Sometimes you can’t tell how far you’ve traveled until you rumble all the way back and hit home. When I left Kentucky in 1975, bourbon was a blase part of blue grass culture like coal, horses, and Ohio River catfish that few of us dared to eat.
“The grass only looks blue…” my parents’ friends joked at country club parties “…after you’ve had a few Mint Juleps.”
This was an irreverent summons to chug that silver-cupped julep after which someone would quickly deliver you a new one. Now you know the strange secret of my teenage years – I had to rebel against southern julep culture. We weren’t even the drunks of the town, but that was some potent brew. I became a New England/Yankee student which included becoming a theater geek, a wine drinker, and worse yet, a liberal. I left with mixed feelings about my old Kentucky home.
As beautiful as the race horses are, no kid likes to see those dreamy animals with big brown eyes and soft ears get whipped on a race track. That can be hard to ignore. We watched factories churn sludge into the rivers year after year, sometimes creating psychedelic puddles of lime green and neon orange. Many factories have cleaned up some or closed up altogether; what remains is farmland, fragile coal-filled mountains, plenty of humanitarian problems, and historic limestone-infused waters which have long been responsible for the quality of Kentucky’s bourbon.
Eventually, my travels led me far away from KY to Hollywood, where I read scripts for a living for a good while. One of the best I read was “Hitting Home” by Tom Rickman on a show called Shannon’s Deal, about an errant father returning to his recovering gambler/lawyer/son’s haggard life. Why did this script hit home with me? Turns out Rickman is a Kentucky man, and also wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter. In writing, as in cooking, authenticity brings power to the hands of artists.
Along with bourbon’s white-hot moment comes a culinary spotlight on Kentucky cuisine. My friend Chef Ben VanHorn of the Bellefonte Country Club told me a few shockers. “We go through cases and cases of bourbon for every one case of wine,” he explained. “Ours is a fusion of southern country cooking and French tradition. We use bourbon instead of wine because it is from here – it is the flavor of this place.” His Smoked Gouda Grits with Beef Burgoo and respect for Louisville’s Brown Hotel classics like Bourbon Sweet Potatoes and Hot Brown with barn-cured, local, country bacon does our colorful patch of Kentucky proud. The International Association of Culinary Professionals held its annual conference in Louisville in March 2017 – an honor.
The traditional bourbon industry has converged with the booming craft spirits market with even more tours and tastings. Slick warehouses and tasting rooms provide charming lessons in local civics and history. Each one is visitor friendly. Bourbon used to be just a business, but now it is a regional religion. Even a reformed rebel like me can find spiritual happiness in the straight-up success of Kentucky bourbon.
More good stuff from Kentucky or thereabouts:
Mint Julep by Woodford Reserve
Hot Brown from Brown Hotel, Louisville, KY
Victuals – highlights Appalachian cuisine
Deep Run Roots – IACP winner & North Carolina Southern focus
Derby Pie – While the recipe for this classic is a closely guarded secret and has generated about 25 lawsuits for those who try to publish it, I’ll just suggest this: you take a good Pecan Pie recipe, add about 6 ounces of chocolate and a shot of bourbon to the filling, and voila! Something akin to Derby Pie but you didn’t hear it from me.
Ben & Jerry’s is introducing a new flavor called “Urban Bourbon”. That and a Mint Julep is a meal. Cheers.