Rebel Yell bourbon’s middle name should be “Earl” after my father, a Kentucky gentleman uprooted from Louisville to the Windy City. After the car and moving van were unpacked and the kids settled in with Campbell’s soup and comic books, my dad set off to stock the liquor cabinet. Brandy for medical emergencies, white wine for my mother, and Rebel Yell for him and the friends he expected to make. He returned home disgruntled with a poor substitute for bourbon, appalled that the largest liquor store in Chicago had never heard of Rebel Yell.
Persistence had gotten him the promotion that landed us in Chicago, and persistence is what put Rebel Yell in Earl’s Chicago liquor cabinet. While on a duty visit to relatives in Louisville, he visited the distillery and asked to talk to the president. He learned that Rebel Yell was not sold above the Mason-Dixon Line. In a few weeks, a wooden crate marked “contraband” was delivered to our house. It was a case of Rebel Yell.
The family tradition could now continue. On my 13th birthday, he poured me a thimble full of Rebel Yell. By 16, I had worked up to a shot, and when I reached the legal drinking age he gave me a whole bottle.
I have had the opportunity to sample many brands of bourbon, but not a one gives me the satisfaction of Rebel Yell. It is a smooth, wheated 80-proof whiskey that has been passed down and passed around for 150 years. The taste is described as “honey and butter, followed by a hint of plum and raisins for a long, warm finish with an interesting touch of spiciness.” But to me, it mainly tastes of home.
Recently, a bottle of Rebel Yell — sent by a friend in Kentucky — traveled around Illinois on visits to my two sons. We each had a drink and toasted the family patriarch, Earl. My journey continued to Wisconsin to visit a friend of 50 years who has roots in Kentucky. He didn’t know Earl, but he so appreciated Rebel Yell, we finished the bottle.
I felt like I was continuing a tradition, adding my own chapter to the Rebel Yell saga – but then he went to a small liquor store in his tiny town of Palmyra, Wisconsin. He brought home two bottles of Rebel Yell, one for him and one for me to take home.
Apparently the War of Northern Aggression is too faint a memory for the South to keep its treasures secret. Sure, I like the convenience, but wouldn’t it be fun to see a wooden crate marked “contraband” leaning against my front door. We will always have Rebel Yell, but Earl had the most fun with it.