It was the first of a lot of things: my first trip to Chicago, my first chance to see Wrigley Field. It was the first time I had beers with author Michael Jackson; it was my first authentic deep-dish pizza and late-night Chicago Red Hot. But most importantly, it was my first taste of bourbon barrel-aged beers.
I can’t recall whether it was from Goose Island, Flossmoor Station or Mickey Finn’s, but I remember vividly how that first sip transported me to the Christmas of my youth where my aunts and uncles would all sit around nursing bourbon and 7UP on ice as children ripped open boxes of toys from Santa.
My parents hosted the party each year, and while they were never huge booze hounds, each holiday season offered them the opportunity to procure a new handle (1.75 liters) of Jim Beam for celebrating. On the morning of the celebration, my father poured the first cup and a half into his legendary eggnog while the rest was reserved for drinks. Ours wasn’t a large family, so a handle of Beam lasted until next Thanksgiving, and opening the Christmas bottle was a special moment.
Apart from the sheer size of the bottle, what I remember most is the smell and taste of those drinks. Bourbon is a powerful spirit. Even as a child, I was able to nose sweet caramel, bakers vanilla and the woody notes that erupted from the bottle. For me, the bourbon was always more aromatic then the Christmas candles flickering above the fireplace. But truth be told, I really never liked the way bourbon smelled or tasted.
But Chicago changed the way I felt about bourbon. It was the first time that bourbon stopped being associated solely with the family gatherings. That Saturday morning in 1998, I was staring at a flight of beers aged in bourbon and whiskey casks. As the memories of Christmas past flooded my senses, suddenly the caramel seemed perfect, the vanilla more Tahitian and the spirited wood flavors as warming as the fireplace we used to snuggle up to.
Each new glass of beer was a roller coaster of expression. Squinting across the table, I could almost see a veil of ethanol leaping from the glasses as the beers tried to breathe. These beers were that hot. I wasn’t sure it was even safe to drink some of these beers and, while not a smoker, I was praying no one else would feel the need to light up next to me.