What is the best way to end a fine Kentucky day?
Try this: A front porch with a pleasant view. A comfortable rocking chair. A friend with interesting things to say. A glass with enough fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey to float an ice cube or three.
The first sip should burn, but not too much. Hints of caramel and charred oak bounce off the back of your tongue. It is an intoxicating mixture of corn, barley, rye or wheat, limestone-rich water and a lot of Kentucky history.
Legend has it that bourbon was invented in Scott County in the late 1780s by Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher. That may not be true, but it makes a great story: Nectar of the gods created by minister to teetotalers.
Bourbon has become a Kentucky icon, a signature state industry. What makes bourbon unique? First, it is the mixture of grains: at least 51 percent corn, malted barley, rye and/or wheat. It is aged in new, white oak barrels that have been charred by flame. The char is what gives bourbon its distinctive amber color and smoky flavor. That happens as clear whiskey is drawn in and out of the wood with the change of seasons.
Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon — and all that's worth drinking. And don't confuse bourbon with that charcoal-filtered whiskey that Jack Daniel and George Dickel make in Tennessee.
Bourbon has been big business in the Bluegrass since before Kentucky became a state in 1792. Settlers found the rich soil good for growing corn and the limestone water good for turning it into whiskey.
Why was it called bourbon? Again, there's more legend than proof. But it probably had something to do with early Kentucky whiskey's biggest export market: French New Orleans.
Bourbon making became a popular Kentucky enterprise. My great-great-great grandfather inherited a Jessamine County distillery from his father, according to an 1825 will. In the early 1900s, my wife's great-grandfather was president of a Woodford County distillery that had its offices on "Whiskey Row" on Louisville's Main Street.
Prohibition in 1919 was a kick in the gut to Kentucky's bourbon industry. Only a few distilleries survived by making "medicinal" whiskey for people with enough connections to get a doctor's prescription.
Bourbon distilling rebounded with Prohibition's repeal in 1933, but as the industry consolidated, quality suffered. Sales plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Samuels thinks it was because most bourbon then wasn't very good.
About that time, Samuels was building his father's Maker's Mark distillery into an industry powerhouse by focusing on better quality and marketing. That sparked an industry turnaround.
Soon every Kentucky distillery was making high-quality bourbons — unique recipes that began attracting new fans around the world.
When friends used to ask me to recommend a good bourbon, I would offer a few suggestions. Now, I tell them that almost any Kentucky bourbon costing more than $20 a bottle will be good, so it's just a matter of personal preference.
There is a lot of variety in bourbon, as there is in the way people drink it. Many bourbonistas turn up their nose at sweet mint juleps, and laugh out loud when someone mixes good bourbon with a carbonated soft drink.
Many purists like their bourbon on ice or "neat" — straight or with a few drops of water at room temperature. Some people keep their bourbon in the freezer to avoid diluting it with melting ice.
Bourbon is likely to remain trendy so long as creative distillers come up with tasty new recipes. But, please, let's not get all snobbish like some of those wine and Scotch connoisseurs.
I once met a legendary distiller, a guy who helped developed some of Kentucky's best-tasting bourbons. He even has a fine bourbon named for him. So I had to ask: how do you drink your bourbon?
He mixes it with Sprite.