Spring is here and beer and bourbon are flowing at The West End Tavern, a great place to start if you’re looking for a stiff drink and a piece of meat in Boulder. With 25 taps and 75 whiskeys on the menu, ordering can be a bit overwhelming. Luckily for you, we’re here to walk you through it. We had the opportunity to meet one of the coolest folks in the distilling business and learned a little more about the drink so intertwined some say ‘you can’t talk about history without talking about bourbon.’
One such employee is Bernie Lubbers aka the “Whiskey Professor”. On loan for the evening from Heaven Hill Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, Bernie was our guide on what it takes to become the second largest producer of Kentucky Bourbon worldwide, and the sixth largest producer of spirits worldwide, with brands ranging from pomegranate liqueur to the flagship Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Black Label), which Bernie drinks in his sleep.
Not really – but it’s possible. We didn’t ask.
Let’s start with a little background on bourbon. American whiskey is made from corn and aged brand new charred American Oak barrels. Bourbon whiskey is 51% corn, is richer in body and tastes sweet, while rye whiskey is 51% rye, is dry and crisp and tastes spicy or pepper-y. The birthplace of bourbon as we know it today was in Bourbon County, which was named after the French House of Bourbon for its gratitude for Louis XVI’s assistance during the American Revolutionary War.
In 1792 Bourbon County would become the state of Kentucky, a state which now produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. Bernie (as backed by Wikipedia) attributes the birth of this high-proof liquor to Baptist minister Elijah Craig, who is the namesake for one of Heaven Hill’s top-selling bourbons, Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
One of the state’s first producers of Kentucky Bourbon following Prohibition was Heaven Hill, which has brought together two families since 1935. The Shapira family were the original investors who hired Master Distiller Joe Beam (and later his son, Harry), as well as a slew of other family members who would work at Heaven Hill Distillery for decades. The distillery, known for producing a wealth of spirits, namely Bourbon, Rye, Corn and Wheat Whiskeys, has survived the worst distillery fire in Kentucky history, the Great Depression, and many many more highs and lows in the industry, Bernie says, due to company owners’ diversification in the 1950s and 1960s. When other bourbon producers were selling out to investors, Bernie said Heaven Hill grew its brands to include brandy, rum, vodka, a whole bunch of liqueurs, there is even a tequila in the works.
For a few lucky patrons, we survived a night of abundance and pleasure, sipping on the fruits of decades worth of labor, sampling whiskey that went into barrels 10 years ago, discussing American history with strangers – this Joie de Vivre is what the French, who inspired bourbon whiskey’s production in America, were talking about.
The meal started with Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon paired with a deviled egg with pork. The single barrel is a premium whiskey that was aged in a single barrel, whereas the main line of Evan Williams is a blend of barrels. 86 proof, this sipping bourbon was a real treat to taste. It was aged anywhere from 12-14 years in a single barrel, which only enhances the vanilla and caramel notes of the bourbon, while going down ultra smooth.
But, the real pairing was between the bourbon and the beer taster, which was Tallgrass Brewing’s Bourbon Barrel Buffalo Sweat oatmeal cream stout. Aged in bourbon barrels, it complemented the bourbon finer than oysters and champagne. Each sip brought more vanilla from the bourbon barrel and created a deeper layer than corn-based liquor aged in oak.
Diners dove into dishes while Bernie explained that Heaven Hill spends $52 million in barrels alone each year, partially due to a law that prohibits the reuse of bourbon barrels in production, so there is a constant influx of barrels and reselling of barrels to third parties such as Scotland (which doesn’t have any law preventing the use of second-run barrels in production). Distillery representatives even explained how 6th-generation Heaven Hill Master Distiller Emeritus “Parker” Beam, who was recently diagnosed with ALS, is the inspiration behind Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey, a brand that focuses on small-batch, ultra-premium malt whiskey. Parker’s Heritage releases a new small-batch recipe each year, and proceeds from each bottle sold will go donate to ALS research.
As the evening progressed, so did the proof of the drinks, and some became mere representations of the diversity of spirits use in cocktails. The Larceny Straight Kentucky Bourbon mule was spectacular and it highlighted the crisp clean, slightly sweet bourbon, while the Rittenhouse Rye Old Fashioned displayed the spice-forward punch of rye whisky. Strong and flavor-forward, the cocktails at West End proved to provide exactly what you would expect from a premium cocktail. If I had to choose one drink, I would start with a bourbon/beer pairing and end with a Larceny Bourbon mule. Sauce-y meats accompanied sauce-y drinks, there was even a hot sauce that was bourbon barrel aged with a little whiskey left in the barrel just for fun, I was told.
While the dishes progressed, so did our thirst for knowledge of everything Kentucky Bourbon. Pours accompanied deliciously executed, pit-cooked barbecued meats, served with cornbread muffins, deviled eggs and fried cherry pie – a feast fit for third- and fourth-generation-European immigrants at home in the new world who were beginning to lay the foundation of today’s history and culture. The food was satisfying and delicious, and the staff was courteous and attentive. Overall it was an incredible evening. (We aren’t just saying this because our meal was complimentary.)
Oh, and Bernie’s comments on recent news articles reporting a possible shortage of Kentucky Bourbon due to its growing popularity: “That’s all bullshit,” he says. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Photos (except for Bernie Lubbers’ photo) copyrighted to Rachel Worthy Dugas.