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BOURBON: DISTILLED AMERICANA

After maybe six or eight sips of bourbon, Booker Noe was starting to open up. He was talking about bourbon, which he spent most of his life making as a master distiller for the family company, Jim Beam Brands of Clermont, Ky.

Before long, Noe was shaking the bourbon bottles to show how the beads and foam that form give clues to the proof of the whiskey. (The lower the proof, the flimsier the bead.)

He talked about how his grandfather, the legendary Jim Beam, gave him a "model 12 Winchester" the day before he died in 1947 at age 84. Noe was 18 and had taken his grandfather some quail he had bagged that day.

Later, Noe started in about his beloved smokehouse, which is behind his 116-year-old homestead in Bardstown, Ky. He drew a picture of the smokehouse on a lined sheet of yellow paper to show how he hangs his hams.

Then he launched into a recipe for coating a cured ham with a molasses and cayenne pepper mixture to "retard bugs."

He pooh-poohed the idea that the mold on cured hams was, well, icky. "Really, you need mold," he said matter-of-factly. Referring to the hams lined up in his smokehouse, he added: "Mine now are all hairy _ it looks like you're hanging up a lot of heads out there."

Then he segued into some hilarious stories about cooking with his namesake small-batch bourbon _ 120-something-proof Booker's _ straight out of the bottle. His wife blew the door off their oven _ twice _ cooking with it years ago. He recently got liftoff while flambeing a whole lot of pork tenderloins on his grill, with liberal amounts of Booker's.

"All of a sudden," he says, making a noise that sounds like "whoomph," the racks of tenderloins "raised up" off the grill.

Bottom line: "A touch of it on pork _ don't go overboard." If you do, be prepared, "It'll go." And don't use it in a gas oven.

Noe also encouraged the city slickers he met to cure a few hams in their urban basements: "Hang that dude down there and forget it for a year."

Booker Noe, in his slouchy hat and plaid shirt, is an American original, a 68-year-old master distiller emeritus who helped bring bourbon to the attention of folks who aren't exactly in the sitting-and-sipping set.

"Booker's bourbon changed how consumers looked at bourbon," says Jim Kokoris, executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, a company-sponsored group for aficionados. "Up until Booker's, bourbon was generally relegated to a second-class status. It was perceived to be old and stodgy _ your grandfather's drink."

Since Booker's arrived 10 years ago, small-batch and single-barrel bourbons have become the rage among the cigar, microbrew and martini set, part of America's never-ending quest to discover the world's best things with the wealth created by a bull market.

There's little doubt among those in the know that these are among the world's best things. They're also uniquely American things _ no Japanese rip-offs here, though the Japanese appreciatively buy them up by the, uh, barrel.

Bourbonmaking in America is as old as the nation. It is to Kentucky what automobiles are to Detroit. In the late 18th century, you could even buy things with it _ like Thomas Lincoln's 30-acre Kentucky farm. The father of the future U.S. president sold the homestead for $20 cash and 10 barrels of bourbon, Kokoris says. (Knob Creek, one of the small-batch bourbons produced by the Jim Beam distillery, is named for the Lincoln farm.)

In 1964, Congress declared bourbon "America's native spirit" and set guidelines for its production. The mash from which it is made must be at least 51 percent corn, and all bourbon must be aged at least two years in new, charred white oak barrels.

Unlike some whiskeys, bourbon isn't blended. That would qualify it in Scotland to be labeled a single-malt whiskey, for example. The pricey, super-premium small-batch bourbons are made in limited quantities from a select few barrels, as few as 20 to 100 or more. They're aged at least six years, some for as long as 12.

Booker's, aged six to eight years and 121-127 proof, is touted by the company as "the world's only uncut, unfiltered bourbon." It is, Noe says, like the bourbon they drank on the frontier 200 years ago. It sells for about $52 a fifth.

In 1992, the Beam company added three more hand-labeled and hand-bottled small-batch bourbons: 107-proof Baker's, aged seven years and selling for about $40 a fifth; 100-proof Knob Creek, aged nine years and costing about $25 a fifth; and 80-proof Basil Hayden's, aged eight years and priced at about $35 a fifth.

They range in color from the deep amber of Booker's to the golden hue of Basil Hayden's.

Booker's comes from barrels aged on the fifth floor of the distillery's nine-story unheated "rackhouse" in Clermont, Ky. Noe calls it the "center cut" _ the middle level where the bourbon is protected from the hot, dry air above and the cool, moist air below. He produced a private stock of this whiskey for decades before the label was added.

Yeast is another variable in bourbon-making. The Jim Beam company today uses the same yeast cultivated by Noe's grandfather when he revived the company after Prohibition. Some bourbon makers have even older versions. They guard their recipes zealously.

Noe says his grandfather nearly ran his family out of the house while experimenting with yeast.

"It has a sulfury, outhouse aroma," Noe says by way of explanation.

He speaks with pride of his grandfather, who revived the business when he was 70 years old, building a distillery in 100 days _ something that Noe, retired now at nearly the same age, regards with admiration.

The mists of history seem to rise up around Noe as he speaks, but he puts on no airs. He may belong to one of the royal families of American spirits, but you get the idea he'd rather be sitting and sipping on the back porch.

Or sprinkling Booker's on some pork tenderloins on the grill.

For information about the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, call (800) 652-2472 anytime or E-mail kbcxnet.com or visit the circle's Web site, http://www.smallbatch.com

How to sniff and sip

According to Jim Beam Brands master distiller Booker Noe and the Kentucky Bourbon Circle, here's how to properly taste small-batch bourbons:

+ Serve at room temperature in wineglasses or snifters.

+ Serve neat or with branch, spring or distilled water, if desired.

+ Hold the bourbon up to the light and admire the color. The deeper the color, the more complex the flavor.

+ Swirl the bourbon to aerate.

+ Place your nose deep into the glass. Keep your lips slightly parted to allow the aroma to be captured on the back of your palate. Breathe in.

+ Sip slowly. Each sip will bring a new aspect of the flavor.

+ Add a drop of the water to open up the flavor.

+ Clear your palate between tastings with a sip of water or a table water cracker.

Booker's Barbecue Sauce

2 cups ketchup

4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 cup Booker's or other bourbon

4 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 cup packed brown sugar

{ teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 tablespoons cider vinegar

In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, 20-25 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally.

Makes 3-4 cups; analysis based on 2-tablespoon serving. Nutrition analysis per serving: 50 calories (1 percent from fat), 0 fat (0 saturated fat), 11 gm carbohydrate, 1 gm protein, 328 mg sodium, 0 cholesterol, 12 mg calcium, 0 fiber.

Note: Use this sauce to baste grilled or broiled chicken, ribs or pork chops. Store in the refrigerator up to a month.

Source: Kentucky Bourbon Circle, Clermont, Ky.

Peach-of-a-Bourbon Basting Sauce

{ cup bourbon

1 jar (18 ounces) peach preserves

{ cup spicy brown mustard

{ cup finely chopped onion

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger root or { teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

In a medium saucepan, combine the bourbon, peach preserves, mustard, onion, ginger root and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the liquid smoke. Cool and keep in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Makes 2\ cups. Nutrition analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 91 calories (5 percent from fat), 0 fat (0 saturated fat), 21 gm carbohydrate, 1 gm protein, 96 mg sodium, 0 cholesterol, 15 mg calcium, 0 fiber.

Note: Use this basting sauce to brush on chicken, ham or pork during grilling.

Source: Kentucky Bourbon Circle, Clermont, Ky.

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