America's Drink Gets an Asian Makeover


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Bourbon may be "America's native spirit" (as mandated by Congress in 1964), but it has devoted following overseas as well, particularly in East Asia. Until recently, some major American distilleries, like Kentucky Bourbon Distillers and award-winning Four Roses, have done a majority of their business abroad. For a bourbon devotee like myself, this makes travel to East Asia (not necessarily by me) especially exciting. I keep a wish list of export-only bourbons, just in case someone I know is headed to Seoul or Bangkok or points between.

On the rare occasions I make it over myself, I set aside several hours for scouring liquor stores and duty-free shops. Last September I was passing through Singapore when I found something unexpected: Jim Beam with Port.

In the United States, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace have experimented with bourbon finished in wine barrels, a la many scotch expressions, to mixed success. (Woodford failed miserably; Buffalo Trace produced a fantastic bourbon finished in cabernet franc barrels). But this was something different and completely unheard of: the unlikely and, to an American palate, unwise blending of two dissimilar beverages. I had to try it.

Getting the bottle home was a challenge. I was connecting through Frankfurt, where I was to be re-run through security, American-style, before leaving for JFK (because, really, what does Singapore know about security?). Any liquids would be confiscated. Since I had already checked my luggage, it was too late to stow the bottle in my bag. This is, apparently, a common and frustrating problem for American travelers. But what I could do, I realized, was stick the bottle in my carry-on, then check the carry-on at the gate. Mission accomplished, and a tip for anyone stuck in similar circumstances.

This was something different and completely unheard of. I had to try it.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not. The syrupy sweetness of the port completely overwhelmed the delicate bite of the bourbon. Jim Beam is a perfectly fine drink, but a little weak and undefined for me; that said, I'm not sure any bourbon could have withstood the port's onslaught. The two flavors canceled each other out, producing a sickly sweet, oily bastard child of a liquor.

There was no finish to speak of, just a subtle and slightly revolting aftertaste, like tinnitus of the mouth. Swirling it around on my tongue, I was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics and the inevitable heat death of the universe, when all energy will have been expended and the only thing left is an inert mass of unformed matter. That's what Jim Beam with Port tastes like.

The only upside to my efforts is that I can warn fellow travelers away from the stuff--and also to add a new bottom register to my range of best and worst liquors, a post previously held by an unidentified menthol-flavored schnapps I tried in Montenegro. Consider yourself warned.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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