Bour­bon & Blue­grass

DINE and Destinations - - VATICANO - By Adam Wax­man

The in­fec­tious sweet­ness of ban­jos and man­dolins har­mo­niz­ing on the ra­dio give us the feel­ing of a care­free chase scene. Rolling hills of vi­brant green un­furl ahead as miles of white picket fences sep­a­rate gal­lop­ing horses from the wind­ing road. I’m told, “When you think you’re lost, just keep go­ing.” And we do. With maps in hand, we con­nect the dots… one bour­bon at a time. At Wood­ford Re­serve Dis­tillery we learn about the five sources of flavour in bour­bon and flavour pro­files for pair­ing with food. While sam­pling chocolate and pecan bour­bon balls we’re in­tro­duced to Wood­ford Re­serve Dou­ble Oaked. Aged in two newly charred white Amer­i­can oak bar­rels, it’s the only dou­ble-oaked bour­bon in the U.S. Very com­plex and ro­bust, but so smooth, it’s an in­tense amal­gam of read­ily ac­ces­si­ble flavours. It’s like dessert bour­bon and pairs with dried cran­ber­ries, or­ange, toasted hazel­nuts, wal­nuts and dark chocolate. It’s not meant for cook­ing, but can eas­ily be used for fin­ish­ing.

Buf­falo Trace is the long­est con­tin­u­ously run­ning bour­bon dis­tillery. Dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion they con­tin­ued sell­ing bour­bon “for medic­i­nal pur­poses.” Our guide, Freddy, says when the Bri­tish set­tlers were making rye and bar­ley whiskeys, the na­tive In­di­ans in­tro­duced them to their moon­shine that was made of corn whiskey in­tro­duced by the Span­ish. They com­bined the two styles and cre­ated the equiv­a­lent of a pecan pie. Corn is to bour­bon what corn syrup is to pie. The more corn in the bour­bon, the softer, smoother and richer the taste. Aged eight to nine years, Buf­falo Trace has com­plex notes of mo­lasses, fruit, spice and an oaky tof­fee depth. Af­ter 10 to 12 years, it be­comes Ea­gle Rare and elic­its bold aro­mas of tof­fee, co­coa and honey with a cit­ric and oaky fin­ish. We let it linger on the palate to really soak up all the nu­ances im­bued into this elixir over time.

“Blue Moon Of Ken­tucky Keep on Shinin”

—BILL MON­ROE

At Evan Wil­liams, Ken­tucky’s first com­mer­cial dis­tillery, we add two to three drops of wa­ter to our glass of Black La­bel and hold it up to the light. The swirls are the oils from the wood in the bar­rel. The wa­ter pen­e­trates the sugar and al­co­hol mol­e­cules and causes the bour­bon to bloom like a flower to its full sweet­ness. The Sin­gle Bar­rel has that sweet, charred-bar­rel essence with an easy honey, cit­ric and caramel con­flu­ence. While it can weigh down wine, oak age­ing mel­lows bour­bon.

Spring-fed wa­ter and cus­tom-made cop­per pots are the keys to the small batch, sin­gle-bar­rel bour­bon of the Wil­lett Dis­tillery Fam­ily Es­tate. Their se­lec­tion tastes and feels like a dis­tilled and bottled old-fash­ioned candy shop. Rowan’s Creek is a caramel and but­ter­scotch essence with vanilla smoke and woods. Wil­lett Pot Still Re­serve is a mélange of sub­tle cit­rus and gin­gery spice fol­lowed by honey, nuts and chocolate with a pep­pery fin­ish. I would, hap­pily, need to drink much more to dis­cern all the dif­fer­ent notes within this com­po­si­tion.

Lo­cated by Whisky Creek, Maker’s Mark is the most picturesque dis­tillery. Maker’s 46, fin­ished with 10 seared French oak staves, smells like a box of candy. A wood chef cooks the wood to cre­ate dif­fer­ent flavours. More wood sug­ars en­able bold caramels, vanilla and but­ter. Wheat is used in­stead of rye be­cause it is gen­tler. We’re told the proper way to smell and taste bour­bon is to breath through the mouth so we don’t burn the nose. Rich and sweet but not syrupy, it has smooth body and a long fin­ish. This is Maker’s Mark on steroids. Ev­ery bot­tle is hand-dipped into hot red wax. Af­ter our tast­ing we don the ap­parel and dip our own.

Ken­tucky bour­bon flows for the same rea­son horses graze. It’s the land. Rich and di­verse, the lime­stone shelf acts as a fil­ter that re­moves iron and im­pu­ri­ties from the wa­ter needed for bour­bon, and im­parts cal­cium and phos­pho­rus up through the grass that feeds the horses. Over break­fast at the Keeneland Track Kitchen, we see jock­eys and own­ers, lo­cals and en­thu­si­asts. This is the largest horse auc­tion in the world, in­ter­wo­ven into the fab­ric of Lex­ing­ton, and at­tracts an in­ter­na­tional clien­tele. Wrapped in the ex­cite­ment of the races, we place our bets. Win some; lose some.

There are more bar­rels of bour­bon in Ken­tucky than peo­ple and horses com­bined; but there is a pal­pa­ble di­chotomy be­tween a young ur­ban cul­ture just dis­cov­er­ing bour­bon on the cock­tail cir­cuits of Lex­ing­ton and Louisville, and those for whom it’s a part of their Amer­i­can roots. The cock­tail revo­lu­tion has been a cat­a­lyst to the in­creased pop­u­lar­ity, and in­creased qual­ity.

Ken­tucky’s orig­i­nal top chef was Har­lan San­ders (The Colonel), but to­day it’s all about lo­cal farm-to-ta­ble and in­cor­po­rat­ing bour­bon. Proof on Main serves bour­bon flights that we pair with bour­bon bar­rel-smoked oys­ters. At The Brown Ho­tel, the bar­tender rec­om­mends Blan­ton’s Sin­gle Bar­rel for their renowned Hot Brown sand­wich and Wood­ford Re­serve Dou­ble Oaked or Wil­lett Pot Still Re­serve with their Derby Pie. We pair Milk­wood Restau­rant’s savoury braised oxtail with a cock­tail of Four Roses Bour­bon, honey and fen­nel and Decca Restau­rant’s wood-grilled pork chop with their cock­tail of bour­bon, mint, lime and gin­ger beer. Flatt & Scruggs

are im­pec­ca­bly pick­ing their Foggy Moun­tain Break­down on the ra­dio as we head west to the source of that high, lone­some sound. At the In­ter­na­tional Blue­grass Mu­seum in Owens­boro, I sur­vey the history and the trends, and the mas­ters of the banjo, fiddle, gui­tar, string bass and man­dolin. While many play­ers are vir­tu­osos, their quick tempo so­los serve the melody of the song, not to show­case their own tal­ent. Bill Mon­roe’s Tall Tim­ber plays, ex­em­pli­fy­ing his phe­nom­e­nal dex­ter­ity. Deep in the woods of the Jerusalem Ridge sits his boy­hood home where Tom Ewing, guitarist for Mon­roe’s Blue Grass Boys, re­gales about the syn­co­pated “chop” of Mon­roe’s man­dolin. They didn’t need drums, he tells me, be­cause there was such a de­lib­er­ate metro­nomic sense of time within each break­down. They played on the front end of the beat for an ex­hil­a­rat­ing af­fect. At sun­down the Ro­sine Barn Jam­boree opens up. There is a par­tic­i­pa­tory at­mos­phere. High tenor har­monies soar above mel­liflu­ous jams as the band rel­ishes each other’s ev­ery hon­eyed note, cel­e­brat­ing an ex­cit­ing sense of com­mu­nity and to­geth­er­ness.

Af­ter a whirl­wind trip through Ken­tucky, I si­dle up to the bar at the Blue­grass Tav­ern. The bar­tender asks, “What’ll it be, sir?” Like a par­ody of a scene in The Shin­ing, I re­ply, “Hair of the dog that bit me.” “Bour­bon on the rocks?” He asks. “That’ll do her.” The band is pickin’, grin­nin’ and yo­delin’, and the bois­ter­ous Ken­tucky vibe is in­tox­i­cat­ingly fun.

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