The 21 Club is the most classic sort of Manhattan power restaurant — a place that has served presidents and ambassadors and other horse-owning types; a place that only augmented its strict tie policy, almost mournfully, after practically every other restaurant in town did so. It’s a place where servers wear black bowties and white jackets, where ice clinks mellifluously in glasses, where the wood is dark and the tablecloths are a pristine white. It is, I decided, a place that is downright genteel, a word that, as a New Yorker, is not usually part of my vocabulary.
“Have you ever been to Kentucky?” says Scottie Ellis, a representative of the state’s tourism department, as she shows me to a dining room on the third floor. “Well, as you can see, we make a lot of bourbon.”
Not only can I see it, in samples poised for tasting in trios of stocky glasses at each table setting, I can smell it — genteelness made olfactory, drifting respectably in the air. I order an iced tea and sit down.
“We make 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, and the other 5 percent is not very good,” says Mike Mangeot, Kentucky’s tourism commissioner, dressed in a suit and tie, standing before a banner bearing the visage of a horse with the words “Horseplay encouraged here” above it.
All bourbon is whiskey, Mangeot explains, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon — real, legal bourbon — must meet a litany of requirements, including, but not limited to, being composed of at least 51 percent corn; being aged in new, charred oak barrels; and being bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. Horseplay is emphatically not encouraged when it comes to crafting this all-American spirit.
Bourbon is a big business in Kentucky — and it’s getting bigger. The industry’s workforce doubled between 2012 and 2014, its contribution to the state economy jumped two thirds, and the number of distilleries there tripled. There are more barrels of bourbon sitting around in Kentucky right now than there are people.
One of the oldest distilleries in the state is Woodford Reserve, which has been turning out the good stuff since 1780. And it is good stuff. I try the bourbon, the straight rye whiskey, and the twice-barreled “Double Oaked” bourbon. Chris Morris, Woodford’s master distiller, sporting a navy blazer with gold buttons and a tidy mustache, says the bourbons each contain 212 flavors, among them orange, ginger, maple syrup, tobacco leaf, oak, cedar, almond, and apricot. I can’t confirm all that, but I can say they will probably make you drunk and happy.
Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby — the Kentucky-est of Kentucky events — and for the last 10 years it’s been the key ingredient in a $1,000 mint julep available at the races. This year, Woodford is selling 10 gold-plated cups priced at $2,500 and 90 silver-plated cups at $1,000, proceeds from which will benefit the Wounded Warrior Equestrian Program. They come with gold- and silver-plated straws and — as would seem only just — free refills.
Mint juleps, Morris says, can be traced back hundreds of years to the Crusades, when marauding Catholics, in addition to slaughtering a couple thousand Muslims and Jews, caught onto a local drink made called a “julab,” which was made with water and rose petals. European settlers of America later brought the medicinal drink to Virginia, where it was crafted with rum, among other spirits, and consumed first thing in the morning.
“The evolution stops in Kentucky, because it reached the peak of perfection. Bourbon, sugar and mint — can’t get better than that,” Morris says.
The julep has been the signature Kentucky Derby drink since 1938. And Derby-goers, clearly, are nuts about it: About 127,000 are sold there annually — the $11 variety, not made by Woodhull — requiring 4,000 pounds of mint and untold tons of ice.
This year, Pamela Wiznitzer, a mixologist most recently of the Upper East Side’s Seamstress, is responsible for the très cher version of the popular beverage. Wielding a cocktail shaker, she tells us she makes it using Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, coconut palm sugar syrup, chocolate mint sprigs, and candied orange and lemon slices. Standing before me, the richly brown colored drink is imposing.
So how does a $1,000 mint julep taste? Let’s just say it’s probably the best outcome of the Crusades I can name.