The serious business of bourbon

on 20 September, 2016

This is most odd. I’m standing with two American gentlemen in the corner of a very swish steak bar staring at a surreal painting of what we’re being told is a ship exploding as it sails towards a lighthouse. I think.

This is odd because the person telling us is a barman, and two minutes ago we were seated at a bar expecting him to make us a cocktail. And, to be fair, once he’s set the scene and put his creation into context, he does indeed create an imaginative drink, pops a little light into the glass to illuminate it, and passes it to us to taste.

It is wonderful.

This is the final of the London cocktail competition staged by American bourbon Rebel Yell and, although no-one’s actually saying it, it’s part of the rehabilitation of a brand as a quality bourbon, and one with panache and style.

I’ve been asked to be a judge and I have to admit I’m having a blast. Next up we get an Australian telling us an improbable tale of how legendary Aussie maverick Ned Kelly caused one of the country’s most serious bush fires while making whisky.

The theme is ‘rebel’ and each of the finalists combines a story with a unique, self-created cocktail. Our finalists are a mixed bunch and so are their drinks. But they have two things in common – they are all imaginatively created and they all taste great. We get smoke machines, burning wood, absinthe, pastis, and yet of all of them are distinctly bourbon cocktails.

And these guys are deadly serious. They might crack a few jokes, muck about a bit and put on a good show behind the bar, but the atmosphere is tense, and there are distinct signs of nerves. It means a lot to them to win, and not just because at stake is an all-expenses paid trip to this autumn’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

My fellow judges are Greg Mefford and John Rempe of Luxco, the Missouri-based company which owns Rebel

Yell and is in the process of introducing it to a new generation – not necessarily the easiest gig, given the

fact that 25 years ago the whiskey proudly wrapped itself

up in the Confederate flag, made a big noise about the fact that it only used to be sold under the Mason-Dixie line, and was promoted with a cassette tape (remember them?) of bad rock music from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blackfoot.

But the company is doing a good job of it. The bourbon, made from a wheated recipe not dissimilar to the sort of whiskey coming out of the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, is a solid, rounded and sweet delight. And the Small Batch Reserve version is outstanding, and an absolute steal at under £30.

Meanwhile, back at the cocktail competition, we reluctantly choose a winner but as we do, my mind goes back to a whisky cocktail competition I hosted some 12 years ago. The participants, to a person, made clumsy, unsubtle and disappointing drinks designed to hide the flavour of whisky rather than enhance and promote it. We certainly didn’t get flashing lights and oil paintings.

How everything has changed. And for the better. More of this please.

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