Watered down before I was born: A boozy family tale starring my cousin Chuck and Guy Rehorst

“It looks like it’s evaporating.”

Sweetheart was talking about the bourbon. 

I’d been dusting the mantelpiece, which has become a sort of shrine to our combined ancestry. There’s Aunt Betty’s Aztec calendar and the silver bowl my then 80-something grandmother received to commemorate 2,500 hours of volunteer service at the nursing home in Tucson where most of the residents were younger than she was. There’s also a model truck, a razor clam and horseshoe crab and the bourbon. It was a gift from Chuck, my favorite boy cousin (now a retiree in his seventh decade).

We’d been swapping childhood stories and memories. 

As adults, the 10-year age gap is a non-issue. But showing up a decade before I did and growing up in the farmhouse our grandfather bought in the early 1920s adds up to a different set of experiences with a common group of people. 

He remembers livestock, tractor sounds, milking parlors and acres of cash crops. 

I was raised in the city, spending weekend days and occasional overnights on the farm. By then, the fields were rented out. Duke and Penny – a pair of dogs – were the only livestock. The soundtrack was Western movies and a police scanner. When Chuck and his brothers weren’t watching Westerns, they were heading down the railroad tracks with rifles over their shoulders. My sister and I weren’t allowed near the tracks, but we’d watch from the yard as they walked away, disappearing from sight. 

The conversation came around to Zaydie, our grandfather. Chuck was about 10, walking down the long drive from where the school bus had dropped him. Zaydie, driving home from somewhere, ran him over. Chuckie, understandably traumatized and in tears, was dusting himself off while self-inspecting for any damage. Zaydie was laughing at him. 

I have one memory of Zaydie, who died just before I turned three. Debby and I are crawling around in his lap as he lies beneath a blanket on a recliner. He is calling us “knaidelach.

“You should have something that belonged to him,” Chuck said. He looked around the living room, scanning the shelves lining the walls. He handed me the bottle, which encased in a metal holder that turned out to be a music box. A matching shotglass sat atop the cap. The tax stamp date was 1948. 

Chuck thinks it must have been a gift. He never opened it.

My plan was to also never open it. Until I heard about Ted Turner’s “Nearer my God To Thee” video. If CNN airs it, the missiles are en route and the world is ending. That seemed an appropriate moment for cracking a bottle of vintage booze. Plan amended. 

Then Sweetheart noticed the evaporation. We figured the cork had deteriorated. But we weren’t sure what to do or who to ask. 

It percolated somewhere in the back of my brain until about a month ago, when a possibility occurred. I tenderly wrapped the bottle, metal and all, in a few towels. Then I put it inside the New York Times Crossword Puzzle bag I’d gotten Mom at Fish’s Eddy, and headed to Great Lakes Distillery.

It’s a very cool place. I’ve taken the tour a couple of times, once with a friend from library school and again with Sweetheart, the Canadian offspring and the machatunim

Our collection of Great Lakes Distillery offerings, along with the heirloom bourbon and the crossword puzzle bag.

The tasting room/restaurant/bar and retail space are on the first floor, the distillery/tour space is on the lower level. The 20-something bartender had his back to me and was talking to a seated couple as I entered, so I was surprised (in a good way) when he greeted me inside of seconds.

Because I’m a hyperactive multi-tasker, I was able to unpack the bottle while briefly explaining the reason for my errand.

“Well,” the bartender said, “the guy you want to ask is right here.” 

The tall man with glasses had walked over while we were talking. He turned out to be Guy Rehorst, founder and owner. 

He removed the shotglass from the top and gently unhooked the metal rods surrounding the bottle’s metal covering. 

The bourbon and metal house, in pieces. The lovely bartender is also in this photo, but only his back.

He lifted the bottle and peered into it, confirming our suspicion that the bottle was, indeed not full. Then, he touched the cork. 

“It’s wet,” he said. A brief discussion ensued. Removing and recorking the bottle was clearly the sensible choice. And, of course, a sample while it was open was clearly in order. The cork fell apart as he attempted removal, and fell in the bottle. 

Which wasn’t an issue as far as I was concerned.  

Guy took four whiskey glasses from behind the bar, pouring a scant tablespoon into each. 

We smelled. 

We sampled. 

“It’s really smooth,” I said. “But it tastes watery.”

Consensus on all counts. Guy lifted the bottle, inspecting the label. 

“86 proof,” he said. “So there should be 43 percent alcohol. Let’s measure.”

Off he went. I turned to the man next to me at the bar, who was doing something on a laptop. He turned out to be the general manager. 

Guy returned, holding what looked like a staple gun with a five-inch tube attached to the staple end. He inserted the tubing into one of the glasses, holding it there for several seconds. He inspected the handle, waiting for the readout.

Guy Rehorst, Doctor of Distillery, with a diagnostic tool.

“35 percent,” he said. 

More discussion ensued, this time landing on the very distinct probability that Zaydie (or someone else?) had opened the bottle, had a drink, then added enough water to make it look full and recorked it. It would account for the slow evaporation. 

An arduous bottle adornment reassembly session followed – the rods were very stubborn about going back into their respective slots. After a brief discussion of absinthe (Great Lakes sells two different kinds), I thanked everyone. 

Then, I headed off to return the bottle, newly corked, to its home on the mantelpiece after one last opening. 

A scant tablespoon in a whiskey glass, for Sweetheart. 

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