06 Feb Smooth Talk About Kentucky’s Speakeasy Bourbon


After the holidays, my girl flew off to Mexico for a week at one of those maquiladora health spas, the ones situated just over the border to take advantage of the relatively cheap labor and land costs, to refresh her aura, investigate joyful yoga practice and crystal bowl sound healing and just generally pilate out.

You should understand that both of us generally look upon these places with suspicion. Feldenkrais is to exercise what white zin spritzers are to drinking. Enough of it might get you fit (drunk), or at least tired (buzzed), I suppose, but like the old sailors say, liquor is quicker. (Or to quote Helen Givens, “In this house we drink whiskey.”) But then my girl examined the brochure a little closer and saw they had a decent weight room (and, hidden away in a corner of the compound where it wouldn’t be a distraction to those those who’d come to El Rancho to take the cure, a wine bar) so she decided to join her artist friend Frida Kahlo (not her real name) on her bi-annual sojourn to serenity and back.

She went with my blessing and encouragement, because she deserved a little girl time. But before leaving she cooked a big turkey dinner for the express purpose of providing me and our terriers — The Triplets of Belleville — with leftovers; she stocked up the refrigerator and left me little notes reminding me to do those things necessary to the upkeep of the household, such as not paying the contractor until she’d gotten back and inspected his work, and to renew my nearly expired passport (in case we have to make a run for it).

Then she set out a couple of bags of treats for the triplets (another note: “remember to change their water”), hid the checkbooks, did the laundry and flew off to San Diego, where she was to look for a tall man in gray fedora who, for $28, would lead her and her fellow pilgrims through a tunnel beneath that ugly orange border fence and up into a new age preserve of proprioceptive self-awareness and wheatgrass juice. Once there, she surrendered her cell phone (roaming charges) and was forced to subsist on spotty wi-fi, which didn’t reach the $3,600-a-week rooms but was occasionally available in some of the common spaces.

In other words, I was left bereft. Three tiny doggie faces turned to me as if to ask, “What now O Father, who is generally good to us but sometimes needs to be reminded not to wear sweat pants to the country club?”

“Hang chilly, kids, I got this,” I told them, but the truth is I was still trying to convince myself.

Now, my girl and I have been together a while, and over that time we have occasionally been apart. But usually that was for a night or a weekend, when she flew off to do something business-like. Generally I’d call up my buddy S.S. Lawyer, we’d go down to one of the local steakhouses, murder a couple of ribeyes and rack up an unconscionable bar tab.

Then we’d come back to the house, S.S. would have another long pour of the Booker’s, and I’d wrestle with Anthracite, our freakishly large black Lab, and Warren Zevon, our more normal-sized dog whose genetic material may have comprised some Lab, some chow and (no offense, good buddy) one of those Giant Killer Rats that used to feature in the sideshows of the county fairs I attended when I was but a boy. (I still remember, on a dare, marching up to the scrawny carny who was hawking tickets to the see the capybaras and ordering “two GKRs with mustard.” That was, I have to say, a bit out of character, which is probably while I’m still telling the story all these decades hence.)

Anyway, the next morning, I get up, roust S.S. from the solarium chaise, clean the house, spackle the walls, load the boys in the truck and pick her up at the airport. Hey, we had a routine, and it worked so long as we kept our separations brief — which we mostly did, though once I was gone to Canada for four days (which, no offense Ontario) felt like a month. I was so bored and lonely I even went to a Blue Jays’ game.

But we’d never been gone a week, and I knew my old coping strategies wouldn’t work this time. For one, a week of steak and booze with my confirmed bachelor friend would kill me. I am no longer a partier to rival Joe Ely, nor even Miley Cyrus. These days, a week is a long time. I have to pace myself.

And Anthracite and Warren Zevon have gone on, and they’ve been succeeded by our wonderful but considerably more delicate girls who aren’t particularly interested in rolling around on the floor with the human they look to for security and support. They prefer long walks at sunset, and snuggling up on the couch to watch Downton Abbey. I love then beyond reason, but they are decidedly different creatures than the regal, lugheaded Anthracite or the loyal W.Z. (who used to lay down behind the chair in my studio for hours while I fiddled on guitar or typed up prose). So before my girl left, I worked myself out a little schedule of projects, some work, some personal (I reserved Thursday night for the traditional debacle with S.S. Lawyer) and steeled myself for the week of being without the company and affection of my far better half.

Which meant I actually went without bourbon for five nights straight. (Not being a folksinger, I have few rules, but not drinking alone is one of them.)

And on the sixth night together, the counselor and I behaved ourselves, sampling a bit of this month’s bourbon — Speakeasy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — before repairing down the hill to a civilized dinner (no ribeye for me, I had a nice ricotta gnocchi), a glass of wine, and then back up the hill for another drink of the Speakeasy, which was perhaps even a little nicer at the shank of the evening than at dusk. (S.S. liked it too, but hey, we’ve already established he likes everything with a proof on the label.)

I’d never heard of Bardstown Club Distilling Co., which is listed on the label as the distillery, but a minimum of detective work revealed that the name is just another shell game of the venerable Willett Distillery (aka Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), which traces its history back to Reconstruction when John David Willett — the family patriarch — began distilling whiskey at the Moore, Willett & Frenke Distillery outside of Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1898 his 15-year-old son, A. Lambert Willett, also got into the bourbon racket, joining his father’s company for five years before leaving for Max Selliger & Co. Distillery, where he stayed for 20 years, eventually becoming one-third owner and superintendent of the plant. In 1935, Lambert and his son Thompson bought  a farm on the outskirts of Bardstown, Kentucky, and began construction of the Willett Distilling Company, the forerunner of KBD.

Speakeasy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is pretty traditionally set-up Kentucky straight bourbon, which you can usually find for about $30. It’s aged for a minimum of four years, with a light caramel nose graced with hints of vanilla, coffee and butterscotch. It’s a light enough, smooth enough draw — I was surprised to read that it proofs out at 94.4. The finish is long, and it produces a pleasant warm burr in the gullet. It’s a drinkable whiskey, but not an uncomplicated one.

It went really well with college basketball.

When we reached the awkward moment when both our glasses were empty, my reprobate attorney friend surprised me by excusing himself, noting he had an early — for him — tee time. And so I was left alone, with three little lapdogs, who seemed to have finally reconciled themselves to the idea that maybe they were stuck with just me for a while. And the bottle of Speakeasy.

Which I capped up. I think my girl might like it.

Dale Smith is an artist, musician, writer and dog person who lives in the South.