June 17, 2016 § 29 Comments
By Shelley Blanton-Stroud
I fidgeted in the lobby of an arty Louisville hotel, waiting for the limousine that would take me on an eight-hour bourbon distillery ride, beginning at Buffalo Trace, maker of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon.
Though my maiden name is Blanton, I’ve no evidence of relation to old-timey master distiller Albert Bacon Blanton. But I come from Dust Bowl Okies who beat it out of Texas for Bakersfield. And they had outlaw ancestors who beat it out of Kentucky for Texas. So I’d come to believe Albert’s 93-proof blood ran through my veins.
(This, in spite of my being the type of person who mixes her Blanton’s with sweet Vermouth, bitters, Luxardo cherries, and a drizzle of cherry syrup and serves it in a darling vintage glass. Obviously, straight-drinking Albert would have reason beyond DNA to deny me from on high.)
While I waited for the driver, I wrote a bitter journal entry about how I hated the novel I’d begun writing three years before, at age fifty-one, which was stupidly late to start, I thought. Fifty-one’s not when you learn to be a writer. Fifty-one’s when you investigate collagen therapy and fecal implants.
Mostly I hated my obsessive-compulsive process, like I was some rough-drafting Sarah Winchester, forever building crazy rooms in a mystery house no one but me would live in.
My husband would nudge me. “Almost done yet?”
“Soon,” I’d say.
Friends didn’t ask, assuming I’d quit some time back in the awkward years since I’d pronounced—ta-da!—that I was writing. Their radio silence annoyed me too.
It wasn’t just non-writers who made me defensive. I’d been to conferences where nubile stripper/MFAs described the intoxication of writing fast, loose, organic, making me feel even worse about my remedial, doltish process. Making me feel sober, teetotalling.
“Plodder!” I wrote in my journal. “If the novel doesn’t happen naturally, without all this middle-class, middle-management methodology, it isn’t worth writing at all.”
I was ready to burn it.
Then my black-suited driver, sweaty from the Louisville sidewalk, opened the lobby door and said in a Southern baritone, “You’re gonna learn a lot today, little lady.”
Eyes were rolled.
An hour later, a sixty-something tour guide in a snug black tee led a couple dozen of us between two hundred-year-old stone and brick buildings, telling the Blanton’s story in a voice scarred by smoke.
She said first they mash corn, rye and malted barley with Kentucky water that has passed so slowly through limestone that all the earth’s bitter iron taste is gone. Then they add yeast and mash from a previous batch—sour mash—and wait for it to ferment.
I took nine months to research my novel’s depression-era period (books, photographs, newspapers), place (the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, south-of-Market San Francisco, a Berkeley hillside), artifacts (tractors, jitneys, printing presses), sounds (Panhandle dialect, swing-slang, hobo tunes). Mashed it up with family lore, watched it bubble.
They distill the fermented mash, she said, in a column still and then a pot-still, turning the mash into pure spirit, which they call white dog.
Then I wrote fast, once-through. What would be ruined when my main character exploded? What would be left in the rubble? What was the story about?
She said they move the distilled white dog to newly charred Kentucky oak barrels, which give it color and flavor from the caramelized sugar in the char. It sits in one barrel for nine years, each barrel particular, reflecting the sun, soil, slope, where the wood has grown.
I slowed then to get a tomato leaf’s piney stickiness, the proper clink of falling lead matrices, the salty flavor of a wrong kiss. Things like that.
My tour guide said Blanton’s is only aged in the metal-clad Warehouse H, which transfers heat more quickly than brick, aging spirit faster, so it soaks deep into the oak in daytime, and retreats in cooler evenings. It sits farthest from the Kentucky River, causing great temperature swings. They only take Blanton’s from the middle section of Warehouse H. “Location matters,” she said. “Materials matter.”
I wrote in specific places—the Palace Hotel’s Pied Piper Bar, the edge of a Central Valley field, wet with irrigation, the window seat of a Victorian flat, a worn kitchen table, biscuits baking. With specific tools—unlined, nine by fourteen, Kraft Brown Moleskins, with blue and green Uniball pens. On a desktop, laptop, iPad, in Times New Roman, Arial. As a Word, Scrivener, PDF, Notability document. With a stylus.
In and around Warehouse H, I was overtaken by the smell of orange peel, vanilla, caramel—”the angel’s share,” the tour guide said, the water that evaporates from all those barrels over all that time, so that when it’s done aging each barrel has lost 30% of its volume to the air. It’s intoxicating, what is lost. Almost no bourbon drinker in the world will ever inhale, much less taste, that angel’s share.
I cut thousands of words, cut my family’s facts, its myths. They dissipated, un-tasted, because the story didn’t want them.
Then they withdraw the bourbon by hand, filter and dilute it with more Kentucky water, evening out roughness before bottling.
The voice is still erratic, sometimes emotional, sometimes stoic, not yet itself, the girl still fragmented, in need of smoothing.
“Nine years,” the tour guide said. “That’s how you make a single-barrel bourbon.”
I tasted it. Burnt sugar, caramel, orange, spicy cloves—honey on rust.
What I wanted my book to be.
The tour guide relaxed onto a bench, angel’s share wafting off her clothes and gray-streaked hair, sweet, citrus, bitter. She’s an interesting person, I thought.
“Albert made the single barrel just for himself,” she said. “Never tried to sell it.”
I sipped again, let it run in my veins, easing doubt, turning it into something else.
I had time. The novel was for me. The writing itself was for me. Though I would like to share it, there was no rush. I was making it to drink myself.
Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches college composition in Northern California. Her stories appear in Eunoia Review, Mamalode and, forthcoming, in Soundings Review. She has brought pieces of her novel-in-progress to Bread Loaf, Napa and Squaw Valley writing conferences, where nice people have tried to teach her how to be a fiction writer. She has had less instruction at bourbon tasting, but appears to come to it quite naturally.