“Whether you are sampling bourbon or Scotch or Irish or any of the world’s great whiskies, you are sipping this history and tradition of a culture.” – Susan Reigler
Susan Reigler is a born and bred Kentuckian and author of numerous books on bourbon, including Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide.
Outside of her work writing on bourbon, Susan is also a lecturer and research associate in biology at Indiana University Southeast where she is “investigat[ing] the effects of bourbon warehouse staining on polymorphism in geometrid moths”, a longtime restaurant critic, president of the Bourbon Women Society and judge for the James Beard Foundation Restaurant Awards.
In this Whisky Women interview, she speaks of her love for bourbon, what food pairings you should look to and why she’s not surprised the spirit has become so popular.
How did you first get interested in bourbon?
I was born in Louisville, where one third of the world’s bourbon is made, so it’s always been part of my culture. When I was writing about food and beverages at the daily Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, bourbon was part of my beat. The renewed interest in bourbon started to take off while I was there and I wrote scores of bourbon articles and was able to interview many of the master distillers. One of my best interviews was with the late Booker Noe of Jim Beam. We sat around his oak kitchen table one morning about 10:30 sampling Booker’s Barrel Strength bourbon, which is not what I usually have for brunch!
You’re not only a writer but a biologist. How do the two things fit together?
Whiskey making is all about biology and chemistry. As a biologist I appreciate that there are genetic differences between the different yeast strains that are the sources for different and distinctive aromatics in different brands of bourbon. I think I also look at where distilleries source their corn, rye (or wheat) and barley. I was told, for example, that Woodford Reserve has been getting all of its corn from the same farm in Shelby County, KY since they first started distilling in Versailles. So there is a bit of terroir with bourbon.
You were also a restaurant critic for 15 years. What are some of your favourite bourbon & food matches?
Bourbon is a natural companion to salt-and-smoke cured country ham. The stronger the ham flavour, the more robust bourbon. Neat bourbon is often paired with a good steak, but try a strong bourbon and soda with some traditional Southern dishes such as pork chops or fried chicken. Since good quality sautéed sea scallops have a vanilla character to them, you’d be surprised and pleases at how well a neat bourbon enhances their flavour. Of course, chocolate, caramel, or orange-containing desserts are wonderful with some bourbon on the side, since they bring out those flavours in the whiskey and the vanilla in the bourbon compliments chocolate.
There has been a growing trend in interest in this spirit – has that surprised you?
Having grown up in “Bourbon Country” it is actually surprised me a bit that it took so long for the rest of the world to discover excellent bourbons. The best ones (and they are not necessarily the most expensive ones) are so complex, flavourful, and satisfying that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying them either on their own or in a classic cocktail such as the Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
What do you love most about the bourbon industry?
Everyone who works in it seems so proud of what they do, from the master distillers to the people working in the warehouses and on the bottling lines. I think that pride is in the history and quality of the whiskies. It is a distinctly American product and since 95% of it is made in Kentucky, there’s a strong identification by Kentuckians that this is something we do very, very well that is famous and appreciated around the world.
You studied in England and come back from time to time – do you spend much time visiting distilleries in the UK?
While I do occasionally enjoy a very smoky, peaty Scotch, I’ve never had a chance to visit any of the distilleries in Scotland. Being so familiar with the Kentucky distilleries, I know I would enjoy a tour. But honestly, I am a Real Ale fiend and so I usually seek out and drink ales. I’ve visited the Fuller’s Brewery in London (twice) and Young’s before it moved out of London.
You also head up the society Bourbon Women: what do you think the group does to encourage women to get into this spirit? Why should someone join?
Bourbon Women is all about educating women about bourbon – different flavour profiles, how to drink it, how to use it in cocktails and cooking. It’s also a great time because our members, by the very nature of the organization, are inquisitive, eager to learn, and very savvy. If that sounds like a woman you know, get her to sign up! (N.B.: more info here ladies!)
Do you think more women could or should be involved in whisk(e)y?
I saw an article the other day that said one third of whiskey drinkers in the United States are women. So I think that involvement is well under way! There are women working in the industry at many levels, from public relations, to manufacturing, marketing, and on the distilleries’ tasting panels. There is not yet a woman as a master distiller at a major distillery, though there are a few who own and operate craft distilleries. That would be the next step.
Why should someone who has never sampled whisk(e)y do so?
Whether you are sampling bourbon or Scotch or Irish or any of the world’s great whiskies, you are sipping this history and tradition of a culture. If you enjoy spirits, they are certainly the most flavourful and complex. If someone hasn’t tried whiskey, how does she or he know if they like it? When I was a restaurant critic, I tried dozens of dishes I might not have ordered otherwise and found many new favourites.
What’s one of your favourite memories involving this fabulous spirit?
Ironically, it’s a memory from well before I ever tasted bourbon. My father taught me to play chess and read the Daily Racing Form when I was five years old. His hobby was going to the horse races and when I was a child, before it was given a modern makeover, Churchill Downs had dark old wooden floors and the betting area under the Clubhouse stands (from which we’d watch the races) smelled deliciously of a pure Kentucky perfume of popping popcorn, grilling hot dogs, cigar smoke, and bourbon!