Bourbon is a wonderful thing, just wonderful, and perhaps no television show in American history has realized this, or had as much fun with it, as Justified. A subplot of the show is that it’s (sort of) to bourbon what Sideways was to California wine — a lovingly told inside joke.
The FX show is set in Kentucky, the drink’s ancestral home, and the producers have had a spirited (sorry) time showcasing the stuff and making it an integral part of the plot. William Faulkner, who knew his way around the sour-mash barrel (Four Roses was his favorite), famously opined that “Civilization begins with distillation.”
Raylan Givens, the deputy U.S. Marshal (played by Timothy Olyphant) who is the show’s protagonist, put it this way earlier this season: “Bourbon is easy to understand. Tastes like a warm summer day.”
Preach, brother Raylan!
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Taylor Elmore, an executive producer and one of the show’s main writers, confirmed for us that none of this is by chance.
“We kind of define these characters sociologically and financially by the bourbons they drink,” he said in a phone interview. “The props people and the writers have been careful about this.”
This fine-tuned wit has not been lost on fans. Because bourbons, unlike wines, come in distinctive bottles, the pros can recognize what the characters are drinking even if the label isn’t shown and the brand isn’t mentioned.
“It’s gotten to be a game for me — I’m so busy watching the bottles at the back of the bar I have to rewind it to see what they said,” says Carla Carlton, aka “The Bourbon Babe,” who runs a popular blog about both Justified and bourbon.
First: Elmore says the show doesn’t accept payment for product placement. But, as it happens, it did ask Buffalo Trace, a distillery that produces several brands (each made with a different mash bill, or recipe) for empty bottles and props, which a distillery spokeswoman says it supplied, free of charge. Ergo, a lot of the bourbons on the show have Buffalo Trace roots.
Second, since you asked: tea. Tea is what’s in all those bottles and shot glasses. Though the show is filmed in California (that sure isn’t Kentucky), we’re just going to assume it’s sweet tea.
Who drinks what
The first joke is that bourbon seems to be all anyone drinks (save for coffee and moonshine), at any hour, on any occasion. Why, when Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) got out of prison, how did she start her day? With a nutritious breakfast of cereal and Wild Turkey, natch! At 101 proof! If this isn’t the flying colors of a femme fatale, what is?
Second, let’s look at character development.
Ava is a country kid who is not terribly upscale. Neither is her bourbon. Wild is an old-school label, a staple long before the small-batch (or specialty) labels began a revolution in the industry about 20 years ago. Her morning pour tells us that not only does she have a wee drinking problem, but she’s been sticking with one brand a long time, even as tonier choices have come along.
Nobody on the show, however, is matched more to a brand than her beloved fee-ahn-say, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). He professes to only drink with “… people I like, or I pretend to like,” and when he’s drinking? It’s Elmer T. Lee.
Boyd is your outlaw antihero, and your very fine Elmer’s (hard to find these days, in part because of the show’s popularity) goes for about $30 a bottle. Lee, a Kentucky native, was the first master distiller for what is now the aforementioned Buffalo Trace. Lee also bottled the world’s first single-barrel bourbon.
But let’s go to the other side of the law, because the cops drink just as much as the criminals.
Art Mullen (Nick Searcy), the boss of the Marshal’s service, is a Blanton’s man. You can tell by the distinctive shape of the bottle, and the horse-and-jockey figurine atop the stopper. It goes for about $40 a bottle and tells us Art is a grown man with discerning taste.
But when there’s a special occasion, he knows how to class it up. When they take down big-time Detroit mobster Theo Tonin, they open a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, apparently the 20-year-old Family Reserve. This is good casting.
Arlo Givens (Raymond J. Barry), Raylan’s dad and a lifelong petty criminal? Not so high-class. He, like Ava, went for Wild Turkey. This was perfect character-to-bourbon casting. It’s just what a 70-year-old screw-up of his place and time would drink.
Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) also was set apart by her alcohol choice: her “apple pie” moonshine. She descends from kin that ran illegal distilleries and still runs her own.
So what does Raylan, the star of the show, drink? Apparently, whatever’s in front of him. When he orders, he just says “bourbon.” That is, in its way, a statement.
Home is where the bourbon is
In Justified, bourbon is also used to emphasize place, not just character.
At the Crowes’ low-rent house of ill repute, the pre-pubescent Kendal is tending bar. He passes the time by making cocktails and he’s using Ancient Age, subtly emphasizing what kind of joint this is.
Now, over at Boyd’s bar? They have a classier selection.
A couple of dudes roll in and ask the bartender: “Got Maker’s?” The bartender smiles and asks the dude if a bear poops in the woods. Of course they’d have the Volvo of bourbons, Maker’s Mark! Known by its red wax top, it’s a solid, respectable, if not flashy choice, and it’s ubiquitous.
Maker’s is such a staple that Miller, the functionally alcoholic DEA agent, refills his flask with it. Good call for the road.
The ‘Justified’ joke
And, finally, one more joke.
At Boyd’s bar, bad guy Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt) strolls into the joint and asks for Buffalo Trace (your medium-range choice, about $22 a bottle) and downs two shots in front of a “Jack Daniel’s” neon sign. HAHAHAHA.
As anyone who knows enough to watch this show knows, Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon. It is Tennessee whiskey. People often think that to be named “bourbon” the drink must be made in Kentucky. No — it only has to be made in the U.S. and be composed of 51 percent (usually much higher) corn and a couple of other prerequisites.
The regional distinction actually belongs to Tennessee whiskey, which adheres to something called the Lincoln County Process. This is chiefly composed of running the bourbon through a charcoal filter. You either think that greatly improves the flavor or you think it takes all of it out.
Generally speaking, bourbon fans can’t ridicule it fast enough, and Tennessee whiskey fans think bourbon folks are snobs who don’t have the right. Ergo, the joke: Drinking bourbon in front of a Tennessee whiskey sign, playing the two groups off one another.
Well played, Justified. Well played.