How to Become a Bourbon Lover in One Night? Simple: attend a bourbon dinner where each course is perfectly executed to entertain your palate with subtle nuances of bourbon and is expertly paired with tastes of premium, aged Pappy Van Winkle, the world’s most elusive bourbon.
Foie Gras Apple Bread Pudding | Bourbon dulce de leche, Marcona almond, Horchata ice cream
pairing: Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-year old
With bourbon enjoying a decade long revival, I’ve seen more and more drink menus with intriguing handcrafted bourbon cocktails that have swayed me away from the martini list and ignited a yearning to know more about this truly American spirit. I’ve dreamed of taking a trip to the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky for several years and, finally, the stars were aligned with my calendar and I was able to join my online friend Gwen of Bunky Cooks and On The Road culinary adventures for their second Bourbon Country tour to Louisville, Kentucky.
Sure I’ve drank bourbon, but I didn’t really KNOW bourbon. First of all, I learned that bourbon is a whiskey, but all whiskeys are not bourbons – picture a Venn Diagram. For a whiskey to qualify as bourbon, the law–by international agreement–stipulates that it must be made in the USA from at least 51% corn; is distilled at no more than 80% alcohol; is matured at no higher than 62.5% alcohol; and is matured in new charred oak barrels for no less than two years. (Source: Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book by Joy Perrine and Susan Reigler.) My whiskey education centered around college and early post-college shenanigans with Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and some Wild Turkey thrown in because I liked the name… but those days are nothing but a hazy memory from another lifetime … and this is most definitely not that kind of whiskey.
The two-day itinerary was a food and spirit lovers dream: beginning with 2 nights at the historic Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby and gateway to the Bourbon Trail; dinner with bourbon pairings at award-winning Chef Anthony Lamas‘ restaurant, Seviche with guest of honor Julian Van Winkle and son Preston whose family distillery Old Rip Van Winkle produces premium aged bourbon. Julian launched the Pappy Van Winkle line in the mid 1990’s and started selling aged bourbons because he preferred them over younger whiskies.
Nuevo Latino Shrimp & Grits | Ponce Inlet shrimp, Weisenberger grits, Manchego, Chorizo, Bourbon Red Eye gravy
pairing: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-year
In 1998 his 20-year-old won a “99” rating, the highest ever from the prestigious Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago. The judges said it “finishes with a seemingly endless and evolving cascade that introduces notes of cigar box, sweet tobacco, leather, and dried tangerine.” After that, Van Winkle says, “the phone started ringing off the hook and we were short — didn’t have nearly enough of it. (Source: CNN Money) Since then, the elusive Pappy Van Winkle has gathered many more awards and ratings anointing them among the best whiskies in the world resulting in a fervent cult following and garnering Julian the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year.
Julian P. Van Winkle III
Chef Anthony Lamas’ signature nuevo Latin cuisine held up to the bold bourbon pairings and showcased his focus on sustainable seafood, seasonal local ingredients, and the exciting Latin influence with a dash of southern flair that Seviche, a Latin Restuarant, consistently ranked as one of Louisville’s top establishments, is known for. Chef Lamas artfully incorporated bourbon into each course which we savored along with one of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons spanning the years: Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year, Van Winkle Special Reserve 12-year, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15-year, 20-year, and 23 -year.
Maple Leaf Farms Duck | Carolina Gold Rice, Sea Island Red peas, duck cracklins, black Mission fig bourbon demi glace
pairing: Van Winkle Special Reserve 15-year
Our group was captivated as Julian spoke of the legacy of his grandfather Pappy Van Winkle and why his special recipe, which substitutes wheat for traditional rye, and the aging process distinguishes them from other bourbon makers and how their strategy of scarcity, with a little luck and an unwavering commitment to quality and limited quantities, has served their family through the years. Pappy’s mantra, “we make a fine bourbon, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always a fine bourbon“, endures.
Most bourbons use 70% to 80% corn and a mixture of rye, malted barley, and yeast. Naturally, the Pappy Van Winkle mash mix is a closely guarded secret and one that they mean to keep in the family. The Van Winkle recipe ages gracefully in oak barrels and doesn’t pick up as much of the oak and char flavors as rye. Wheat also imparts a sweeter, softer, smoother whiskey than rye, which tends to be spicier and have a bite. Why is aged bourbon so darn expensive and hard to find? It’s the mathematics involved in the careful distillation process and the aging in oak barrels for years – in the case of the 23-year, nearly a quarter of a century. A new barrel yields 30 cases of bourbon, but each year of aging yields less as product is lost “to the barrel” (evaporation). After 23 years a barrel yields only 7 cases.
In addition to the three courses pictured above, our bourbon repast began with a refreshing Tuna “Old Fashioned” ceviche starter accompanied by Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year and ended with Ashbourne Farms Pork Belly with local greens, Benton’s bacon, maple, and Bourbon Barrel Foods sorghum paired with Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 20-year before the grand finale: the beautifully-plated and stunning sweet and savory dessert of Foie Gras with Bourbon Dulce de Leche and Apple Bread Pudding paired with Pappy Van Winkle Special Reserve 23-year to complete a decadent, but delightfully unpretentious evening, with two of Kentucky’s most respected gentlemen.
Preston and Julian P. Van Winkle III autographing our tasting sheets and dinner menus
We didn’t come away from the dinner with any Pappy Van Winkle – it’s virtually impossible to find and Julian graciously shared some of his own private stash with us, but you can find them by the glass at high end restaurants and, since 2002 when Van Winkle contracted with Buffalo Trace to make limited quantities of Pappy’s, their national sales force distributes it to selected liquor stores in 35 states Please stay tuned for Part Two of my Bourbon Trail adventure when we tour Buffalo Trace Distillery with a surprise tour of the Mash House led by Julian himself, then traveled to the Butchertown location of Bourbon Barrel Foods for a chefs demonstration and lunch with Chefs Anthony Lamas and Bobby Benjamin.
Aged bourbons are meant to be sipped “neat” or, as Julian suggested, with a dash of water to open up the flavor. But you’ll not insult a younger bourbon such as the award-winning Buffalo Trace by mixing them in a cocktail, in fact, The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book has over 100 recipes for seasonal refreshments, after-dinner cocktails, and unforgettable special occasion drinks such as the Mint Julep and the classic Manhattan created by Joy Perrine, the presiding mixologist at iconic Jack’s Lounge in Louisville.
Until we meet again, I give you this cocktail tribute to the only true native spirit of America and, in honor of the Bluegrass State, a bluegrass fiddler’s favorite: the Orange Blossom Special.
- 1 teaspoon honey dissolved in 1 oz. hot water
- 2 ounces Bourbon Trace Kentucky bourbon*
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 2 ounces fresh orange juice
- 1 ounce Cointreau
- 1 ounce Lillet
Dissolve the honey in warm water; otherwise it will not dissolve in the liquor.
Add the honey water, bourbon, lemon juice, orange juice, and Cointreau to a shaker half full of ice; shake. Strain into a snifter or high ball glass with ice, add the Lillet and stir.
Garnish with star of anise and orange slice.
* Buffalo Trace has a pleasantly sweet aroma and a smooth, yet bold, toffee flavor which makes it an excellent choice in cocktails and for those new to bourbon. I used Orange Blossom honey from Bee Ladies - you can find them at local farmers markets. Of course, you may substitute whatever honey you prefer.