John Burgin loves a good story. As his family’s unofficial historian, he collects and appreciates family artifacts and anecdotes. He’s interested in everyone else’s stories too, demonstrating an honest interest in getting to know the people and the community around him. It’s engaging and most welcome in a world where the tendency can be to look away from one another. A visit to John and his wife Tracy’s home will find music, laughter, home-cooked food, and great conversation. At these gatherings, John never fails to open and share a bottle of bourbon. I knew John was going to tell me about his passion for our locally famous “juice” (a common term for bourbon I’d not heard before this conversation), but I didn’t anticipate the sentimentality and romanticism that is tied to the experience for him. What item does John love the most? It’s probably the thing that gets the whole experience started: an empty glass, hand-chosen for the occasion.
“I have a friend and mentor named ‘H’ who gave me a terrific piece of advice 10 years ago,” John says. “Give yourself a present every day.” John has embraced this suggestion. “Some days it might be a cheeseburger or a great cup of coffee, but a sip of good bourbon is a true gift to me.” John explained that it all begins with selecting the right glass, and from there, it becomes a sensory experience. He might choose a Glencairn, a glass with a tapered top which is good for sipping bourbon, or perhaps one that displays the seal of a favorite distillery. On special occasions when he’s with a fellow Freemason, John will choose a special glass engraved with that organization’s insignia. He has quite a collection, one of which dates back to 1944 and was given to him by another Freemason who turned 103 years old this year.
“You start with a real glass (no cups!) and a few cubes of clear ice. It has to be clear ice,” John says. “I love the sound as the ice hits the glass, the pop as the bottle opens, and the copper color you see as you pour. I swirl it around and smell the vapor—the essence of what came out of the barrel. After a while, as the ice melts, the bourbon opens up and you get a slightly different flavor. It hits all my senses. But then,” John says, “comes the best part. Conversation and time with friends. A present is better when it’s shared.”
John didn’t always love bourbon or even appreciate it. Years ago, he went on a distillery tour, taking part in the Bourbon Trail for which Kentucky is world-renowned. “You can’t go on a tour and not appreciate where it’s made. I love the smell in the rickhouse, all those wooden beams and barrels. I like the idea that really good bourbon takes time in the barrel. There is no substitute for the aging process. It simply requires time, discipline, and patience,” John says. Great bourbon has its own history. No barrel is exactly the same.
John is a member of The Bourbon Society, which meets monthly at The Henry Clay in downtown Louisville. Although he initially feared it might be a very formal and “stuffy” meeting, John was thrilled to find an interesting and eclectic group of people. He met people from all walks of life who came together to share their love of bourbon, to network, to strike up great conversation, and to learn more about Kentucky distilleries. Time to invite some friends, open the bottle, and pull out the perfect glasses for the occasion. Another story begins…
By Megan S. Willman | Photo by Erika Doll