It doesn't take much to convince me to visit to Johnnie Ganem.
The Habersham Street store has been downtown Savannah's liquor lifeline for as long as I've lived here. In the long-ago days when the space was a restaurant, my grandfather and the original Mr. Ganem were great friends. I even have a parking strategy so that I can go in one continuous loop from home to Ganem's and home again without backtracking.
Now, Ganem's is one of the first places in Savannah to carry the city's namesake liquor produced by Savannah Bourbon Co. The spirit is also carried by Habersham Beverage, with two locations at 4618 Habersham St. and 7927 Abercorn St.
Savannah Bourbon is actually distilled in Milledgeville, but I tracked down the owners to find out the story behind the liquor and the local name.
While bourbon is traditionally associated with Kentucky, it can actually be made anywhere, as long as it abides by the federal laws that specify ingredients and distilling processes.
Savannah Bourbon co-founder Charles Barfield explains, "Bourbon can be made in any of the 50 states, not just Kentucky. Other states like Colorado and New York are making some nice bourbons, and now we're putting Georgia on the bourbon map."
Along with co-founders Dan Rosenbluth and Jim Valentine, Barfield experimented for quite a while before bottling their first batch in December of last year. The liquor comes in two varieties, Savannah Sweet Tea Lemonade Bourbon and Savannah 88, a straight bourbon. I had the honor of being the first person in Savannah to buy a bottle of the 88, at least from Ganem's, and took it to a party to share with some of my more whiskey-happy friends.
The flavor surprised me. Craft whiskey makers seem currently obsessed with complex, Scotchy flavor profiles, but Savannah 88 keeps the flavor clean and refreshing. Hints of honey and floral linger through and after the sip, a distinct grain feel coats the mouth. This is likely due to the mash bill, which is the mix of ingredients used for fermenting the grains that create the root of a whiskey's flavor.
In the case of Savannah Bourbon, the main ingredients are Silver Queen corn and coastal rye. Bourbon must legally be at least 51 percent corn, and the white corn contributes in a large part to the crispness of the flavor, as opposed to darker varieties of corn that tend to create heavier palates.
There is something definitely coastal about the taste, but that's only part of the reason for the bourbon's familiar name.
"We named the bourbon Savannah," Barfield says, "because the grains used to make the bourbon - that's where the magic happens, the mash bill - are sourced from farms along the Savannah River and Southeast Georgia. Furthermore, we simply love the city and as you know, it's a town that enjoys its cocktails."
He continues, "Our premium grains are from Savannah area farms. Savannah Bourbon is bottled by Georgians, labeled by Georgians, we pay Georgia taxes, it's packed up by Georgians, sold by Georgians and now consumed by Georgians. We've already had dealers in New York, Colorado and London asking if we can ship some for those bourbon collector types. We'll get there, but for now, we're focusing on Georgia."
It's only fitting that Georgia's first city lends its name to the state's first bourbon. And if my first sip is any indication, the distillery will be the source of many great things to come.
Zach Powers is a writer and novelist. When he's not busy imbibing, he helps run the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com.