The Good Life: Becoming a bourbon lover

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Editor’s note: This is the debut edition of a new recurring lifestyle feature, ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon.’ It will be written by Palec, a bourbon connoisseur who is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens and has more than 35 years of experience in commercial real estate brokerage. He was also the host of the Rock & Roll Roots radio show on 96.5 FM WKLH from 1987-2021, and is the author of the book “In Awe: Beatles, Baseball & Bourbon, Appreciating Spectacular and Simple Stuff.” In this recurring feature, Palec will write about his love of bourbon and discuss how to enjoy the spirit as part of living the good life. We hope you enjoy it.

Since this is Season One, Episode One of what I am happy will be a few opportunities to wax poetically about bourbon, I suspect it would be good to start with a question I am often asked: What got you so into bourbon in the first place?

I have to preface the answer with some background, which is that prior to one specific occasion, I had no interest whatsoever in bourbon. I went through my quasi-adolescent Boones Farm wine phase. That led to tequila sunrises. Then I moved on to vodka or rum with whatever canned beverage was available and, of course, to various beers. There was also a fine wine phase and the obligatory rite of trying scotch, which didn’t stick. More often than not, I had to apologize for discarding the tiny umbrella stuck in many of my drinks.

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All of the above were rarely consumed in excess.

A few years back, I found myself on a business trip to Washington, D.C., experiencing some unusual chest pain. I thought it would go away after a full day and a subsequent good night’s sleep. The next day it was still there, and I started to worry about consequences of a major event away from home.

But by the end of the second day, I made the immature decision to lean into it: If I am going out, I am going out big. I had a steak dinner and found myself at a bar called Bourbon, where I continued the lean by ordering a fine sample of the namesake spirit.

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Again, I previously had no interest in brown liquor. However, I drank the bourbon and immediately felt relief—and I mean instantly.

The next morning, I flew back to Milwaukee and went straight to a store to purchase a bottle of bourbon. I had no idea what I was doing, but Jefferson’s Groth Reserve Cask Finish happened to be on the top shelf, and it was a fortuitous selection.

I brought the bottle home, took a picture of it. And I’ve had a bourbon pretty much every day since.

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Also, years later, while I was exploring the so-called Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I visited the Kentucky Artisan Distillery, which is unlike many of the other places people visit on the trail because it produces well-known brands for other companies as a contract distiller and bottler. All of Jefferson’s cask-aged bourbons come from KAD. When I visited, they happened to have a number of bottles of the Groth Reserve, which was being discontinued. I took a picture of that, too. And took a few bottles home (as you can see).

By the way, you may have heard of Jefferson’s Ocean, another bourbon from the company that is aged at sea. It is not a gimmick, and I hope to tell its story in a subsequent column.

For now, though, just like my wife, you may be asking why I glossed over and ignored two days of chest pain, which she had me check out after I got home.

I came to learn two things. First, after a visit with a medical expert who had me do a lot of running on a treadmill, it was confirmed that the chest pains were simply caused by pulling a muscle during a prior workout. Second, the immediate relief I felt sipping bourbon at Bourbon was diagnosed by some spirit experts as a textbook case of the “Kentucky Hug,” the literal warm feeling a person gets in their chest from consuming a powerful elixir. Like someone trapped in an avalanche who takes a life-saving sip from the cask attached to a Saint Bernard’s collar, I had spent two days fixating on the tightness in my chest, but the bourbon produced an instant relaxing distraction.

Despite hearing that logical explanation for my chest pain, I maintained the belief that a little bit of that daily lubricant magic was worth continuing, and it set me off on a journey to learn more about bourbon.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens.

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