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B is for Bourbon

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B is for Bourbon
Chef Lee samples different barrel-aged bourbons from Trey Zoeller at Jefferson’s Reserve and provides him with tasting notes for the creation of a master blend. Photos by Josh Meredith

A Personal Journey into the Heart of the Barrel

Bourbon has been a lifelong friend, when we first met in high school, it was a pretty shallow relationship. I drank what I could afford: Rebel Yell or Beam in plastic cups with diet sodas. I’m not proud of those days, but we all have to start somewhere.

Things changed when I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, over eight years ago. I was older so I knew enough to drink bourbon neat, sometimes with a little ice or mixed into an Old Fashioned. I was drinking better stuff but nothing I’d deem especially rare. There used to be a bar at the top of the Galt House Hotel called the D Marie that had a dizzying selection of bourbons and an irreverent aquatic theme. Within days of arriving in Louisville, the local bourbon aficionados took me there to introduce me to small batch bourbons. It was a warm gesture, but it led to many mornings spent staring at an empty bottle wondering how much bourbon I had consumed. I became skilled at making hangover food in the kitchen and stealing “standing naps” by the walk-in.

As a chef, sooner or later, I look at any comestible as an ingredient for my pantry. With bourbon, it was easy at first. Bourbon is made from at least 51 percent distilled corn, so the natural sweetness is the first thing that hits you. Add to that years in a charred oak barrel and the obvious notes of vanilla and butterscotch and caramel will come to mind. Because of this, bourbon has traditionally been most associated with desserts. In Louisville, Muth’s Candies has been making Bourbon Balls, an evil mix of chocolate, pecans, and bourbon, for generations—it’s an initiation of sorts to overindulge in them.

But bourbon is more complex than its obvious sweet notes. It was never a one-trick pony; it was just waiting for me to mature enough to embrace its other side. Just behind those sweet and spicy notes is an entire wave of secondary ones, such as hay, leather, burnt orange, and limestone.

Every year, I buy a single barrel of bourbon from a different distillery and bottle it as part of our single barrel bourbon program at 610 Magnolia. For as many years as I’ve been tasting bourbon barrels, I learn something new each time. The first tasting I did was with Preston and Julian Van Winkle of Pappy Van Winkle at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. We selected about ten barrels to sample, pouring the bourbon into nondescript glasses and mixing each with a little water to open up the bourbon. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I drank all the samples and was sauced. Yet the differences were memorable, and it started me down the road of looking at bourbon as an ingredient—not just as a flavoring for desserts.

Graham Cracker Ice Cream, Bourbon Smoked Streusel, and Torched Marshmallow from Bourbon September 2012
Chef Ed Lee's Graham Cracker Ice Cream, Bourbon Smoked Streusel, and Torched Marshmallow

Once I had identified the nuances of different bourbons, I started to experiment with what happens to them as you cook down the bourbon to evaporate the alcohol. Some of the more subtle notes will disappear completely, which is why you don’t cook with anything older than, say, a 12-year bourbon—those should be reserved for drinking only. Not all bourbons are the same once reduced, and these differences will influence how they are used in recipes. Take, for example, a Woodford Reserve, which is a softer, younger bourbon that uses malted barley in addition to corn for its mash. Its notes are friendly—honey, orange, cereal, mellow tannins—and when reduced, it takes on a maple syrupy flavor. So this makes an obvious choice to use in desserts but also in vinaigrettes where it’s nice to have a touch of sweetness.

Bourbon Brown Butter Oysters with Lime Zest, Country Ham Slice, and Cilantro from Chef Ed Lee of 610 Magnolia, Louisville, Kentucky / Photo by Josh Meredith
Chef Ed Lee's Bourbon Brown Butter Oysters with Lime Zest, Country Ham Slice, and Cilantro

But then compare that to Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year—an older, more pronounced bourbon with wheat in it, making the flavor profile lean more toward leather, burnt sugar, toasted nuts, and a bitter but pleasing astringency. Cooked down, it adds a nice bitterness to glazes and sauces; it can stand up to stronger ingredients.

I drink a lot of Noah’s Mill made by the Willet Family; it is a powerful bourbon with unapologetic tannins. I don’t cook with it often since it is a bit expensive, but I love its intense flavors of sawdust and coffee and even grassy notes that border on moss. When I use Noah’s Mill in food, I don’t add but one or two other things to it since I want its natural flavor profile to stand out. These are just three examples, but it’s obvious to me that bourbon has so many nuances to offer if we take the time to notice them.

Bourbon Cooking Notes

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year
bitter flavors of leather, burnt sugar, toasted nuts
• glazes and sauces •

Woodford Reserve’s
notes of honey, orange, cereal, mellow tannins
• desserts •

Willet’s Noah’s Mill
flavors of sawdust, coffee, and grassy notes
with unapologetic tannins
• let the flavor standout in simpler recipes •

Recently, I had an opportunity to collaborate with Trey Zoeller of Jefferson’s Reserve to come up with an original blend of bourbon using barrels that ranged in age from fifteen to twenty-one years. Blending different ages of bourbon is not a common practice (most distilleries like to stay age specific in order to identify the age on the label). By law, with blended bourbons you can only label the bottle with the age of the youngest bourbon in the batch. Much like how cognac is blended, this kind of blending in bourbons tends to produce very layered and subtle bourbons. Trey wanted a chef’s opinion in the blending process, and we always experimented with the bourbon as it related to savory food and not just as an after-dinner libation. As a chef, you can imagine what a helluva time that was for me—like getting to play around with liquid gold.

I don’t think bourbon will ever stop surprising me. I hope not. It’s been too much fun already. Earlier this year, on a morning I was fussing around in my garden, I got a call from a friend who knew someone who knew a widow who wanted to sell off her husband’s collection of bourbons from the Prohibition Era to the forties. Within minutes, I found myself in someone’s garage negotiating with pencil and paper and a wad of cash in my back pocket. Many of these bourbons came from defunct distilleries, and some of these bottles are so rare there may only be a few left. This collection sits proudly on my mantle at home. I don’t dare open them. They’re a reminder of the history of this grand ole whiskey and the lifetime of fascinating stories it has given to people like me and to this old guy who died before he got to open any of his beautiful rare bourbons. I care for them in his honor.