It was girls’s night out. A rare occasion when some of my mommy friends had time to get a meal, sans kiddos. We hit up a steakhouse, because as they say, no good story ever started with a salad. The waitor started with drink orders, making wine recommendations along the way. I was the last in line. He turned to me after several orders for various cabernets & said, “Will that be one more red for the lady?”
“No, thank you”, I said. “I’d like an Old Grand Dad…rocks.”
Now, I’m not anti-wine, or any other spirit for that matter, but I wanted a higher proof bourbon, bottled in bond, to play with the smoky char of my soon-to-be ordered steak. Something I knew would give me a taste explosion across my palate with every bite.
He took my order with a roll of the eye & we proceeded with our evening. After the entrees arrived & the yummy noises began, the girls in the group who were open to a bourbon tasting asked for a sip. The yummy noises amplified & the server popped by to revel in the victory of his wine pairing suggestions.
He saw us passing around the rocks glass & stopped quick, unsure of what to say. We greeted him & two more bourbon orders were placed, three if you count my refill after their “tasting”. He turned to me & said, “I guess you were onto something with that.” I smiled & thought to myself, “Thank you, Peggy.”
Peggy Noe Stevens, Founder of the Bourbon Women Association & the first female Master Taster, taught me the little bit I know about how bourbon can play well with food. I’ve enjoyed sipping bourbon & learning to nose it & analyze it from texture to taste for a while now thanks to my own curiosity & guidance at Bourbon Women events, but it wasn’t until recently that I learned about how well bourbon can pair WITH a meal instead of just opening or closing it.
In her session “The Secrets of Ultimate Food Pairings” at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival, Peggy took us on a journey from starter to dessert with Chef Natasha Clement, owner of Sophisticated Southern Plates & Season 2 Winner of The Food Network’s All Star Academy.
We were educated on the spectrum of tastes & smells in bourbon, the nuances of which play a crucial role in pairing with food. For example, sweet is a general adjective. Cake is sweet, but so are peaches & the type of sweetness they each possess is significantly different. Sugar is sweet, but you have to be specific about the type of sugar when writing a recipe. One cup of sorghum will do very different things than a cup of granulated sugar.
You get my drift.
To demonstrate the power of paying attention to the notes in a bourbon when creating a dish to pair with it for a party or personal meal, Peggy & Chef Natasha offered us the following three examples showcasing a range of taste experience from balance to counterbalance & then explosion.
Starter: Baker’s (Jim Beam, 107 Proof, Aged 7 Years) + Prosciutto Wrapped Green Apple & Blue Cheese with a Caramel Pear Drizzle
The age on the Baker’s & it’s big barrel nutty, dark sugar notes are heavy, which partners perfectly with the heaviness & age of the blue cheese. I’m not even wild about blue cheese & often leave crumbles in the bottom of a salad bowl if they come by surprise, but this was dynamite. The apple added a brightness to the pair that muted the bite of the blue & there was a beautiful balance in each bite.
Main: Old Forester (86 Proof) + Asian Short Ribs over Grits
The nose on this bourbon is sweet, with hints of banana, & the taste boasts notes of light pecan & toffee. This sweetness counterbalanced perfectly with the spicy zip of the short ribs. Grounded by the grits, this bite was one I craved a full dish of.
Dessert: Four Roses Single Barrel (100 Proof) + Bread Pudding with Caramel Drizzle & Pecans (I’ll admit I did not restrain long enough for a photo.)
These flavors were literally explosive. I took a sip while chewing & could feel my eyes widen with the robust flavors & baking spices of both shining through. The heavy barrel taste on this bourbon complimented the baked nuts in the dessert & the caramel tastes in both were comforting to the core. We all wanted more.
I didn’t walk away from this session knowing all there is to know about crafting the perfect spirited bite, but I did come out with a craving to dive deeper into this world of blended flavors.
If you want to dive deeper with me, keep an eye out for opportunities to learn with groups like Bourbon Women, Sour Mash Tours, Matson & Gilman & others around The Ville. You can also play around at home with sample menus like this one from distillery partners like Four Roses & more!
Happy Eating! Happy Drinking! Happy Pairing!