Char No. 4 Bartender Jeff Galli Rides the Bourbon Renaissance

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"There's a chemical reaction that takes place between the liquor and that char and imparts flavor and color to the bourbon." Photo: Melissa Hom

Bartender Jeff Galli developed an interest in bourbons by working in restaurants while attending Rutgers. So he lucked out when a sommelier friend at Cru learned about a pioneering whiskey bar coming to Carroll Gardens called Char No. 4 from former Chanterelle sommelier and co-owner Sean Josephs. Galli now spends his afternoons with his nose in glasses of whiskey made from California to the Far East. We asked him about his whiskey kingdom and the hard facts about spirit etiquette.

Char has an impressive collection of whiskeys. How many are bourbons?
There are about 300 whiskeys, about 150 of them are American whiskeys, and the majority of them are bourbons. Bourbon can be from anywhere, but there are laws governing the prophecy; there can only be three ingredients: grain, water, and yeast. It has to be aged in a new oak barrel for at least two years. If it’s aged less than four years, you have to specify the amount of time it was aged. The reason you can’t call Tennessee whiskey "bourbon" is because it’s charcoal filtered — but you could make bourbon in Tennessee.

What American whiskeys do you have from outside the South?
Tennessee and Kentucky are where most of our whiskeys come from, because the water’s so great there because of the limestone in the soil, but we also have the Hudson Baby, a New York State whiskey. Or we have a great American single malt from California called St. George. Flavors kind of marry bourbon and Scotch.

What are some surprising places that produce whiskey?
I’m just newly discovering the Japanese whiskeys, which are modeled after Scotches. They’re very round and smooth and balanced. The smokiness and the sherry kind of come through. The Islay Scotches have the peaty, smoky flavors, but Japanese also have that sweetness, they’re balanced.

Tilting the glass before smelling a spirit helps you avoid inhaling a huge whiff of alcohol. What sort of nose do you get with the different whiskeys?
What I was taught recently was that you tilt your glass and put your nose in the glass, but you breathe through your mouth. Because of the corn you’re getting caramel, vanilla flavors. If you think about what rye or wheat do, you can just think about the characteristics of rye or wheat bread. So the rye has a grassy, more mellow flavor. The smokiness comes from the char in the barrel, you get that depth.

What exactly is the “char” that the restaurant is named for?
Bourbon is all made in fresh oak barrels. It has to be a new oak barrel and they apply heat to the inside of the barrel until it turns to almost charcoal. And it ranges in depth from an eighth of an inch up to a quarter of an inch of char, which they call alligator char because it looks like alligator skin. There’s a chemical reaction that takes place between the liquor and that char and imparts flavor and color to the bourbon.

The Times just called rye a trendy new spirit — are more people ordering rye these days?
I challenge anyone to say they sell more Sazerac then we do. There’s really a big interest in rye. A lot of people are getting really into it. Sazerac is a great place to start and it’s only $3; from there you can try the Sazerac 18. Michael Tsoumpas, one of the owners, considers it the perfect nose. It’s a little bit more subtly grassy, less sweet, notes of liquorices. Another great rye is the thirteen-year Van Winkle.

What would you recommend to someone who likes Maker's Mark, as an alternative?
Maker’s Mark is a wheated bourbon. The wheat gives a softer, smoother quality. There are some great Van Winkle special reserve twelve-year Lot “B” for $4 an ounce. Pappy Van Winkle twenty-year, $13 per ounce. William Larue Weller nineteen-year-old for $100. Irreplaceable since they’re not making it anymore. Aged bourbons have less of a bite. Wine will continue to mature in the bottle. Whiskeys will age in the barrel, but not in the bottle.

Do you get annoyed if people come in and order Jack Daniels or Southern Comfort thinking it’s a whiskey?
Not at all. Well, we don’t have Southern Comfort, but what’s great is that it’s a really low-key environment. The space gives a dignity to these hand-crafted, family whiskeys. So even if you’re drinking a $3 bourbon you can sit there and taste it as someone would taste a $12 glass of wine. There’s no class separation.

What do you think of Norman Mailer's favorite drink, bourbon and OJ? Is that sacrilege?
A lot of our cocktails blend sweetness and citrus with bourbon. They’re both great pairings. We have a Nor’easter variation on a Dark and Stormy: We use bourbon, lime, maple syrup, and finish it with ginger beer. So I think that would be a decent drink.