Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Masked Drinker's Guide to the Astor Center Bourbon and Bacon Expo

Ladies and gentlemen, this past week I enjoyed a little slice of paradise. As if by astral projection, I found myself in a place beyond the pleasures of we mortal ken. Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, Heaven, Nirvana (yes, I know that one doesn’t really fit, shut up you pedant)--they all have a new companion, a new equivalent: the Bacon and Bourbon Expo at Astor Center in Manhattan.

I signed up for the Center’s mailing list years ago and consequently, as I have with all other things I sign up for, ignored everything they sent me. That is until last month when I saw those two magical, lovely words in a subject heading. Either one would have given me pause. But both? Holy fucking shit. I was in.

As I strolled up to the event, there was a line out the door. In a moment of panic I nearly began pummeling those more timely attendees ahead of me, but then I noticed the line was moving at a brisk pace. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I had tried to keep my hopes reasonable. I needn’t have, because the night was better than my meager mind could have imagined.

I walked around in awe, the smell of bacon thick in the air like an aphrodisiac for my mouth. Many brands of whiskeys and bourbons had stations set up for tastings. It was about at this moment that I ran into fellow staffer Ladyboy. Nearly overwhelmed by the surroundings and sensations, we banded together as a Two Man Team of Awesome. We first went to the table staffed by some folks from New York’s most famous secret cocktail-and-hot-dog speakeasy, PDT. They had previously infused some bottles of Four Roses bourbon with bacon and were pouring samples of a Bacon Old Fashioned. Maple syrup subbed in for sweet vermouth and it was pretty fucking delicious. We agreed it was a perfect way to start the evening.

Just then two plates of bacon passed by and we pounced upon them like hungry lions on the African plain. The first was a simple applewood from D’artangan with a nice sweetness laced in with the familiar savory base. Ladyboy scoffed a bit at the next offering, an uncured wild boar bacon. Our smirks ended as soon as those lovely bits of fried boar fat crossed our tongues. The fat in the bacon was smoother and creamier than any bacon I’ve ever had, and yet gave no lingering feeling of greasy regret.

We switched back to bourbon at this point and decided to start at what we figured was the bottom of the ladder. Wild Turkey isn’t a brand that you hear about much once you’re out of school. Once you can afford a bourbon that a) tastes nice, b) doesn’t punch your tongue with hate, and c) still is quite potent, you kind of leave Turkey aside for desperate times, like airport bars with no other choice. Well, the brand had brought their more upscale products and who am I to turn down free bourbon? We started, as recommended, with the American Spirit. A step up from old 101 (“Kickin’ chicken,” as we called in back in Kentucky, “it’ll put your dick in the dirt.”), it still had a strong, bitter start and the familiar sweeter tones of bourbon never dropped by. To me, it seemed more like a straight whiskey than a bourbon. Next we sampled the Rare Breed. This was definitely a step up, with that sweetness finally showing through yet still quite strong. We decided to wait to sample the American Honey, which the friendly rep described as a “dessert drink.”

Whiskey palettes sufficiently aroused (is Wild Turkey the fluffer of the nice bourbon tasting world?), we moved on to the Tuthilltown Spirits table. The charming rep at this table did little, unfortunately, to alleviate my natural suspicion of bourbons not made in Kentucky. People, my home state has very little over which it can be proud. Has there ever been a sports highlight reel without that goddam last minute shot Christian Laetner made at the NCAA finals? Basically we have the Derby and we have bourbon. So forgive me if I seem a bit proprietary here. Anyway, we started with the corn whiskey which is sweet and basically exactly what you’d expect: a commercial, nicer moonshine. Ladyboy remarked that it smelled more like tequila and he’s not off-base. Shine’s a purer whiskey, clear an without oak or caramel character. Their Baby Bourbon was next and you’ll forgive me for describing it as immature. It had the characteristic tastes of bourbon, but they weren’t rounded or fully formed. This was probably my least favorite bourbon of the night. Their Four Grain Bourbon was a marked improvement, but one I still eye with xenophobic caution.

I must interject with something amazing I heard at this point in the evening. A middle-aged couple in front of us at the Tuthilltown stand conversed with the rep. At one point the woman said, “Yes, we attend ALL the rum events.” How many rum events are there? Are they nautical by nature? We from the World of Whiskey are frightened and weary of these Rum Folk. Have we any rum people in our readership here? Perhaps we can learn from each other and forestall the imminent Booze Wars.

Actually, the crowd at this event was pretty weird. It was a definite odd mix of people. There were two or three groups of pressed-shirt middle-aged douchebags. You know the guys, they chew on cigars in public and learn about scotch so they can talk about scotch with other douchebags who learned about scotch to talk about scotch. They had a decent showing. Then there was the segment that looked more like the audience for a Weezer concert. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that nerdy white guys and their Asian girlfriends can find common ground in booze and pork-based products, but it took some getting used-to.

At this point, a talk was about to begin in the classroom. We moseyed on over and stood in the back. A few more bacons were passed around including a Hickory smoked number Ladyboy described as “hamtastic” for its sweet, glazed-ham flavor. A poem was read, the real meaning of “uncured” was revealed. (Apparently if it’s marked “uncured” bacon is still cured; but the government only recognizes select, very artificial methods of doing so. “Un”cured bacon is cured, but in a more natural, better way.) Pitmaster Scott Smith of R.U.B. in Chelsea talked about how he cures his own pork belly slabs and makes a deep fried bacon appetizer out of it. While that slab was beautiful and the appetizer sounded amazing, most of my attention was focused on the thick-cut wonder pictured here in full Captain-Kirk-looks-at-a-hot-alien fuzziness. That and the Evan Williams single barrel being passed around . . .who knew Evan Williams made something good?

As some woman in the audience then started to argue with the host about the proper pan to fry bacon in, Ladyboy and I escaped the room to sample more whiskeys. I made a beeline for the Buffalo Trace table. They make my absolute favorite bourbon, George T. Stagg. And while they didn’t have it that night (hell, it’s hard to find in the best liquor stores in New York, so limited is the batch), I had been wanting to try their other offerings. The actual Buffalo Trace bourbon was very tasty, probably the best straight bourbon I had all night. The vanilla undertones complimented rather than contrasted the sharpness from the high alcohol content. It really was like Stagg’s younger brother. The Eagle Reserve, however, was a bit disappointing. It fell flat . . .it’s definitely a nice bourbon, but I should perhaps have tried it before the Trace.

Our last table of whiskeys for the night were actually not bourbons at all. Frankly, I’d avoided it all night but was now at the point where I was brave enough to try. See, I can recognize other good whiskeys. I’ve had a scotch or two I could tell was just fantastic. But I didn’t like it. I’ve had so much bourbon for so long that other whiskeys just taste . . .off to me. So close and yet not quite there. But, hey, what the hell. I’d recently found a mixed drink involving Rittenhouse so how bad could their table be?

We first tried a real oddity, the Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. This was a weird whiskey, let me tell you. I’m sure it has its fans, but it is not for me. There was a slight licorice flavor to the finish that really troubled me. Not my favorite flavor profile, that. So it was with no small amount of dread that I continued on to the Rittenhouse Rye. My dread faded as soon as it hit my tongue. This was a good whiskey. Ladyboy and I agreed there was a flavor we couldn’t place. “It’s definitely in my spice rack,” he said. Despite the mysterious flavor, we both enjoyed it quite a bit. It officially became the first non-bourbon whiskey I’ve ever liked enough to want more. Luckily, they also had their 23-Year aged rye. Whereas 23-year-old humans more often than not are simple, undeveloped, and annoying, apparently their rye equivalents are wise old masters, the sort that might teach Kwai Chang Caine how to walk on paper without wrinkling it. The flavor was complex with at least three layers, each quite delicious. The small sample we had wasn’t enough to quite discern each one, but I look forward to trying later on.

After the event ended, Ladyboy and I ended up going back to the office to get some reports and filing done. Well, and to have a couple of wind-down beers as well. Rachel was there, having been polishing up a Wine profile, and as we excitedly described our night to her it became clear just how magical the evening was. Bourbon and bacon are two things we sometimes take for granted; I mean, they’re almost always good enough. But when they’re great, a sublime enlightenment occurs. Bacon may have originated elsewhere and bourbon may just be adapted from Scots-Irish whiskeys but there was something beautifully American that night. The sort of America known not for supporting third-world despots, but for being where Batman, Snake-Eyes, and the A-Team can team up to help out a school besieged by zombies; later on, they have pancakes.

God bless America.

photos by the Masked Drinker


  1. You do have a rum drinker among your readership. Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Anos is as good as it gets for rum.

  2. I expect to be notified of such events. OF all the selfish, gluttonous acts. And then to just rub it in my face on this blog. Have you no shame?