There is a part of me that veers toward a sort of absurd conceptual purism. I managed the box office for a bar/nightclub in New Orleans for a while, and the conceit of the place was that it was a speakeasy. I was of the opinion that we should have private memberships and people should drink their liquor from teacups and that we should occasionally be raided by the police, and we did none of that, and went home every night disappointed.
In the same way, I sort of want this little project to be nothing but a succession of increasingly rare and increasingly terrible East European liqueurs, until I am finally huddled over from an ulcer caused by drinking illegal fermented mare's milk. "Now this," I would say through gritted teeth, "this, at last, is a Jewish bar!"
And so my impulse is to say that bourbon doesn't belong in a Jewish bar. It's a goyishe drink, so goyishe that you sort of think it must be made in crude stills fashioned from radiators by men in straw hats and tattered overalls smoking a corn cob pipe. It's associated with Kentucky and was supposedly invented by Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, and all of this sounds like the setup to an Appalachian folk song and not anything Jewish.
But I am here to tell you, the Jews had a hand in the making of bourbon. Some of it was through work as liquor wholesalers, which has a long and mostly undocumented Jewish history in the United States. There was, for example, Loeb, Bloom, & Co. in Paducah, Kentucky, who were active in the region in the 1870s and helped open the market for bourbon distillers. But Jews weren't simply in the bourbon trade as merchants. A German Jew named Isaac Bernheim graduated from working as a bookkeeper at Loeb, Bloom, & Co to owning his own distillery. Now, Bernheim is not the sort of name you associate with Kentucky bourbon, even in the 1870s, so Isaac was savvy enough to brand his product with a name that could belong to a mountain roughneck: I.W. Harper.
The bourbon is still around, or, rather, it is back, having been discontinued in the 1990s, which was a bad time for whiskeys. There are a couple of Harper-inspired brands out there, including one called Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey, and I reckon a Jewish bar should have the complete selection. Here in Omaha, I had some trouble tracking down anything but the I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (there is also a 15-year-old version), but that was enough for my purposes.
I had two drinks with the stuff. I started with a bourbon and coke, which is always the drink I use to try a new bourbon, because the Coke is always going to taste the same and so differences in whiskeys really become highlighted. I suppose I could just drink the stuff straight, but what am I, a 1920s bootlegger? Anyway, I.W. Harper is unmistakably bourbon, with a very strong flavor of the charred oak barrels it is aged in. In fact, it's a pungent enough bourbon that it overpowered the Coke flavor a bit, and I started feeling guilty about making such a declasse drink with such a bold liquor.
So I also got a Manhattan, which is a decidedly upscale drink, supposedly having been invented for Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill. And I.W. Harper makes an excellent Manhattan, blending well with the drink's other ingredients, sweet vermouth and bitters. I usually have my Manhattans with rye whiskey, I suppose because everything in the whole god damn world has to taste like a deli sandwich to me, but I.W. Harper makes a really enjoyable Manhattan, with a strong but enormously palatable flavor.
I wanted to make a cocktail designed by a Jewish bartender, but so far my research hasn't been all that forthcoming, and it doesn't help that the origins of most classic cocktails are often shrouded in myth. There is one fellow, Frank Meier, who I will write about in a future entry, who was the bartender at the Paris Ritz, invented a drink called the Bee's Knees, and was apparently a spy, but he doesn't seem to have made any bourbon cocktails. I found a site that suggests infusing bourbon with apricot and then rimming the glass with poppy seeds to make an alcoholic hamantaschen, which seems ingenious to me, but I have not tried it and it might be terrible.
There's also a drink called the Jewish Bulldozer, which is a mix of bourbon, club soda, and cream of coconut, and I don't know what to say about this drink. It doesn't seem to actually be Jewish in any way and I can't find any provenance for the drink, and I am afraid, like the Irish Car Bomb, that it may be a drink of extreme poor taste, as, deliberately or not, it seems to reference the death of Rachel Corrie, and I am not of the opinion that that complicated and tragic international politics makes for a very good cocktail name.
I am instead of the opinion that, if a Jewish bar is to stock a Jewish bourbon, its cocktails should reflect on the distinct Jewish experience in the American south. A classic bourbon cocktail is the mint julep, which combines bourbon, powdered sugar, water and mint, and is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. I think it would be very easy to create a Jewish bar version of this with I.W. Harper. Offhand, I would switch out the water for seltzer, and I might consider using both sugar and cinnamon in the drink to give it a hint of kugel.
I would call it the Art Sherman Julep, after the Jewish horse trainer who won the Kentucky Derby in 2014. That's how you name a cocktail.