The home bar in Rabbi Charles Arian’s living room is filled with glasses of different shapes and sizes. The top is crowded with bottle after bottle of bourbon whiskey. One is from Israel, another is from a distillery that closed down years ago. A third he aged at home in Montgomery Village.
For Arian, who leads Conservative synagogue Kehilat Shalom, bourbon is a passion. And he’s not afraid to be called pretentious for sampling, aging and sharing the spirit.
“There’s a certain element of snobbishness in that bourbon has had this big renaissance in the past five, 10 years,” says Arian, 59. “I grew up on the Jersey shore and Bruce Springsteen released his first album when I was in high school, so I liked Springsteen before it was cool and I was into to bourbon before it was cool to be into bourbon.”
Since it’s illegal to distill your own stuff at home, Arian takes unaged whiskey and pours it into a barrel. Then he waits. Arian says most whiskeys aren’t worth drinking unless they’ve been aged for a few years. Though, the ones he ages at home are only a couple months old.
They don’t have the strongest flavors or colors and are “really not very good,” he says of his home hooch. But the process is interesting and each batch is unique.
“There are all kinds of experiments [you can do], he says. “Temperature and climate affect it. Like what I aged in the garage in the summer because it was much hotter to see how it compares to being aged in an air conditioned house,” he says.
As it turned out, the garage bourbon aged more quickly than the house bourbon and gained more color, too. Before bourbon is aged, it’s clear, pure alcohol. It picks up a brown, caramel color and its flavor as it ages. Bourbon is made primarily from corn and is aged in charred oak barrels.
The first bourbon he aged had a dark-reddish tinge and a sweet taste. Before he aged the whiskey, he filled the barrel with Manischewitz wine and let it sit for a few weeks. He then tossed out the wine and poured in the bourbon. “It was a cool experiment but it’s not something I would necessarily replicate,” Arian says. The bourbon sits on this bar, waiting for the bourbon drinker who appreciates a good Manischewitz.
Arian found his love for bourbon when he and his wife, Keleigh, went to visit her family in Kentucky for the first time. They also visited the Maker’s Mark distillery and signed up to have their names put on a barrel of bourbon. The company sent them updates on the barrel and they had the opportunity to buy some of the bourbon.
The love affair continued when they went to the 2008 Kentucky Presidential Inaugural Ball and were able to sample bourbons from around the state. The two then traveled to all of the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Arian says that favorites are fleeting.
“People ask me [about my favorite] all the time and my tastes change,” he says. “Today I may tell you my favorite is Elijah Craig, but I may have a different answer tomorrow.”
He says he’s not much of a wine person. The one time he tried making the fruit of the vine at home, “It looked like somebody had been murdered.”
But being a rabbi, Arian loves to share his knowledge of bourbon. Friends and congregants give him a bottle of bourbon as a gift, and he has used a bourbon tasting as an auction item to raise money for Kehilat Shalom. The tasting includes the Jewish history of bourbon.
His advice is simple:“If you want to start doing it on your own, I think you should be patient and be prepared to be disappointed, frankly. But patience is really key.”