I don’t think Julian or I have ever attempted to write a tasting note about any kind of distilled spirits, and honestly, I won’t attempt to do so. This post isn’t really about what this bourbon tastes like; instead, it’s just a quick note regarding a minor epiphany I had on an impromptu panic-shop through the Mission Valley Costco in San Diego last Tuesday.
I like cognac, but I seldom buy it because I also recognize that if I have an entire bottle of brandy in the house, it is likely that I will at some point enjoy a bit of it and then decide to enjoy just a little bit more of it, well past the point of enjoying the drink as a drink and well onto the point of enjoying it as intoxication. This is not cool: it’s not great for my health, it’s calories I do not need, and so on. I’m still embarrassed to talk about this, but I suppose this is something most adults have to reckon with at some point, especially those of us who public admit to being wine drinkers or whatever; it can be hard to enjoy booze responsibility at times, especially if there are (ahem) external stress factors at play, blah blah blah. All of this was somewhere on my mind when I turned past the booze aisle at Costco, saw the cognac I liked, and also bourbon, which I also like; I am especially partial to Woodford Reserve double oaked, which they didn’t have, but they had the regular stuff, but whoa, I do NOT need a 1.75 liter bottle of bourbon in the house. A regular size bottle is bad enough, thank you, so I of course bought it with no idea as to what it might taste like.
The next day, I decided I might as well give it a taste, so I whipped up something I call a Bullshit Old Fashioned, aka my usual way of drinking bourbon. Ordinarily I’d slice a half-moon of orange, put a sugar cube on top of it, sprinkle the sugar with Regan’s orange bitters, muddle it, put a big-ass ice cube on top of that, and then cover it with about 2 ounces of bourbon. Given the Current Situation, I did not have an orange to use, so I just used simple syrup, orange bitters, and a bit of mandarin peel. The end result was… disheartening. As in not particularly good, there being kind of unpleasant bitter edge to everything. Alas. So I Googled “kirkland bourbon review” and stumbled across a post from a fella who lives in the neighborhood who also happens to be an actual, honest-to-God whisky expert. His verdict: “Not the worst liquor I’ve ever had, but it may just be the worst bourbon I’ve ever purchased.” Well now. (Also: proper to Rowley for the old TTB COLA lookup trick. That’s a fun one, isn’t it?)
After some ruminating over not the worst drink I’ve ever had, but perhaps the worst Old Fashioned I’ve ever drunk, I had a minor aha! moment. If you’re writing about a wine, or an album, or a movie, or whatever, and if you think “whoa, this sucks,” it might be interesting to try to decide who this thing is for, or what you could do to make it a more pleasurable experience. If you’re drinking a glass of [yellow tail] chardonnay, and if you decide it sucks, well, maybe it’s time to steal out of the Carl Wilson playbook and try to imagine why this wine is so incredibly popular and how you might better understand the point of the drink. And if you find yourself in a lockdown type situation with not a lot in the house, home barkeep-wise, but with a bottle of Kirkland Signature bourbon that has failed to produce the kind of Old Fashioned you normally enjoy, then what? Do you keep trying to drink it, lamenting your poor choice in liquor? Or do you try something else, something you haven’t tried before?
If you were to rummage through my soi-disant liquor cabinet, you would find the following items: one bottle of MacPherson Scotch whisky, one bottle of Muti gin, a bottle of Chartreuse elixir vegetal, Kirkland Signature XO cognac, Kirkland Signature brandy, and a few bottles of bitters: cardamom, lavender, and ‘aromatic’ bitters from a random shop in El Calafate, Argentina, Angosture, Regan’s orange, and black walnut bitters. The what now? Aha. A light bulb clicked on: Years and years ago, I had a fantastic meal at Bitterroot barbecue in Ballard, Seattle, with good friends, and I especially liked their “creamed Old Fashioned,” apparently made with soda, vanilla sugar, and black walnut bitters. I had bought the bitters probably a decade ago, but had given up trying to replicate that drink because it always failed with the bourbon I had in the house (likely Basil Hayden or Woodford double oak). But… perhaps this was the solution?
Short answer: yes. If you find yourself with a bottle of Kirkland Signature bourbon, and if you do not like it, do something else with it. In this case, I just went with ice, a little water, simple syrup, bourbon, and black walnut bitters.. and it was delicious. As in, surprisingly good. As in wait a minute, I think this is actually better than my baseline definition of good.
I can’t wait to try it with actual vanilla sugar, which in a remarkable stroke of luck, I made earlier in the week using Indian vanilla that Julian gave me when I visited him in Bangalore last year. I do believe that that will be this Friday evening’s drink.