourbon.
So it’s back to the bargain brand. I’m not especially pleased to have realized that I’m not the discerning libationist I once took myself for. (On the other hand, I do know how to enjoy the really good stuff.) Nor is Mrs. Banks too happy, either, that we’re still a cheap-bourbon household. Then again, when I mix myself a bourbon on the rocks at cocktail time now, it’s like sitting down with an old friend. Come to think of it, maybe this fall’s brown-liquor transition is going better than I thought.
Bourbon on the rocks, with a splash of soda.
You’ll think this is an odd cocktail to feature, given how simple it is, but too often I’ve seen people in bars order a “bourbon and soda” expecting to get, well, a bourbon on the rocks with a splash of soda. Their disappointment when the drink arrives can be palpable, and should be, since a bourbon and soda is one of the least appealing drinks ever invented. Anyway, here goes:
Pour 1-2 jiggers bourbon into an Old-Fashioned glass filled with ice.
Add a splash of seltzer or club soda. No garnish.
Delightful, especially this time of year.