Aemon’s wearing a button up shirt with tiny blue flowers on it; it’s a delicately charming juxtaposition to the colorful tattoos that run the length of both of his arms and the black gauges that adorn both of his earlobes. He’s always friendly; every time we go to Centre Park, he greets us with a smile as we take our usual seats at the bar.
Aemon was a bartender in Kentucky for ten years before venturing up North and eventually ending up at Centre Park Grill. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that decade working in bars in the Bluegrass State prepared him for tonight’s bourbon tasting event. After all, authentic Kentucky bourbon is the stuff of legend.
A legend about which Aemon is more than happy to educate us, as we get ready to sample seven different bourbons and whiskies over the course of two luscious hours. Armed with plentiful notes, he weaves around the tables spinning tales of limestone water and freshly-charred barrels. Al Capone requesting Templeton Rye – or as he put it, “the good stuff” – when he was in prison.
Vanilla, caramel, leather. Dark, light, sweet, smooth. All of these things, in a tiny little glass.
I excitedly text a picture of the bourbon selection to a friend of mine; he’s visited Kentucky specifically for the bourbon and I’m kicking myself for not thinking to invite him tonight. He’s pleasantly surprised that Town Branch is on the menu; he doesn’t know of many restaurants in Maryland that carry it.
I like the taste of the Town Branch; it’s smooth, and rather gentle – I can see why they chose to start us off with this one. Chef/Owner Jim has paired it with a corn and country ham fritter served with a zesty remoulade and daikon radish microgreens.
Larry, a master-sommelier-in-training and Taster’s Guild of Maryland representative, pops up next to our table and tells us to chew our bourbon. For a moment, I just stare at him, puzzled – what is this extremely cheerful man with a perfectly manicured mustache talking about? But he doesn’t waver, and again urges us to chew the bourbon; literally take a little into our mouths and make chewing motions. “It gets it all over the inside of your mouth.” He’s completely right – it’s an entirely different taste, with multiple levels and notes to it.
Next up is Elijah Craig Small Batch. I really like this one, though I don’t know why. It’s definitely darker than the Town Branch, but not overly so. Jim’s made us some delicious Peruvian chicken wings with an avocado chimichurri sauce. We ask him how he got the wings so crispy. “Oven, grill, then fry at the end,” he tells us. I love how chefs say stuff like this, with such a practiced confidence. You can tell that Jim really, really likes to cook.
I notice that when I swirl the last of my Elijah Craig in my glass – yes, swirling is also encouraged, just like you do with wine – I catch the unmistakable scent of caramel. Maybe because the bourbon had more room to move around the glass, opening up its flavors? Ah, the wonders of nature – liquid meets air meets little receptors in the nose.
This night really is becoming an experience.
Aemon tells us that Elijah Craig was a Baptist minister, and is also known as the father of bourbon. That little factoid elicits a round of knowing nods from the table in the back, which up until this point has been pretty quiet. You can tell they’re starting to get into it.
Buffalo Trace is next. Right off the bat, I notice how sweet it is. It’s not a sugary sweetness, per se – more of a lightness, a high note. We’re up in the clouds with this one. Luckily, we’ve got smoky, spicy shrimp and grits with Tasso ham and andouille sausage to go with it, which helps bring us back down to earth.
Templeton Rye is up next. Al Capone’s favorite. It’s so low. It almost scratches my throat with its earthiness. Where the Buffalo Trace had me plucking at the stars, Templeton’s got me down in the ditches. I suddenly remember that the rat in Charlotte’s Web was named Templeton. I wonder if E.B. White was a bourbon drinker. This is a rough one. Luckily, Jim’s given us candied bacon to take the edge off.
I’m keenly aware that I’ve got bourbon in one hand and bacon in the other. I’m so happy.
I tell Jim I want this bacon crumbled over pancakes. He trumps my idea (as he should – he’s a chef, after all) by suggesting it could go right in the batter. Waffle batter. I concur, but secretly I still want some crumbled on top – for the crunch. Things are starting to get warm and fuzzy.
A strip of filet mignon on a wooden skewer appears in front of me, taking a dip in more of that creamy avocado chimichurri. It’s perfectly cooked, nice and chewy. Chew the bourbon. Chew the steak. We’ve moved on to the High West whiskey now – it’s a bourbon/rye blend. Aemon tells us that High West is a ski in-ski out distillery out in Utah.
I joke with my companion, who works part time as an Uber driver, that she could Uber on skis and call it Skuber. This might be the bourbon talking.
The table in the back has moved on from knowing nods and emits a raucous round of laughter. Everything is happier in this moment. It’s hard to believe we still have two rounds to go.
I.W. Harper is the spirit that’s now in front of me. Larry and Aemon tell us to take a sip now, then let it sit in the glass for five or ten minutes, and the taste will completely change. Like magic! Aemon says he figured that out by sheer accident when he got sidetracked one day and his drink was left on its own to commiserate with the air around it.
Being told to wait five minutes to take our next sip starts us on a discussion about how no one has patience anymore! There’s just no patience! When was the last time a kid had to go on a long car trip and just wait for it to be over? No patience, I tell you! The Google generation! We munch on our salmon with sriracha sauce and then we drink our I.W. again and I can’t tell too much of a difference. Maybe I should try this again when it’s not my sixth drink of the evening.
Dessert is here! It’s a bourbon caramel flan with a housemade Luxardo cherry on top. It’s paired with a house-infused cherry and cocoa whiskey. Everything is so sweet. This night is sweet. Life is sweet.
Life should always have a cherry on top.
On the way home, I correctly remember how to multiply fractions. In my head. Bourbon has made me better at math. I’ve had a fun-filled journey through history and a healthy dose of friendship and frivolity, all fueled by exactly five-and-a-quarter-ounces of bourbon on what could have been, would have been, a typical, boring Wednesday night. But instead, it was far, far from that.