Why Are Local Booze Slingers So Ignorant About America's Drink?

I earned my culinary education south of the Mason-Dixon Line, so my insufferable food snobbery centers on slaw dogs and sorghum syrup.

And bourbon. Especially bourbon.

While I'm not a stickler for fancy, small-batch bourbon -- I think Evan Williams' Black Label is terrific -- I do care more than I should about mash bills and distillers' pedigrees. I've checked out the farms that supply corn to Maker's Mark, and sought out coopers who help bend staves for bourbon barrels. I believe bourbon is as American as jazz, and way more American than apple pie.

I certainly don't expect every bartender and server I encounter to share my gusto for corn whiskey, but I wish beverage professionals had a slightly better handle on the genre.

At almost every local restaurant where I've asked about the bourbon selection, I've been told about Jack Daniels. Jack Daniels has its charms, but being bourbon isn't one of them: It's a Tennessee whiskey, which means it's charcoal-filtered.

I know I'm being shrill and nitpicky here. So what if a friendly server assumes my interest in bourbon means I'd be equally happy drinking Jameson or Crown Royal? Restaurant workers aren't sneakily pouring lesser brown liquors in my glass and then hoping I don't notice: They're just not clear on what constitutes bourbon (There are various proofing requirements, but the shorthand version is more than 51 percent corn; aged in new, charred oak barrels.)

What I find disappointing is few food and beverage pros would make the same overarching mistakes about wine. When customers ask for a red Bordeaux, servers don't blithely suggest a California Merlot. They get the appellation thing, while whiskey definitions seem to elude them.

And that's a shame, because corn whiskey is integral to the story of American drink. Eating and serving local doesn't just mean buying from a nearby farmer: It connotes pride in a region's handiwork. Bourbon really is our "nation's native spirit," as press materials are fond of putting it, and restaurant servers ought to know about it.

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