One thing I love about American whiskey is how regional it can be. Bottles I can find in New York I can’t find in Tennessee, and vice versa. And that’s true at both ends of the spectrum. For craft, it’s inevitable: small distilleries can only make so much product, and they’re going to sell it locally, where they can tend to their accounts and do as much free advertising as possible.
But it’s also true on the Big Whiskey side. A few weeks ago I was down in Blacksburg, Va. visiting my folks. One day I popped over to the local ABC and picked up two bottles of bourbon: Reservoir, a craft whiskey, and Ancient Ancient Age, made by Sazerac at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort. As far as I know, neither of them has ever graced a New York liquor store shelf.
Reservoir is a bourbon made by a tiny craft distillery in Richmond that also makes a rye and a wheat. According to its website, Reservoir is available in just three states (well, two and a half: Virginia, DC and Maryland). Though I’ve seen it on Virginia shelves before, I don’t know much about the whiskey or the guys who make it. I haven’t tried the stuff yet, but it looks promising, and notes will follow soon after I sample it.
Meanwhile, there’s the wonderfully named Ancient Ancient Age, and its younger brother Ancient Age. AAA is not just cheap – the 750 ml bottle cost a bit over a quarter of what the 375er of Reservoir cost – but it’s just about the best cheap bourbon on the shelf, alongside Very Old Barton. Like VOB, AAA is widely available across the Upper South, but it simply does not exist up in these parts.
And that’s not just because New York is far from Kentucky. We have Old Williamsburg, the Manischewitz of whiskey, which is one of the only certified kosher bourbons and is almost impossible to find outside the greater New York area. The Old Williamsburg brand is owned by Royal Wine Corp. of Bayonne, N.J., but is sourced from an undisclosed distillery, which means somewhere in Kentucky or Indiana (most likely Heaven Hill, by the taste of it, but don’t hold me to it). Then there’s Fleischmann’s, a rye made by Sazerac at its Barton 1792 distillery and sold exclusively in northern Wisconsin.
There’s something wonderfully anachronistic about this sort of regional specialties, especially when whiskey is so trendy in urban corners. I live in a city where I can get sea urchin flown from Japan, but I can’t find a bottle of low-end bourbon that sits on every liquor store shelf in the Mid-South.
And of course that’s true for lots of products, not just whiskey. A few years ago the writer Steve Almond, in his book “Candyfreak,” documented how regionally limited many candy brands are: Goo-Goo Clusters, out of Nashville, are vanishingly hard to find outside the state. Yet we think of mass-produced, wrapped candy as one of the archetypes of mass, national culture.
There are vanishingly few regional cultures left in this country, and maybe it’s a bit pathetic that their last vestiges are often found in consumer goods. But at least it’s another reason to love whiskey, and to pray against the day that Ancient Ancient Age appears in New York liquor stores. Clay Risen