Ode to Bourbon and Coke
I really can’t remember when I first tried a bourbon and Coke, but I do remember the first time I appreciated a bourbon and Coke.
It was one of those brilliant fall afternoons in Scott Stadium. The leaves were changing and rows of University of Virginia boys sporting orange bow ties and blue blazers were swaying arm-in-arm and singing “The Good Ole Song.” As the golden brown liquor flowed from silver flasks into orange plastic cups, blending the oak and vanilla notes of bourbon with the cold sweet caramel fizz of Coca-Cola and crushed ice, I remember wondering if anything would ever be this perfect again.
Bourbon and coke is the perfect Southern drink, that’s for sure, the love child of a sweet bubbly Georgia belle and a high-spirited Kentucky gent. Or perhaps it was a wild eyed country boy from up around Rocky Top. Whomever the baby daddy be, one thing is for sure—the progeny is both beloved and reviled as an enabler of rollicking good times or very poor decisions. Sometimes both.
It’s so part of Southern culture that I find it quite odd how many Southern writers look down their noses at this native son. They wax poetically on and on about the character and the purity of their bourbon and then knock it back neat. That’s how the great Southern writers William Faulkner and Walker Percy preferred their liquid sunshine. Even my favorite southern humorist Julia Reed prefers to sip a 20-year old Pappy van Winkle rather than a spiked Coca-Cola.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a few fingers of good bourbon on the rocks and a high-end Manhattan certainly catches my attention every now and then. That’s why I was intrigued when I stumbled upon a recipe for a “grown up” bourbon and Coke cocktail in an old issue of Garden & Gun magazine. A true bourbon and coke, you know, isn’t a cocktail. It’s a mixed drink. A cocktail requires a more sophisticated manipulation of ingredients than filling a glass with bourbon and adding ice and Coke.
Here’s what you need to create the “reengineered” bourbon and Coke.
¼ cup Coca-Cola
¼ cup sugar
Start by making simple syrup. Bring the ¼ cup of Coca-Cola to a simmer in a very small saucepan. Add the ¼ cup of sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Allow it to cool.
To mix the cocktail, add 2 ounces of bourbon, ¼ ounce of the Coca-Cola syrup and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, then strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
I deemed the genetically modified bourbon and coke just fine. It was very much a Southern twist on a Manhattan with the sweet Coca-Cola syrup substituting for sweet Vermouth.
Was it grown up? Definitely. Truth be told, I felt underdressed while sipping the cocktail. This is a drink one enjoys while wearing a cashmere cable knit crewneck sweater and sitting in an overpriced restaurant talking about golf games and investments. And that, my friends, is wrong.
A bourbon and Coke isn’t formal and it shouldn’t be grown up. A bourbon and Coke belongs to dive bars and to Saturday afternoons. It’s about chicken wings and jukeboxes and sneaking a flask out of a pair of khaki britches to celebrate an amazing touchdown or in some cases a first down. Fans of the orange and blue know what I mean....
What a bourbon and Coke is, is perfection. Here’s to perfection!
More Rich Barnett. Photo by Bill Horton.