“Water is liquid of last resort.”-Bernie Lubbers
I was raised (not born) in the British Columbia Rocky Mountain trench town of Golden, by a single mother (a widow and former Service RN) and two older sisters…my formative years best described as a Reagan era Tom Sawyer. I built forts and fought great wars. In winter I shovelled snow and when old enough I chopped wood. In spring I helped plant. In summer I slept outside in a tent most nights. I mowed our massive lawn and raked for what seemed like days. Crouched over holes to catch garter snakes, letting them go as curiosity abated…other boys would tie them head and tails to train tracks and wait…or would return the next day to examine the gore. I hated these boys. Swam in a slough, and when tired laid out on a raft of water logged timber and plywood sheets. Late in the day I would sit upon the high white fence that surrounded our near acre of land, a deep yet narrow ditch separated our fence and the train-tracks. High up on the fence I imagined it a horse, like in the westerns my oldest sister would make me watch, and would wait for the train. As it approached slowly, wary of the kids and homes so close, I would salute it. The engineer would blow the whistle and throw chrome cans of CP rail water. On those same tracks in a feat of dimness and danger I rode my Honda 50cc; I have never loved a piece of mechanical ingenuity more. We had a chicken coop, which I tended to, and rabbits. My mother had a vast and meticulously cared for garden. The sun through the leaves of rows and rows of peas, eating them from the shells while sat in the dirt. Laying in the grass day dreaming about building a cabin high up in the mountains… I still dream of that mountain, and picture the cabin now…further up I would build a still. Deep and deeper into the dream I go back in time and traverse space…and I’m in the mountains of Kentucky running from the law by the light of the moon and bootlegging ‘shine. Part of me thinks maybe that was all true, but a lifetime ago and another one after that.
Bernie Lubbers stands…shuffling papers at the head of two long wooden tables in the Chambar basement banquet room, just rustic enough for hosting a lecture from the Kentucky born and Heaven Hill employed “Whiskey Professor.” This man knows American Whiskey, sports a “Bottled in Bond” tattoo, wears a rhinestone studded belt…and he flashes just enough of a salesman smile to remind me of the men who would wheel and deal at the classic car shows I reluctantly went to as a kid. Men with grease stained hands and greasier hair who I eyed suspiciously as they talked with my mother and her boyfriend at the time. Her boyfriend, he rebuilt Studebakers and never really seemed to like me much. Though as soon as Bernie Lubbers begins to ‘lecture’ in that measured Kentucky drawl… I hear less salesman and more storyteller. He is without doubt an Ambassador of bourbon. Knowing whiskey is a part of his trade…but it seems loving whiskey is more about heritage. He quotes Lubbers senior who he imparts drank a quart of bourbon every day, “I don’t trust a bourbon over six years old.” A heritage in the same vein as: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Jacob Beam (ancestry very much part of Heaven Hill with Parker Beam)…a history composed more of myth and coloured with contradicting origins…then to finally frame it and put it on the wall actual f’ing facts: French settlers naming everything after their royalty and military. Corn, corn and corn, even a damn island of it. Fresh water springs and limestone. Puritanical obsession with getting sauced and enough forethought to pack a copper-pot still through the damn frontier. Oak barrels to ship and at some point a conflagration on the inside (or beginning on the outside)…charred them. There are more…but the deeper in the forest, don’t the trees become the same, like brothers…twins even. Facts and fables become a backwoods stew cooked slow and low.
I have told these stories, across the Pourhouse bar to questioning patrons…only to find out the “history” I paired with their cocktail is more fable than fact, mostly straight Kentucky bullshit. Another grifter on the chain-gang working the ruse. This knowledge is passed down the line, and much like a game of ‘Telephone’ is corrupted the further down the line you go. These stories twist and writhe and feed upon each other, like the viscous trails of bourbon in a spun glass. Truthfully though, I love them…I fucking covet them. The biggest story, the thirteen headed snake of them all, is where the name bourbon actually comes from. The truth seems to centre around: location, branding, and barrel aging due to shipments by river or land over a significant stretch of time. That time in the barrel is what would give it such a distinct flavour. Perhaps it was french distillers like the Tarascon brothers Jean and Louis. Who shipped their whiskey down to New Orleans in charred new oak where french settlers were calling for something closer to cognac than corn whiskey. The Tarascons might have called it bourbon to further entice them…increasing demand for that Old Bourbon Kentucky Whiskey. Bernie Lubbers pulls at the yarns we have all been told, pulls some of the stories right apart. Though I’m left with all this debris of hyperbole at my feet and rapt to Lubbers studied history of Heaven Hill Distillery…I am left watching realizing that he took away some of the fables, but neglected to put all the facts in their place…leaving a dreaded vacant uncertainty. I think of the stories I have been told and the stories I have told myself, of whiskey and talking with friends, and how this oral history of distillers, reps and bartenders is a healthy cocktail of spirits, truth and tall tales…then I remember a joke Bernie makes… “A barrel without liquid is like me on Saturday night…it loses its integrity.”
If you asked the current roster of bartenders and apprentices what bottle stands tall and exemplar on the backbar…that would quickly be answered with Heaven Hill distilled Rittenhouse, Straight Rye Whisky…Bottled in Bond. A whiskey that is the spirit of one distiller at one distillery and one distilling season. It is composed of the same spirit and the same class of materials. It is trust in a truly singular expression of that distillers skill that must be bottled and stored in government bonded warehouses for a minimum of four years…supervised by treasury agents. The act also prohibits any fuckery of condition or character, nothing can be put in and not a damn thing can be taken out save for water to reduce proof…no less than 100 Proof or 50% alcohol per volume. I am also a card carrying…certified…Bonded Bartender now thanks to Bernie Lubbers.
After the discourse and tasting at Chambar, feeling a little more than tight, I headed to my night shift at Pourhouse. Imbued with whiskey, but stoop shouldered with the burden of proof. Bernie and a supplier named Vito, sat down at the hundred and twenty year old reclaimed Douglas Fir bar. They slipped into a conversation amidst the gaslights and Howlin’ Wolf. I made them a cocktail that is a marriage of Heaven Hill whiskey and Pourhouse style decided upon by myself and “The White Wizard,” Christopher Flett…The pre-prohibition classic, the Brooklyn. An elegant manhattan variation made of Rittenhouse, dry vermouth, Maraschino and Amer Picon (something we have to make in-house). On what was a rare quiet night I was allowed to leave work early (letting an apprentice take over to beef up his skill set) and sat down for a burger and an Elijah Craig Old Fashioned, my second favourite bourbon next to Corner Creek. As I left, headed home for the evening, I shook hands with Vito and Bernie, thanked Bernie again for the schooling…and he thanked me for being a champion of Heaven Hill whiskey. He told me to wait and reached into his pocket to give me his business card…a poker chip, a symbol of skill and chance tethered together, much like the history of American Whiskey, and much like my career as a bartender.
-Derek Sterling Boone