Southern Comforts

The South rises again, y’all! Then again, did it ever really fall? Certainly not in any culinary sense, that’s for sure.

I’m just home from the first conference of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, held in Frankfort Kentucky, with a full heart and a full stomach. In the past week, I’ve managed to consume plenty of bourbon and eat my weight in pimento cheese.

Liberty Hall served as the site of our opening night reception, the genteel historic home of John Brown, one of Kentucky founding fathers and the commonwealth’s first senator from 1792 to 1805. The handsome red brick home he completed building in 1801 still proudly stands (as does son Orlando’s residence on the same property) and holds original family furnishings and heirlooms. (A few quick fun facts — Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote the beloved children’s book “Goodnight Moon,” is a direct descendant, and the property is supposedly haunted by a friendly ghost known as the Gray Lady.)

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The patio behind the Orlando house overlooking the gorgeous gardens made a fine backdrop for mixing and mingling over small bites catered by Three Peas in a Pod washed down with Kentucky Distilled cocktails — Buffalo Trace bourbon, Ale8One ginger ale, orange bitters and fresh mint. Hors d’oeuvres included cravable pimento cheese/country ham sammies on garlic cheddar biscuits, bacon-wrapped chicken skewers and mini banana puddings.

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Speaking of pimento cheese, I enjoyed a soulful pimento cheeseburger with crispy fries and a well-made Maker’s Mark Manhattan the night before at Serafini.

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Bourbon, of course, is the flavor of the day (every day) here. You’ll find it infused into coffee, as I did at Kentucky Knows, where artisan owner Tony Davis ages Arabica beans from Antigua Guatemala in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels with spectacular results. I sampled the caramel barrel-aged variation in the store, but opted to take home half-pound bags of the straight-up bourbon and bourbon ball flavors instead.

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Quirky little Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory is credited with the original Bourbon Ball recipe around these parts — a bourbon-laced nougaty confection covered in chocolate and topped with a pecan. You can’t get in and out of Bourbon Country without tasting at least one, and good luck stopping there. Two childhood friends founded the business back in 1919, and locals loved their products so much, they gathered and donated their sugar rations during World War II to help keep the company going. The factory remains in Ruth’s family to this day; you can get a quick behind-the-scenes tour of the factory, but don’t expect to come away with any insider info. The secret recipe is fiercely guarded.

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If you want to cut right to the bourbon chase, beeline straight to Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country since the late 1700s. The campus is absolutely beautiful with the distinctive smell of cooking mash floating through the air, populated with soaring red-brick warehouses housing barrels of bourbon in various stages of aging. Take your pick of five different tours, all are free and include a chance to sample some of the wares at the end. (Personally, I’m partial to the flagship Buffalo Trace brand for cocktails, but have been known to upgrade to Eagle Rare when I’m feeling fancy.)

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I was a little surprised — and pleasantly so — to discover authentic Vietnamese food in Frankfort’s quaintly walkable downtown. Mai Saigon satisfies cravings for ethnic cuisine with super fresh spring rolls filled with tofu, shrimp, rice noodles and cilantro served with peanut dipping sauce; huge fragrant bowls of pho with all the garnishes; and richly flavored noodle dishes studded with veggies and chicken.

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface here, but hopefully have whetted your appetite for a trip to Frankfort all your own! For more info on Kentucky’s enchanting capitol city, go to visitfrankfort.com

 

 

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Southern living it up

Can I just say how much I love, love, fricking LOVE Kentucky? The food, the hospitality, the scenery, the bourbon… I just got back from two days in the Bluegrass State for work and pleasure, but mostly pleasure. So close to my Indiana home, but worlds away food-wise, I can totally get down with menus that boast newfangled twists on country ham, pimento cheese, hot browns and grits. Bring. On. The. Grits.

First stop, an exploratory jaunt to Paducah, new territory for me. With a sweet walkable downtown, an interesting history and a booming arts scene, this charming river city makes a lovely first impression. I had so much fun exploring the cultural attractions here (p.s. the quilt museum is seriously cool! YES – QUILTS, people!), and I loved my stay at the uber-urban 1857 Hotel.

So…. Drinks. This is Bourbon Country, after all. I think my blood alcohol content automatically rises as soon as I cross the state line. Omigosh, do these people know their way around an Old Fashioned. Now, I’ve had some good bourbon knowledge dropped on me in the past five years or so, but I always look forward to learning about and tasting something new on my trips to Kentucky.

Manhattan.jpgJo at the 1857 hotel bar in Paducah mixes up a kick-ass Manhattan that’ll knock you for a loop. At least it did me. A little Angel’s Envy was the just the thing to bring me back to life after six hours in the car. (And, as an added bonus, I also got to sample Cooper’s Craft.)

Dinner was at the Freight House in Paducah, a modern American eatery that’s just a few months old. The menu here touts farm-to-table fare with an emphasis on Kentucky farms. That means pork rinds, vinegar-pickled cucumbers and onions (which my mom made every summer, and I’m sure yours probably did, too), frog legs. Note to self: Kentucky blue snapper is something I definitely need to know more about.

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So here’s what I ate. Shrimp and — say it with me — PIMENTO CHEESE GRITS.

carrots.jpgAdorable little pan-seared carrots topped with candied pecans, blackberries and a schmear of spicy dilled ranch sauce.

appies.jpgA mustard-y deviled egg. Tomatoes from an employee’s own backyard.

 hot brown.jpgA bite of my dining companion’s non-traditional Hot Brown — an intimidating, but delicious, towering stack of thick bread, sweet tea-brined (!) chicken, creamy sauce, a vibrant red tomato slice and a piece of pork belly on top. Holy Moly. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t save room for dessert, but I was happily stuffed by this point.

Breakfast the next morning at Kirchhoff’s… currently a local institution bakery/coffeeshop/deli/dress shop that’s been in operation here since the 1800s. So many pastries, bagels, tarts, pies, cookies, brownies… so little time. I was leaning toward a Chess Bar, that is, until I spotted the “Elvis” scones atop the counter.

scone.jpgBanana, peanut butter, maple and bacon all in one treat, and somehow it works. Washed down with a large café au lait, and a snickerdoodle. Because… why not. We’re talking breakfast of champions, right here.

turkey sandwich.jpgEveryone I met talked this place up so much for lunch, I went back again at 1 p.m. and enjoyed half of a turkey sandwich on cranberry walnut bread and a bag of cheddar horseradish potato chips.

My night in Louisville pretty much revolved around my stay at the Seelbach Hilton, whose bespoke setting inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to honor the historic beauty in “The Great Gatsby.” If you’re overnighting here, or just passing through, I highly recommend sneaking a peek at the amazing lobby and the Rookwood-tiled Rathskeller in the basement.

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While you’re there, might as well grab a seat in the Old Seelbach Bar and order up a classic Seelbach Cocktail – bourbon (duh) with a splash of champagne.

In the morning, I had the supreme pleasure of breakfasting with two of my favorite travel colleagues. Stacey gets credit for introducing me to my very first bourbon cocktail when I was in Louisville for a work trip over St. Patrick’s Day six or seven years ago, and Susan has been a fantastic resource for all the fun Kentucky assignments I get to write. They took me to Gralehaus… one part B&B, one part brewpub, one part breakfast/lunch café. All good.

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I dug my pretzel croissant breakfast sammie, laden with country ham, melty cheese and a sunny-side egg.

Long live the Commonwealth, y’all.

 

 

California dreaming

Bakersfield moseyed into the trendy Mass Ave dining scene several months ago, setting up shop in the space formerly known as Bazbeaux. To be honest, I totally forgot this used to be Bazbeaux at all until I just typed that. That’s how different it looks now.

I went there for a Saturday night dinner-and-drinks girls’ night out, and it proved to be a good choice. The shine definitely isn’t off the Bakersfield penny – the place was packed with a crowd that overflowed onto the sidewalk out front. Three of my friends were already there when I arrived, holding down a set of bar stools in prime corner real estate. The décor is industrial-chic with brick walls, nifty caged hanging light fixtures and clever little nods to the rockabilly-ish “Bakersfield sound” musical era. Case in point, the women’s restroom is indicated by a picture of Loretta Lynn on the door. All in all, a young hipster’s see-and-be-seen sorta digs.

Bkfld interior

Bakersfield’s hopping Saturday night scene

So Bakersfield is part of a franchise with additional locations in Cincinnati, Columbus and elsewhere. The claim to fame is Mexican street tacos and an eye-crossing list of tequilas, although the joint carries a perfectly respectable selection of bourbons and whiskeys as well. The girls were already well into a pitcher of margaritas by the time I got there, so I grabbed a glass and joined in before I’d gotten a good look at the drinks menu. Otherwise I might have sipped and sampled a bourbon or two, or ordered up a Chester Ave that sounds suspiciously like a Sazerac. Three of the signature craft cocktails feature Buffalo Trace bourbon. These are my kind of people. I don’t often drink margaritas, but when I do, this is just the way I like ‘em. Fresh, sweet and tart with lots of salt on the glass.

marg and guac

an extra salty margarita with chips and guacamole

The food menu’s not huge, but as our server said, they’d rather do a few things and do them well rather than offer a ton of stuff and do a half-assed job. Ok, maybe the half-assed part wasn’t his exact wording, but that’s what I imagined he said. Here’s what you’ve got to choose from – chips and salsa, chips and guacamole, chips and queso (get the idea??), a couple of salads, a couple of tortas and eight soft taco variations.

The guacamole and tray of chips were enough for all four of us to share, and these were some darn good chips. Freshly made from white corn (and even gluten-free, which we discovered after the dietary-challenged member of our group made an inquiry). The guacamole was top-shelf, too, a very basic recipe with big chunks of fresh avocado, a little squeeze of citrus and a few pieces of radish (!), an unusual addition, but a good one. Yummy stuff. We also gave the red and green squeeze bottles of salsa a good workout; I preferred the green.

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tacos and a side of black beans

I think we managed to sample six different tacos. They’re small enough to order two or three per person (although we stuck to a dainty two each). The most fun tacos to say also seemed to be the tastiest — the cochinita pibil with kicky achiote braised pork, pickled onion and cilantro; and the huitlacoche, a vegetarian option with corn truffles, roasted poblano and cotija cheese. A little crema on top, a squirt of green salsa, and we were cooking on gas, baby.

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fish taco on the left, short rib taco on the right

My chicken mole taco was also good, but not quite as good as the cochinita pibil. I hadn’t realized I’d ordered two braised meat tacos until they arrived. The mahi fish taco and the rajas (another veggie option) that my friends got both looked good, but I didn’t get the skinny on whether they liked ’em or not. Everything we ordered disappeared in short order, so I’m assuming they did. Best of all, each taco only costs $3 or $4, making Bakersfield surprisingly affordable for lunch or dinner. Even when you tack on some chips for a few more bucks and a drink or two, you can still get in and out of here for $15 to $20. A very refreshing surprise for a downtown night out.

After hanging out here for about two hours total, the bill was paid, we rolled out and girls’ night out raged on. I’d come back to Bakersfield again in a second. The food was great (and cheap!), and I’d love to sniff around that bourbon list a little more…

For more info:
www.bakersfieldmassave.com.
Bakersfield Mass Ave. on Urbanspoon

Bourbon bliss and Southern comforts

Southern hospitality is alive and well and living in Lexington. My love affair with Kentucky continued this week with a five-course, bourbon-paired dinner that took our relationship to a whole new level. When I received the extremely gracious invitation from my extremely gracious friend Niki at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau to be her guest at a James Beard Dinner celebrating the summer solstice, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Determined to make the most of my all-too-short overnight visit to bourbon country, I spun through Bardstown and Maker’s Mark on my way down, followed by a stop at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in the afternoon. Sleepy, charming Bardstown is adorable, and somewhere I’d love to spend a few days exploring. I passed the Jim Beam and Heaven Hill distilleries on my way to Maker’s, which is seriously out in the middle of nowhere. The picturesque campus sits amid rolling hills laced with rustic stone walls with “Whiskey Creek” running through the property. The stoic black warehouses and outbuildings all sport red shutters.

taking a dip at Maker’s Mark

I had my heart set on doing the touristy thing and dipping my own bottle of bourbon in the signature red sealing wax. As it turned out, this activity was slightly anti-climatic but still fun, and I quickly realized it was harder than it looks to get an even drip all the way around. My wax ended up a little lopsided with a couple of wispy strands trailing off the edge of seal. (The guide said they call these “guardian angels.”)

the finished product

Calling Conner Prairie to mind, Shaker Village is a gorgeous restful place in the bucolic countryside southwest of Lexington with an on-site restaurant and a series of buildings you can actually book rooms to spend the night in. I passed a very idyllic hour or so wandering through the various historic structures and enjoying the peaceful scenery. If you’re looking to get away from it all for a night or a weekend, this would be an excellent place to do so.

the charming Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill

On to the main event, though… For the visiting New Orleans Bourbon Society (!), the bourbon dinner shindig was just one of the first stops on a weekend-long tour of Lexington. I would have loved to crash the party further to sneak onto the distillery tours and horse farm visits still to come. Let me tell you, these people know how to have a good time.

The evening started off with cocktails at the ridiculously luxurious 600+ acre Donamire Farm on Old Frankfort Pike. Talk about lifestyles of the rich and famous… this place was like a country club. The owners offered up their guesthouse for our pre-dinner festivities, and it was insanely lovely.

a classic Sazerac

We mixed and mingled in the main foyer while sipping Sazerac cocktails — a New Orleans specialty composed of rye bourbon, bitters and anise-tinged Herbsaint with a small lemon rind curled in. Strong, but delish. I must admit to being somewhat intimidated about the amount of bourbon I’d be ingesting throughout the evening and nursed my glass slowly, lest I wind up under a table somewhere before the food even arrived. The New Orleans-themed hors d’oeuvres that made their way around the room included fresh oysters, poached salmon and bite-sized alligator puff pastry potpies.

We then bussed down the road to the Headley-Whitney Museum, a decorative arts facility founded in the 1970s by prominent jewelry designer George W. Headley III. We only got a small peek at the interior, as the tables were already set up in the main lobby space when we arrived, but I did spy some jewelry displays around the room that looked interesting. It felt like Christmas, 4th of July and my birthday all rolled into one as I sat down and waited for the proceedings to begin. Logically, everything highlighted top-shelf Kentucky-made products, and Buffalo Trace Distillery in nearby Frankfort supplied all the bourbon.

fried chicken salad and Tornado Surviving

Pike Valley Farm fried chicken salad in lettuce wraps with a buttermilk sage dressing kicked things off nicely, paired with the curiously named EH Taylor Tornado Surviving. This particular bourbon did actually come through a twister that damaged several Buffalo Trace warehouses in 2006, and the barrels’ ensuing exposure to the elements has given it a serious profile that nearly jumps out of the glass and smacks you in the face. This one was a little harsh for my taste, but you have to respect its sheer strength of will. The chicken salad was fab, a savory creamy scoop amid a fresh lettuce cup with a scattering of crispy potato sticks across the top. I could eat a bigger serving of this for a summer lunch and be perfectly happy about it.

barbecued shrimp with Buffalo Trace

Next up was bourbon BBQ shrimp with a crackin’ cornbread muffin. The small shrimp were perfectly tender, and the sauce was deep and rich in flavor, almost smoky. I used a few pieces of the cornbread to dredge up more sauce since I didn’t have a spoon and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by licking the plate. I wasn’t that drunk. Yet. The bourbon match for this course was the versatile, all-around-good Buffalo Trace. I’ve tasted this stuff before and loved it, so much so, that I made sure to hit a liquor store on the way out to stock up on a few bottles. Man cannot live by Maker’s Mark alone.

red drum with crabmeat and crawfish cake

And the hits kept on coming… Third course was a small crusted filet of red drum (an Atlantic fish I can’t recall ever tasting before) atop a crawfish cake with chunks of jumbo lump crab and a bourbon cream corn sauce. The fish and the crawfish cake were sweet, moist and tasty, but it was the meaty chunks of crab dripping with the corn sauce that I could not get enough of. Sooooo. Good. The bourbon accompaniment was Weller 12 Year. At this point, I’m ashamed to say the bourbons were all starting to taste the same to my neophyte palate, but I persevered, trying to discern different flavors and scents as we went along. (To keep myself out of trouble, I did not finish all my samples and tried to just sip prudently throughout the meal.)

beef tenderloin with shiitake mushroom “bacon”

As if I wasn’t already swooning and smitten, the fourth course nearly took me over top into multiple foodgasm territory. Lyon Farms beef tenderloin with Old Kentucky Tomme scalloped potatoes and a caramel peppercorn sauce. I’ve critiqued quite a bit of steak this year, and this was simply one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had. The medium-rare beef was so tender I cut it with my fork, and the flavor was outstanding. Here’s something else that blew me away about this dish – scattered around the plate were little crunchy pieces of what I thought were bacon, but later realized were Sheltowee Farm shiitake mushrooms. I haven’t stopped wondering how in the heck they made these. Unbelievable. And the bourbon? Blanton’s Single Barrel. I was supremely proud of myself for detecting the honey notes in this one before our tasting guide had even pointed them out.

bourbon poached peach a la mode with accoutrements

By this point, I had quite a buzz going, and also felt sort of like I might soon explode. Dessert was a don’t-miss, though; a bourbon-poached halved peach with a small cube of butter cake, handspun vanilla ice cream spiked with a sorghum-almond tuile, and a splash of raspberry coulis. Very Southern, pretty as a picture and just as delicious. The bourbon capper here was Eagle Rare. Stick a fork in me. I was done.

Big, big props to the chefs for this event — Jonathan Lundy from Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington (where last  year, I had a fantastic blackened salmon and crawfish macque choux dish that I still daydream about), and Chef Darin Nesbit of Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House in New Orleans. Top, top marks for taste, skill and presentation.

I must also give a shout-out to the lovely Gratz Park Inn for my accommodations. This boutique hotel in Lexington’s oldest historic neighborhood utterly exudes old-world class. (It’s also thought to be haunted, but that’s another story…) The inn is ideally situated to downtown restaurants and attractions, the rooms are beautiful, and the hospitality warm and wonderful. I’ve stayed here twice now, and I can’t imagine booking a room anywhere else in town.

Oh, and that vague food/bourbon hangover headache I nursed throughout the following day? Totally worth it.

cheers!

Louisville lingo for foodies

I got schooled (in a good way) about Louisville’s eclectic food scene during a delightful City Taste Tour this afternoon that included samples all along the way. Interestingly, Louisville is home to some very distinctive, and awesomely delicious, food items that you can only get here. Oh sure, you can pay your respects to Colonel Sanders at beautiful historic Cave Hill Cemetery, but you should also know there’s a whole lot more worth sampling besides extra-crispy drumsticks. You’ll find just about any food your heart and tummy desires in Louisville, but these are some of the traditional tastes everyone should try:

Modjeskas from Schimpff’s Confectionery

One word: Modjeska. Learn it. Know it. Love it. In the 1880s, local Louisville confectioner Anton Busath happened to catch a performance by Polish actress Madam Helena Modjeska at the old Macauley Theater and was inspired to create a special candy in her honor. Hence, the Modjeska was born — a gooey marshmallow covered in soft caramel. These divine goodies are available at candy stores throughout the area, including Muth’s Candy in the NuLu district and the adorable Schmipff’s Confectionery across the river in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Benedictine. As Leslie, our knowledgeable tour guide, informed us, Benedictine is to Louisville what peanut butter and jelly is to the rest of the country. The original recipe is credited to one Jenny Benedict, a Louisville caterer who invented the green-tinted sandwich spread in the 1800s. It’s pretty basic, really — cream cheese, cucumber and green onions. Perfect for ladies who lunch, I imagine this stuff has been making its way onto tea sandwiches around these parts for ages.

The Hot Brown. A creation of Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, the hot brown is a real gut-buster of a yummy lunch. You start with a slice of toast, then layer on turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese, then drench the whole thing with creamy Mornay sauce. Slide it under the broiler for a few minutes to take it to new heights of sinfully caloric deliciousness. You’re welcome.

mint julep at Churchill Downs

Mint juleps. The traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are kind of a touristy thing to order. Locals and regulars seem to gravitate more toward bourbon neat, or mixed into a more respectable cocktail. I drank my first ever mint julep (quickly followed by my second) on Sunday night during a party at Churchill Downs. To say it was sweet is an understatement. I liked it, but this probably isn’t a libation you’d want to drink a bunch of in one sitting. Think sweet tea with extra sugar, bourbon and a sprig of fresh mint. I’d like to try to recreate a slightly less sweet version of this at home when the mint springs up again in my herb garden.

bourbon balls

Bourbon balls. Speaking of bourbon, don’t even think about missing out on a bourbon ball during a visit to Kentucky. Invented by Ruth Booe of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Company in nearby Frankfort way back when, these babies take a bourbony, brown sugary, creamy center and dunk it in chocolate. Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville has reinvented the recipe in a French toast dish that sounds ridiculously, insanely decadent and delicious.

rolled oysters

Rolled oysters. A brainchild of the Mazzoni family in the late 1800s/early 1900s, this is the mother of all fried oysters. Take three fresh oysters, dip them in an egg batter, roll them together in breadcrumbs and deep fry. Voila. A rolled oyster. These things are the size of a baseball, and can be eaten with cocktail sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon. Who knew a Midwestern/southern town along the Ohio River could turn out such an authoritative seafood dish?

Weisenberger grits. The best restaurants in town advertise Weisenberger grits on their menus, so I asked why. Weisenberger grits are apparently the Rolls-Royce of cornmeal, produced at the Weisenberger mill in central Kentucky by six generations of Weisenbergers. If you see them on a menu, order them. Immediately. And for those of you drinking along at home — Weisenberger.

Derby Pie®. Trademarked by Kern’s Kitchen, this dessert makes plain old pecan pie look downright pathetic by subbing chopped black walnuts and chocolate chips into a top-secret classified recipe. Uh, yum.

Wait, there’s more… Louisville’s been named a top foodie town by several magazines, and a drive around quickly uncovers the reasons why. Have I sufficiently whetted your appetite?

For info about a mouthwatering way to see and learn about Louisville, call Leslie Burke’s City Taste Tours at (502) 457-8686 or visit www.citytastetours.com. I guarantee you won’t go home hungry or thirsty.

Bourbon for beginners

I like bourbon, but I don’t know much about it. So for a novice like myself, last week’s crash-course visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery proved quite educational.

it wouldn’t be Buffalo Trace without a buffalo…

Indianapolis is really a beer town first and foremost (see recent past entries about our booming microbreweries). In fact, I can’t think of any local bars and restaurants that promote a bourbon selection. In Kentucky, however, it’s another story.

The process of ordering some bourbon here is enough to leave a person stammering and sweating. You can’t just go into a watering hole and request a cocktail. You’ve got to know what brand of bourbon you want; decide whether you want it straight up or on the rocks, neat, with water and how much; and any other number of other defining criteria. Bourbon is serious business, and these people do not mess around.

Located on a Kentucky River bend in the heart of beautiful bourbon country near Frankfort, Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery of its kind in America, dating back to 1787. I drove down to attend the annual White Dog Days party, a celebration commemorating the first seasonal fall barreling of the newly distilled whiskey. According to lore, the freshly minted un-aged spirit is called “white dog” because it’s clear and it definitely has a bite. (I believe it’s the same thing as moonshine, but don’t hold me to that.)

one of the massive Buffalo Trace warehouses

The Buffalo Trace property is massive, taking in some 130 acres and around 100 buildings, many made from handsome weathered red brick. There are more than 300,000 barrels of whisky aging on site here at any given time, and each barrel contains 53 gallons. That’s a LOT of hooch.

a pre-tour cocktail

We were greeted with a signature white dog cocktail made with lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine, then herded up for a tour of the grounds. The smell of roasting grains permeated the air, a distinctive aroma sort of like roasting coffee beans, but gamier and earthier. A few interesting tidbits I learned along the way — bourbon is a distinctly American product with strict defining guidelines. It has to be at least 51 percent corn-based; it has to be aged in new charred oak containers for at least two years; and no flavorings or preservatives can be added. A great trivia item — the round piece of wood that plugs each barrel is known as the bung, and the round slot it fits into is called the bunghole. Go ahead and say it a few times. You know you want to.

The aging process is what adds flavor and that distinctive honeyed brown color to the liquor. The inside of each barrel is toasted to caramelize the wood, just as you’d caramelize onions in a pan to bring out the natural sweetness. The longer the bourbon ages, the more of that flavor and color it picks up. Ten percent of the volume is lost in the first year; that evaporation is called the “angels’ share.”  When you stop to consider that bourbon is aged anywhere from two to 20 years, you start to get an idea of what a long-term commitment it is to make this stuff.

just in case you were tempted…

We walked through the campus to get a look at the mash house cookers, the gigantic fermentation tanks, the stills and warehouses packed to the gills with barrels.

As a White Dog Day tradition at Buffalo Trace, everyone gets to sign his or her name on the first barrel of the season. Kinda cool to think that my name is now on a barrel of bourbon aging away somewhere down there.

making my mark for posterity

With much pomp and ceremony, the Buffalo Trace folks hammered out the bung with a big mallet and suctioned out a sample of the white dog, then everyone toasted to the new distilling season and downed a shot. A festive catered barbecue dinner followed.

The next morning, I attended a bourbon tasting class. At 9 a.m. This made me more than a little nervous, especially when I entered the clubhouse room and saw each place was set with no fewer than eight — count ‘em, eight — samples. I was really glad I’d made sure to pad my stomach with some breakfast beforehand.

The glasses were arranged on a paper placemat grid by age and ingredient, and it was immediately interesting to note the color variations.

Buffalo Trace’s signature tasting grid

Here’s a quick walk-through in order of tasting:

1)    Rain vodka. In addition to bourbon, Buffalo Trace also produces a nice organic white corn-based vodka twice a year. It’s got a slightly sweet fragrance and a mild, smooth flavor.

2)    White dog wheat. Fragrant with a heady, yeasty smell. If you’ve ever smelled sourdough bread starter, that’s what it reminds me of.

3)    White dog rye. Slightly spicier and stronger than the wheat. Have to say after tasting these and the cocktail the night before, I’m not a white dog fan. It’s got an unusual flavor profile that I just didn’t care for. I much prefer my bourbon on the aged side.

4)    7-month-old rye whiskey. Light golden in color, little bit of a smoky sweet flavor.

5)    3.5-year corn whiskey. Also light in color, made from 100 percent corn. No real depth of flavor here because it was made in a previous used barrel and most of the caramelized wood flavor and color had already been stripped out.

6)    W.L. Weller Special Reserve. Pretty color and a smooth taste.

7)    Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Now you’re talking. This was my favorite of the bunch. Aged between eight and ten years, it manages to be full-bodied and complex, but also mellow.

8)    Salzerac Straight Rye Whiskey. Darkest in color, it’s made with less corn than any other sample, so it’s technically not bourbon. This one makes you sit up and take notice with a heavy nose, strong bite and sharp smoky taste.

Buffalo Trace product inventory

As it turned out, the tasting wasn’t quite as hardcore as I’d feared. I could have easily gotten drunk, mind you, if I’d downed all the samples. Fortunately, I got away with not having to taste every single one, and just barely sipped the ones I did try.

It was really interesting to learn more about Kentucky’s state beverage, and although I am still far from an expert, at least I won’t feel like a total idiot next time I want to order some bourbon.

* A fun side note, Ghost Hunters just filmed an episode at Buffalo Trace; watch for it to air on Syfy in November.

For more information about Buffalo Trace Distillery:

http://www.buffalotrace.com/

Life, Libertine, and the pursuit of happiness

I wonder if Neal Brown’s mom ever admonished him to stop playing with his food when he was a kid. If she did, she must be eating her words right about now. As chef-owner of L’Explorateur (closed. boo.), Pizzology and now the Libertine, creative doesn’t even begin to describe the things this guy can do with food and drink.

 

Brown’s Indy fans have been anxiously awaiting the opening of his new speakeasy-ish downtown cocktail bar for what seems like ages. And finally, the wait is over. The Libertine opened about a month ago in a little storefront on Washington Street and has been racking up the raves ever since. I went last night with a small group of girlfriends to test the waters. I must admit to being a little nervous, because I’d been looking forward to it so much. My hopes were high and I reeeeeeaally didn’t want to be disappointed. Happily, I wasn’t. The Libertine more than lived up to my expectations, and I can personally attest that all the accolades are well deserved.

We arrived around 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was busy, but not absolutely crammed as I’d feared it might be. The Libertine doesn’t take reservations, and we were told the wait for a table would be around 45 minutes. Fortunately, the restaurant provides cocktail service at a couple of tall standing-room-only tables near the front where you can wait. As it turned out, we were seated within 15 minutes, before the first round of drinks even arrived.

The Libertine isn’t large; basically, it’s just one long narrow dining room. The bar runs the length of the space, fronting a wall of cubbyholes that’s been partially filled with bottles, food products, cookbooks and bric-a-brac. A row of four-top tables fills the other side separated from the bar by a long aisle. The décor is dark, sleek and sophisticated, heavy on IKEA-style touches like groovy hanging light fixtures over the tables and what looks like white tree branches growing through the wall at the back by the restrooms.

The menu isn’t big, either, but it requires some serious consideration just because everything sounds so unusual. I mean this in the best possible way. At the Libertine, cocktails deserve equal (if not greater) billing to the food, commandeering more than the top half of the one-page bill of fare. And what cocktails they are… Brown has taken the same innovative approach he uses with food and applied it to alcohol to turn out some really distinctive combinations. Even the names are clever. “Yes, I’d like a Dirty Little Whirlwind, please.” Or, “Could you bring me another Truth and Reconciliation when you get a minute?” You can get beer and wine here as well, but you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try at least one mixed drink.

the Seelbach Cocktail

I’m trying to train for an upcoming bourbon-tasting media tour in Kentucky, so I ordered a little number called the Seelbach Cocktail, named for the fancy historic hotel in Louisville. Served in a sexy curvy stemmed glass, the drink consists of vintage bourbon with orange juice, lemon juice, a splash of fizzy Prosecco and a strip of orange peel. I enjoyed it so much, I ordered a second. Icy cold, sweet but not too sweet, and much more palatable than the Manhattans I’ve been drinking elsewhere lately.

Other beverage choices around the table included a Dark and Stormy made with rum, ginger beer and lime; a lovely floral St. Germain cocktail; and the Paloma Smash — a crush of La Cava Blanco, grapefruit and mint. I thought the Dark and Stormy tasted like a Coke with a bit of ginger after-kick.

My friend Gillian insists I mention the ice. The Dark and Stormy and the later Pimm’s Cup she ordered (a fresh punch of sorts comprised of gin, cucumber, lemon and ginger beer) held big oversized cubes that kept the drinks cold but melted slowly enough that they didn’t dilute the flavors. A small detail that makes a big difference.

If you like absinthe, you can find it here, although the stuff scares the crap out of me. The real-deal French variety is hallucinogenic and causes some really trippy reactions from what I’ve heard. Our waitress assured us the version they serve at the Libertine is toned down and “as legal as it can be in the U.S.” She said you really have to love the flavor of black licorice to enjoy it, and I don’t. No one at our table ordered any, but I would have liked to see someone at another table ask for some just so we could see the elaborate preparation process.

I’m curious which concept came first at the Libertine, the cocktails or the food. The small selection of a dozen and a half small plates is ideally suited to complement the drinks. You can certainly make a dinner out of the choices, but don’t expect full meal plates of oversized portions here. Each offering is a perfectly sized and packed-with-flavor appetizer. For our repast, we picked two items to share amongst the group and then each ordered another individual small plate or two of our own choosing.

The first thing I sought out on the menu was the bacon flight, something I’d caught prior wind of in a review I’d read. Not just an urban legend, there it was. We agreed to share that, along with the Manchego crostini. (I lobbied for the daily selection of deviled eggs, am putting that front and center for my next visit.)

Libertine’s bacon flight

But back to the bacon… this is NOT your grandpa’s greasy Jimmy Dean breakfast special. The Libertine bacon commands immediate respect, arriving in a silver goblet. The five or six strips come with a series of three garnish accompaniments — a pesto, tiny cubes of brunoised pickled carrot, and a spicy goat cheese spread. I can’t remember exactly what kind of bacon we got. I do recall the server saying something about a lamb variation and a double-smoked strip, but after that, it all blends into a deliciously salty haze. (There’s a very real possibility that my Seelbach Cocktail could have been kicking in here.) The crunchy carrots were my favorite adornment; the acidity was a great flavor component to balance out some of the fatty richness of the meat. One gal in our group who hates goat cheese kept going back for more of it on this dish, if that tells you anything about how good it was.

The crostini were ok, little toasts topped with artichoke and pine nuts buried under an avalanche of shredded Manchego cheese, but didn’t stand out as much as some of the other stuff we ate.

chicken pate and waffles

For my solo plate, I opted for the Gunthorp Farms chicken liver pate over waffles – Brown’s whimsical spin on the more traditional chicken and waffles you find at soul food eateries like my beloved Roscoe’s in Los Angeles. This was another dish I’d read about online and was intrigued by. The presentation was pretty awesome: two disks of pate on top of two small stacked waffles with a little bit of hot sauce on the bottom of the plate and a drizzle of bourbon syrup poured over tableside. Did I mention there was a little piece of crispy fried chicken skin on top? Oh yes, there was. I’ll fess up — I don’t have much experience with pate, and I can’t say in all honesty that this dish made me a fan. It was interesting to be sure, and I have no doubt the pate was top-notch, but I guess my palate just isn’t accustomed to the texture.

What else was there? Let’s see… the roasted mushroom salad with cauliflower puree and chickpeas looked and tasted delish.

duck meatballs over gnocchi

One member of our group ordered a duck meatballs over crispy potato gnocchi dish that she was very happy with, saying it was something meat-and-potato lovers would definitely like.

The beef tataki dish was sort of a seared carpaccio over arugula with fennel. It looked a lot like tuna, but was a little too rare for my taste. I wussed out and just nibbled an edge of the meat to taste it. The Proper Ham and Cheese sandwich was one of the more fairly straightforward choices. Gruyere and mornay sauce took the whole thing over the top into the realm of decadence, and the Smoking Goose Meatery-sourced ham was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

the one-eyed Jack

One of the biggest hits at the table was something called “One-Eyed Jack,” a toad-in-the-hole kind of thing with a egg nestled into a thick slice of grilled bread. It was served with fig butter and garlic confit, which sounds a little weird on paper, but was a fantastic combination when all put together. You’ve gotta really like garlic to enjoy this one, though. I only had one bite and the first thing hubby said to me when I got home was, “Wow. Garlic, huh?”

Small plate prices run anywhere from $6 for the radish plate to $15 for the oyster selection du jour. Many items hover in the $8 or $9 range, which seems totally fair for the quality and creativity involved.

The Libertine doesn’t offer any desserts, which is too bad. I would love to see what Brown would do here in this capacity. But whatever. I can’t wait to go back.

living it up at Libertine with the gals

For more information, visit:

http://www.libertineindy.com/

Libertine on Urbanspoon