Dining With Denise Neil

Bourbon trend wrapping Wichita in big, warm ‘Kentucky hug’

Jennifer Ray, owner of The Monarch in Delano, puts bourbon bottles back on a shelf behind her bar. The Monarch has one of the biggest selection of premium bourbons in the state.
Jennifer Ray, owner of The Monarch in Delano, puts bourbon bottles back on a shelf behind her bar. The Monarch has one of the biggest selection of premium bourbons in the state. The Wichita Eagle

Beer is good. Wine is fine.

But these days, stylish people sip bourbon.

In Wichita, bourbon and whiskey appreciation is a growing grownup pastime, made easier with the rise of bars such as The Monarch and Whiskey Dicks and made more accessible with a long list of bourbon-tasting frequently staged all over town.

Bourbon has become particularly big in Wichita during the past year, said Adam Clary, who is Standard Beverage’s whiskey specialist and is based in Overland Park.

“Before, I was coming down to Wichita once a quarter,” he said. “Now, I’m coming down for events and tastings two or three times a month.”

Just this week, people gathered at Botanica for a big bourbon tasting, and in coming weeks and months, several Wichita bars and restaurants will host bourbon-centered events. The Monarch is planning a bourbon class this spring as well as a bourbon and chocolate pairing event with Cocoa Dolce in February. And Scotch & Sirloin is about to schedule a “Whiskey and Women” event designed especially for female fans of the drink.

Kansas also has become home to a new group of whiskey distillers. Wichita’s David Bahre opened his Wheat State Distilling three years ago, producing bourbon and vodka whiskey made from Kansas wheat, and in December, he opened his own bar at 246 N. Mosley in Old Town. In July, three farmers opened Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City. Their bourbon is aging at the moment and should be ready next year.

The Monarch at 579 W. Douglas is perhaps Wichita’s best-known bourbon bar. Owner Jennifer Ray stocks more than 250 varieties, some aged for up to 18 years. Bourbon drinkers in-the-know frequently gather at the bar to sample its bourbon flights, and it’s not unusual for a fan to pay $40 for a shot of some of the bar’s oldest, highest-end stuff.

When she opened in 2013, focusing on bourbon was a practical decision, Ray said. The space didn’t have much room, so storing lots of kegs and bottles of craft beer was out of the question. Now, her collection of bourbon is the biggest in the state.

“With bourbon, I can buy one bottle and keep it on the shelf, and I can get a lot of bang for my buck with a small footprint,” she said.

It didn’t hurt that bourbon on the rocks had been Ray’s drink of choice since college.

She loves the oak flavor and the feel of the glass in her hand. She loves the bottles. She loves the history. She loves the variety.

But most of all, she loves the way it feels going down.

“I love that warm feeling in my chest,” she said. “That’s my favorite thing – just that feeling of satisfaction when I have my first drink. It just feels so good, so warm and comforting.”

There’s a name for that feeling, Clary said: “The Kentucky hug.”

It’s one of the things bourbon and whiskey fans appreciate most about the drink, he said. They also like the challenge of chasing down hard-to-find bottles and the fact that a shot or two is all you need.

“And the higher the proof, the bigger the Kentucky hug,” he said with a laugh.

So what’s the difference between whiskey and bourbon?

All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons, Clary said. To qualify as a bourbon, a whiskey must meet a list of standards, including having been aged in a new, charred oak barrel. Bourbon also has to be made in the United States – Kentucky is the biggest producer of bourbon and puts out popular brands like Jim Beam.

Bourbon is typically sweeter than other standard whiskeys and is a good place for newbies to start, he said.

And a bar is a good place to figure out which bourbon you like best, Ray said.

“If you’ve never had bourbon before and you want to try some, go to a bar and pay $5 to $10 a shot rather than $30 to $100 for the whole bottle,” she said.