Hankering for a heaping plate of Southern grub to accompany your glass of bourbon? Bourbon Country has plenty to offer beyond its namesake spirit: Traverse the tumbling hills and waving wheat fields and you’ll discover a thriving food scene that stretches from bluegrass Kentucky to urban Tennessee. The charm of Bourbon Country’s scenery and its residents trickles down into the food itself, and infuses every ingredient. And while the area’s legendary oak barrels can only be used once to age bourbon itself, there’s no limit to those barrels’ possibilities the second time around—a major boon for Southern food products. Everything from chocolate to soy sauce reaps the benefits of repurposed bourbon barrels, which lend whispers of sweet, charred oak to whatever foodstuff they touch. Read on for a selection of Bourbon Country’s finest fixins—some barrel-aged or bourbon-laced—and all infused with an ample dose of tradition.
Move over, Kikkoman: You’re no longer the top soy sauce on the shelf. Bourbon Barrel Foods’ small-batch bottle is microbrewed using Kentucky-grown soybeans, soft red winter wheat and limestone-filtered spring water, giving it serious flavor. Fermented and aged in repurposed bourbon barrels, this soy sauce emerges with a hint of smoke and mild sweetness that recalls a fine Kentucky bourbon. It’s a favorite with local chefs (like Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia) who appreciate the aggressive, umami-packed edge that distinguishes Bluegrass Soy Sauce. But why stop at soy sauce? Bourbon Barrel Foods barrel-ages products from the sweet side of the spectrum too, including bourbon-smoked sugar and Madagascar vanilla extract. Aged in barrels that were once filled with some of the state’s best bourbon, the single-strength vanilla is rich and aromatic with a gentle caramel finish thanks to the spirit-soaked wood. It’s perfect for animating desserts like ice cream and bread pudding with a nudge of Southern flavor.
Some of the finest distilleries in the South lend their spent bourbon barrels to Olive & Sinclair, which allows the chocolate makers to create this distinctive, playful brittle that mimics the finish of a classic bourbon. Aging the cacao beans in local barrels infuses the beans with notes of apple, cherry and oak, a combination that’s expertly paired with caramelized cane sugar and butter to create a sticky, crackly sweet. In addition to cacao nib-studded shards of brittle, the company also crafts a slew of artisan chocolate bars made from slow-roasted single origin beans, including regional specialties like Salt & Pepper Buttermilk White Chocolate.
Allan Benton is a legend in the meat community: a bonafide ham man and an uncompromising artisan, he’s quite possibly the friendliest gentleman in the South. Armed with only his family recipe and a humble smokehouse, Allan built a national reputation for his hams based on one simple premise: never compromise quality. That motto still rings true today as Allan continues to slow cure his country hams the old fashioned way—with a time-honored rub of salt, brown sugar and red and black pepper—plus a great deal of patience. His celebrated aged country hams are aged from 12 to 18 months, which produces a richly complex and intense flavor that has captivated everyday customers and famous chefs for over 40 years. Best served paper-thin, the salty slivers of ham have a magical way of melting slowly across your tongue. Allan applies the same level of porcine-centric pride to his hickory-smoked bacon. To prepare it, fresh Midwestern pork bellies are rubbed with salt, brown sugar and pepper and aged for three long weeks before heading to the wood stove-fired smokehouse to soak up the deep, dark hickory flavor for three days. The final slabs produce thickly-sliced bacon that’s dense, chewy and salty with just the right amount of fat to fill out your breakfast plate. Take it from a true master of meat: This is bacon worth waking up for.
Can’t decide which bourbon pairs best with chocolate? Embark on a tour with this Louisville confectioner’s “Taste of the Trail” collection, which highlights truffles made with bourbon from eight different members of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. As a sponsor of the Trail, Art Eatables wanted to make a product that would introduce consumers to the finest bourbons and distillers in the area. The truffles were originally aimed at non-bourbon drinkers as a “gateway drug” to appreciating bourbon, but the flavor pairings were so alluring that even bourbon experts have become enthusiastic fans. Each two-bite truffle uses carefully-selected Belgian-style chocolate that accents the character of the bourbon featured (like Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey), to ensure that the distinct flavor of the spirit shines through.
Served at 2014’s Kentucky Derby, this local Lexington cheese channels the official drink of the race with hints of fresh mint and Kentucky bourbon layered inside. As the first bourbon-infused cheddar of its kind, the traditional Derby-style cheese has a mellow, buttery flavor and subtle oak finish that sets it apart from other infused styles. Unlike other producers, Boone Creek makes all of its cheeses by hand on a traditional Dutch lever press to protect the flavor and texture of the final product. This labor-intensive process honors Kentucky’s calcium-rich soil, a resource that produces strong, sturdy cows and full-bodied milk, which in turn creates an especially rich cheese.
Pounce on this specialty brew whenever you can—it’s only sold in small batches when there’s a fresh bourbon barrel available from the local distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Though the exact type of coffee bean used is a closely-guarded secret, Common Grounds employs a mix of unroasted green beans from around the world and ages them in bourbon barrels for over two weeks to trap the oaky aroma inside. The infused beans are then roasted to a specific heat level to produce coffee with slight citrus and honey notes and a robust whiskey finish. Now that’s a morning pick-me-up with a little extra bite.