In 2007, Congress declared September as National Bourbon Heritage Month. The bill, passed unanimously, emphasizes the 1964 act declaring bourbon the native spirit of America, making this month a time to reflect, honor and celebrate its history.
2007 was an interesting time, wasn’t it? After six years at war in the Middle East, our country was barreling (no pun intended) right for an economic collapse. Here we were seven years into the millennium and still no Jetsons-esque space ships, moving sidewalks, teleportation or even robot pets. The majority of us still hadn’t logged onto Facebook or used, let alone seen, a smart phone. Twitter still had yet to be hatched. So without people constantly showing us articles or darkly-lit, digitally retro-processed cocktails or flashing word bytes at us, how the heck did we know what to drink?
The old fashioned way, by tasting and seeking the knowledge for one’s own! Looking to books, reading (print!) magazines, maybe occasionally checking out various threads on websites. And, of course, from good bartenders to guide the way.
2007 was the year I had the good fortune to be the assistant spirits buyer of a major retailer in New York City. Bourbon was my awakening. I already knew and loved Scotch, but was only then getting acquainted with bourbon. Once I tasted a few beyond the fiery well bourbons I had only known till then (I call them the “bourbons of reckoning” because you can’t sip them without making that John Wayne cowboy face), I was hooked. There was so much to learn! The old guard in Kentucky, the new guard popping up in independent distilleries around the country, wheated vs. non-wheated, the babies vs. the mature geezers… then there was its diversity in cocktails.
By the fall of 2008, I had changed jobs and become the spirits buyer at another NYC wine and spirits retailer. The buyers’ office was off site, situated on a high floor in Midtown with a view of Times Square. One late afternoon I was finishing some admin tasks, and happened to be sipping the last of a well-aged bourbon a sales rep had left with me, letting the nutty, caramel and vaguely salty malt flavors roll around on my tongue. I looked up from my desk and through the windows, noticed people gathering in the cafeteria of the building directly across the street from us. In a few moments, they were hugging and crying. I summoned the other buyer I shared the office with. I said, “Something tells me we’re seriously going to need to rethink our Christmas inventory.”
What had we just witnessed? Well, remember what I said about the economy earlier? This was none other than the mass firing of the staff of one of the biggest banks in the world. Yes, we physically saw the crash happen right before our eyes! We poured a bit more of that bourbon for ourselves, knowing we were likely next. Within two months, that prophecy fulfilled itself sure enough.
That night I knew I needed a good cocktail. But first I needed a walk. A reflective walk is one of the great privileges of living in New York City. Buildings and landmarks seem to have just as much personality as the people who live there, and in almost any neighborhood, there is some cherished structure that soothes me in its familiar shadow as I stroll past. But that night the city seemed off and the walk was disappointing. There was a negative charge in the air, and even some of the buildings I wanted to see were suddenly buried under scaffolding. I made my way to a new favorite downtown bar/restaurant (sadly no longer with us) where a friend from my old job was now beverage manager. He sat me down and told me I’d be in good hands with his colleague behind the bar. The bartender too had sensed that something in the city atmosphere wasn’t right that day. Normally I would have chosen something off the menu, but I wanted a more specific drink- one with bourbon. I also wanted one that also felt distinctly “New York.” The bartender knew just what to do.
I know you’re thinking the answer is obvious, but there is another NYC bourbon cocktail too. One that is not as iconic or perhaps as elegant as a Manhattan, but delicious nonetheless. One that is the perfect drink for an off day, in ANY place, not just the city – The New York Sour.
2 oz bourbon (rye also works great in this recipe)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
¼ – ½ oz simple syrup (depending on desired sweetness)
egg white (optional, but best for extra body and froth)
about a ½ oz of red wine, one that is not too dry
Combine all ingredients except the wine in a shaker with ice and shake vigorously till well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice or straight up into a chilled coupe. Pour the wine into the drink over the back of a bar spoon to float it in a pretty layer on top. Say “fuhgeddaboudit” and sip away the day’s troubles.