Bourbon Entertaining Made Easy By Experts

Inspired by the amazing win of Strike Rich, the second biggest upset in the Kentucky Derby’s history, I decided to delve into Kentucky food history by reading and cooking from a new book on the subject, it’s title compelling asking Which Fork Do I use with My Bourbon?: Setting the Table for Tastings, Food Pairings, Dinners, and Cocktail Parties from University Press of Kentucky.

Wondering what fork to use when serving bourbon isn’t a question we commonly ask, but authors Peggy Noe Stevens and Susan Reigler are entertainment and bourbon experts who travel frequently conducting seminars and tastings. The impetus for their book stems from being constantly asked how to go about hosting the perfect cocktail or dinner party starting from table setting to pairing the best foods and bourbons.

Their bourbon credentials are impeccable. Stevens is an inductee into the Bourbon Hall of Fame, the first female master bourbon taster, founder of the Bourbon Women Association, and one of the originators of the Kentucky Bourbon Trails. Reigler is the author of several bourbon and travel books including Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide and The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book, a former restaurant critic and beverage columnist, and past president of the Bourbon Women Association as well as a certified bourbon steward.

Now Stevens and Reigler are the type of Kentucky women who if they were going to tailgate at the Kentucky Derby wouldn’t bring a cooler filled will take-out from the deli counter of the local grocery store to be served on  paper plates and eaten with plastic dinnerware. This type of Kentucky woman brings great grandmother’s silver serving dishes and great great Aunt Mabel’s fine China. And, of course, the food would be equally well turned out though not necessarily fussy or hard to make.

Despite the elegance of it all, Stevens and Reigler don’t want anyone “to work their fingers to the bone planning and executing.”

Susan Reigler

Peggy Noe Stevens

After all, they say, “the best form of bourbon etiquette is simple to make people feel comfortable.”

The following recipes are from Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon.

Dark and Bloody Mary:

  • 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, paprika mix
  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • 2 large lemon wedges
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 can (6 ounces) tomato juice

To prepare the seasoning mix, combine in a mortar (or spice grinder) one part each smoked sea salt, smoked black pepper, and smoked paprika (the authors suggest these should all come from Bourbon Barrel Foods– bourbonbarrelfoods.com). Finely crush with a pestle and shake together in a jar.

To a pint glass or a large mason jar filled with ice, add the bourbon, squeeze and drop in the lemon wedges, and add 1teaspoon of the seasoning mix and the Worcestershire sauce. Shake. Add more ice and the tomato juice. Shake again.

Garnish with a long straw and baby corn, large pitted black olive, and cherry pepper, all on a stick.

Wabbit

Combine all the cocktail ingredients in a shaker. Shake on ice and double-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a sage leaf.

Date Syrup

Macerate 1 pint of dates with rich syrup (1 pound of “sugar in the raw” and ½ pound of water, heated and stirred until the sugar dissolves).

Susan’s Tuna Spread:

Author Susan Reigler came across this recipe forty years ago in a small spiral-bound  book of recipes by James Beard that was included with her purchase of a Cuisinart food processor. She always gets raves when she serves it. Spicy and tangy, this is not your bachelor uncle’s bland tuna fish salad.

  • 2 5-ounce cans albacore tuna packed in water, drained
  • cup mayonnaise
  • ¼ cup tightly packed fresh parsley sprigs
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1½ tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend briefly.

Bourbon Pineapple Poundcake:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup bourbon
  • 1 to 2 fresh pineapples, quartered and sliced
  • in thick strips
  • 1 pound cake

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees. Mix the brown sugar and bourbon until it forms a thin paste. Lay the pineapple strips side by side in a baking dish.

Brush the brown sugar mixture thickly on the pineapple strips. Put the dish in the oven and allow the mixture to melt over the pineapple until warm.

Lay the pineapple strips over slices of pound cake and ladle any extra juice over each slice. Serve immediately.

Woodford Reserve Chocolate Bread Pudding:

  • 12 cups stale French bread, diced in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1¾ cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 6 ounces dark or bittersweet chocolate, chopped in large chunks
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Place the bread cubes in a large bowl and toss with the milk until the

bread is moistened. Soak for at least 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the eggs, sugar,

vanilla, and cinnamon and pour over the bread-milk mixture. Fold

together until well mixed.

Fold in the chocolate chunks and mix until evenly distributed. Pour

into a greased, deep 13- by 9-inch pan. Drizzle the melted butter over

the batter and cover with foil.

Bake for 30 minutes covered and then for another 10 to 15 minutes

uncovered, until the pudding is set and firm in the middle and golden

brown on top. Serve warm with Bourbon Butter Sauce.

Bourbon Butter Sauce

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.

Whisk in the sugar and bourbon and bring to a simmer. Crack the eggs

in a large bowl and whisk until blended. Add a little warm bourbon

mixture to the eggs and whisk. Continue to add the bourbon mixture

a little at a time until the eggs have been tempered. Pour all the liquid

back into the pan and return it to medium heat. Bring to a light simmer

and cook for several minutes, until thickened. Keep warm and serve over bread pudding.

Photography by Pam Spaulding.

Straight Bourbon: Distilling the Industry’s Heritage

“Bourbon is a legacy of blue grass, water and Kentucky limestone,” Carol Peachee tells me when I ask what makes Kentucky bourbon so prized.

Limestone? Water? Bluegrass? What’s that have to do with fine bourbon?

Turns out it’s quite simple. According to Peachee, the limestone filters the iron out of the water as it flows through the rock, producing a sweet-tasting mineral water perfect for making the greatest tasting liquor. Limestone, with its heavy calcium deposits, also is credited with the lush blue grass the state’s prize-winning horses gaze upon — making their bones strong.

It’s been a long time since I took geology in college, but I do like the taste of good bourbon and the sight of stately horses grazing in beautiful pastures and the more I can learn about it all, the better. Which is why I love Peachee’s entrancing photographs.

Carol Peachee

I first met Peachee, an award-winning professional photographer, when she was autographing copies of her latest book, Straight Bourbon: Distilling the Industry’s Heritage (Indiana University Press 2017; $28). Creating beauty as well as a sense of yearning, her books, including The Birth of Bourbon: A Photographic Tour of Early Distilleries, take us on a wanderlust journey of lost distilleries and those now re-emerging from the wreckage of Prohibition. At one time, Kentucky had over two hundred commercial distilleries, but only sixty-one reopened after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Now, as Kentucky bourbon becomes a driving force throughout the world, once barely remembered and long closed distilleries are being restored and revamped and are opening again for business.

Using a photographic technique known as high-dynamic-range imaging ― a process that produces rich saturation, intensely clarified details, and a full spectrum of light ― Peachee hauntingly showcases the vibrancy still lingering in artifacts such as antique tools, worn cypress fermenting tubs, ornate copper stills some turning slightly green with oxidation and age, gears and levers —things we would never typically think of as lovely and compelling.

Traveling with the Book

Keeping copies of her books in my car when I travel to Kentucky, I love visiting some of the places and sites she’s photographed.

Her passion for bourbon may also have come about, in part, because she lives in Lexington, Kentucky which is rich in the history of bourbon making (and, we should say, sipping).

To get a taste of how bourbon connects to the land, when in Lexington, Peachee suggests a stop at the Barrel House Distilling Co. including the Elkhorn Tavern located in the old James B. Pepper barrel plant. It’s part of Lexington’s happening Distillery District. But fine bourbon doesn’t just stop in Lexington.

“There are so many bourbon distilleries now,” she says, noting that the heritage of good bourbon making is more than the equipment and the water.

“The cultural heritage of distilling also lays in the human culture,” she writes in the Acknowledgements section of her latest book, “the people who learned the crafts of milling, copper welding and design, barrel making and warehouse construction and then passed them on through the generations down to today’s workers and owners.”

And now Peachee has passed them down to us so we can fully appreciate the art of distilling

Town Branch Bourbon Bramble

  • 2oz Bourbon
  • 3/4oz Fresh squeeze lemons
  • 3/4oz Simple syrup
  • 5 Fresh blackberries muddled

Shake with ice, strain and pour over fresh ice in rock glass with blackberry garnish.

Town Branch Bourbon Mint Julep

  • 2 oz Bourbon
  • 8 mint leaves
  • 1/4oz simple syrup
  • Dash of bitters

Muddle ingredients.

Add crushed ice with mint garnish and straw.

The above recipes are courtesy of the Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company.

Traveling Through Time: Down the Danube Narrows to Weltenburg Abbey

Weltenburg Abbey was more than four centuries old before the monks first began brewing ale—or at least ale worth noting–in 1050. Now vying for the title of the oldest monastic brewery in the world (Weihenstephan Abbey also claims the honor), they set their claim on maintaining the original brewing process. Like the beer, much is as it was remains at the Abbey, the somewhat plain exterior of the cathedral opens onto an elaborately ornate and gilded interior. Services are still held regularly, and monks still live and work on the premises. And just as abbeys were places for gatherings for a millennium and more, Weltenburg also remains a destination. Located 25 miles west of the charming Bavarian city of Regensburg, a UNESCO World Heritage City and just three miles from Kelheim, it is accessible by car. But I totally like immersing myself in history and my goal today is to replicate—as much as I can—the 1050 experience.

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Long Wall and St. Nepomuk

On the ferry from Kelheim, I watch as the boat’s wake cuts through waters reflecting the dark greens of dense woods and whites of limestone rocks of the Fränkische Alb mountains, some rising 300-feet high. Winds, water and time have carved caves and nooks in the limestone and in one of these crannies on an expansive stretch of stone called the Long Wall someone has tucked a statue of St. Nepomuk, the patron saint of water and bridges who was drowned when he refused to reveal the confessions made to him by the Queen of Bavaria. Her husband must have really wanted to know what she was up to.

The Danube Narrows

Today it will take 40 minutes to travel the Danube Narrows, an ancient waterway to and from Weltenburg Abbey or if you want to be really German about it, Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei, a sprawling complex of Baroque stone buildings surrounded by the lush rural beauty of Southern Bavaria.

There are times when the river is a lively place with small boats passing by and bicyclists and hikers making their way along the riverbank. Then suddenly, navigating a bend, it’s all calm waters and quiet.  I imagine this is how it was when pilgrims and tradesmen (and hopefully tradeswomen as well) came to the abbey to retreat from the world, rest or conduct business. It was a time when travel was mainly by water as roads barely existed and their trip would have taken much longer without our gas powered engines. But the sight they saw when making the final curve is much the same as today—Weltenburg’s blue tower roof and the washed pink walls.

Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei

The abbey sits on a bend of the river and in front is a small sandy beach and shallow waters where people play. It’s hot today—a heat wave is moving across Europe—and I envy them as the water looks cool and refreshing. But history calls and instead I move up the walk leading from the dock to the entrance already awed by the size and beauty of the place.

There are always hard choices and today I need to decide whether to tour first (there are self-guided and guided tours available) or take a seat in the sun at the biergarten, It appears that most people have chosen the latter and rather than wait for a table or sit inside the restaurant, I enter the church.

St. Georg Church

We’re talking seriously rococo inside, an overdrive of theatrical flourishes mixed with more Gothic elements. Paintings date back to the 1300s, a statue of the church’s namesake St. George or St. Georg as its spelled here, sculpted in smooth, sleek marble, rides his horse most likely on his way to slay the dragon. The main room, its ceiling 65-feet high, has alcoves off to the sides, each one just as ornate. It’s hard to take in everything at once, the artistry, pageantry and craftsmanship are so amazing.  Standing near a group tour, I hear phrases like “eight ionic columns, Weltenburg marble and gold fresco” and hurriedly write the words down as it helps sort out this wonderment of riches.

Bavarian Fare

Back outside, I spot an empty table and grab it. Addicted to German fare (yes, really), I order pigs’ knuckle known as schweinshaxe, schnitzel and even though I’m in Bavarian and not the Black Forest (hey, it’s nearby) the famous cake from that region. Of course, I need a glass of their Kloster Barock Dunkel—an almost black in color ale which is still made on site in a rock cave and then sent by pipeline to the monastery taps. Also available—to drink or take home, there is a gift store of course–are other brews and such medicinal spirits as their Weltenburg monastery bitters and liqueurs. And if you want to go full abbey, there’s their klosterkas and monastery sausage both based on ancient Weltenburg recipes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that last schnitzel and definitely not the cake. To assuage my conscience, I climb the mountain path as it winds past the Stations of the Cross. It’s steep but the gaps in the woods offer commanding views of the valley, abbey and gorge below. I briefly contemplate spending the night at the St. Georg Guest House to be able to walk the abbey grounds late at night when all the visitors are gone but I don’t have a reservation. Next time for sure.

The Oldest Wheat Beer Brewery in Bavaria

          Returning to Kelheim isn’t exactly like entering the 21st century. In the old town I wander the narrow streets snapping photos of perfectly maintained Medieval-era buildings just a short walk from the docks and on the way to where I parked my car, I let my friends talk me into stopping at Weisses Bauhaus Kelheim.

It’s a beautiful place, all wood, vaulted ceilings and archways leading from room to room. Outside we sit in, yes another beer garden, this one next to a small stream, and order a round of their wheat beer. Really, I had to since they’ve been brewing beer here since 1607, making the Weisses Brauhaus the oldest wheat beer brewery in Bavaria.

 

I’m not typically a beer lover but both the Kloster Barock Dunkel at the abbey and the TAP7 here, made from the original 1872 recipe, are robust and flavorful without bitterness or an overly hoppy taste. I’m driving so instead of more beer, I listen to the live music, enjoy the myriad of colorful blooms cascading from window boxes, baskets and containers and contemplate how I’ve spent the day moving through history and only now have reached the 17th century.

Camp Runamok: Barrel-Aged and Smoked Maple Syrups

Maple syrup, one of the original cash crops, is the rich and delicious gifts the sugar maples give us every spring–at least for those willing to tap and collect the thin sap that is then boiled down to a thick amber consistency. For Eric and Laura Sorkin of the Vermont-based Camp Runamok, who make barrel-aged and smoked maple syrups, it’s more than just a pancake topping in the morning. One of Runamok Maple’s core missions has always been to educate consumers about the versatility of maple as an ingredient and they recently upped the ante with a variety of fascinating products such as their special-editions syrups including Cocoa Bean Infused made with only two ingredients–organic maple syrup and cocoa bean nibs

The Sorkins also produce jazzy Maple Sparkles (yes, just like the name implies it’s sparkly), and Strawberry-Rose Maple Syrups that can be used as a topping on pancakes and waffles and also in such recipes as Crepes with Sliced Bananas and Peanut Butter Pie.

Now they’ve upped the ante with their their new collection of cocktail mixers includes four syrups – Maple Old FashionedMaple TonicSmoked Old Fashioned, and Ginger Mule – and three different kinds of bitters – Floral MapleAromatic Maple, and Orange Maple.  All are made with 100% pure Vermont maple syrup. The cocktail syrups can easily take the place of simple syrup, and will leave cocktail enthusiasts wondering why they hadn’t previously opted for the rich, complex flavors of maple syrup instead. The maple-based cocktail bitters are jam-packed with earthy, botanical flavors and will quickly elevate cocktails with just a few drops. Customers can purchase 250 mL bottles of the cocktail syrups for $16.95 each and 100 mL bottles of the bitters for $11.95 on runamokmaple.com

Runamok Maple Mixers.png

The line of cocktail mixers will feature four different syrups – Maple Old FashionedMaple TonicSmoked Old Fashioned, and Maple Ginger Mule – along with three different kinds of bitters – Floral MapleAromatic Maple, and Orange Maple.

“At Runamok Maple, we have been creating cocktails using our infused and smoked maple syrups since we started production,” said Laura Sorkin, co-founder of Runamok Maple. “Through our experimentation over the years, we have come to realize that our maple-based creations are, to this day, some of our favorite cocktails. With the launch of our new cocktail syrups and bitters, we want our customers to experience those same flavors that we have been sharing with our family and friends.”

Most cocktails feature a touch of sugar, which most commonly comes in the form of simple syrup, but the process can be tedious, particularly for the home bartender, and the taste of the granulated sugar dissolved in water is sweet but plain. Runamok Maple’s new cocktail syrups feature the rich, robust, and nuanced flavors of organic Vermont maple syrup, along with additional flavor notes from high-quality ingredients such as ginger and orange. The cocktail syrups, which are priced at $16.95 per 250 mL bottle, also have the added bonus of already being in syrup form, eliminating the extra step of dissolving sugar.

Made with 100% pure Vermont maple syrup, the Maple Old Fashioned cocktail syrup is an infusion blend of real herbs and spices, without any refined sugar. The syrup features a slight bite from Runamok Maple’s very own bitters, along with the subtle essence of orange and cherry, making it the perfect all-encompassing mixer to add to your favorite bourbon or whiskey. Similarly, the Smoked Old Fashioned cocktail syrup is packed with all of the classic Old Fashioned flavors – only this time Runamok Maple uses its Smoked with Pecan Wood maple syrup to add a unique flavor dimension. Maple syrup and whiskey are the perfect pairing, with each offering complex flavor profiles that bring out the best in the other. The added element of smoke creates the perfect drink to enjoy near a fire on a crisp fall evening. 

In addition to the Old Fashioned, Runamok Maple drew inspiration from two more classic cocktails, the Gin & Tonic and the Moscow Mule, for its other cocktail syrups. The Maple Tonic combines Runamok Maple’s signature organic maple syrup with the addition of quinine extract, lemon, and lime, giving the mixer a bright, refreshing taste that will have cocktail drinkers quickly forgetting about traditional tonic water. Mixing the Maple Tonic cocktail syrup with gin and seltzer water makes for an easy and delicious summer cocktail. Like the others, the Maple Ginger Mule cocktail syrup features 100% pure Vermont maple syrup as its base. Runamok Maple then infuses fresh ginger and lime into the cocktail syrup to give it a crisp, zesty flavor profile and a cleaner overall taste than mixers that use artificial flavors. 

On the back side of each cocktail syrup bottle and on their website, customers will find a suggested cocktail recipe to use with each syrup, including the Amber Old Fashioned (using Maple Old Fashioned), Tapper’s Tonic (using Maple Tonic), Leather & Velvet (using Smoked Old Fashioned) and Green Mountain Mule (using Maple Ginger Mule). 

Launched alongside the cocktail syrups is Runamok Maple’s collection of cocktail bitters. Made in the traditional way with all-natural herbs and root extracts infused in alcohol, Runamok Maple delivers its version in a maple base. Though they’re maple-based, the bitters pack a punch, like traditional bitters, and just a few drops can take a cocktail to the next level. Each 100 mL bottle of bitters is priced at $11.95.

With notes of cardamom and ginger, the Floral Maple bitters combine botanical complexity and subtle aromas with a smooth maple base. The addition of rose, citrus, and clove makes these bitters perfect for any gin or vodka cocktail. Built on a warm base of maple, cinnamon, clove, and allspice, the Aromatic Maple bitters meld perfectly with the flavors of darker spirits, like bourbon and whiskey, and even feature subtle tasting notes of sarsaparilla and vanilla bean. Lastly, the Orange Maple bitters are perfect for brightening up any cocktail – whether fruity or neat. The citrus aromas, layered on top of a subtle maple base, make it a wonderful addition to cocktails made with vodka, gin, and even bourbon.

Pistachio Cardamom Cake

Runamok Maple’s full collection of products – including specialty maple syrups like Bourbon Barrel-Aged, Cardamom-Infused, Cinnamon + Vanilla-Infused, and Pecan Wood-Smoked – are available on runamokmaple.com. The products can also be found on the brand’s Amazon page, as well as at specialty food shops across the country. 

For making cocktails, there’s a selection for mixing Manhattans as well as several types of bitters and with Mother’s and Father’s Day coming up, the gift packages should make any parent happy.

The following recipes are courtesy of Camp Runamok.

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Roasted Pears with Royal Cinnamon Maple Caramel

2 pears, ripe but not too soft

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/3 cup Runamok Royal Cinnamon Infused Maple (can also use Sugarmaker’s Cut Pure, Cinnamon+Vanilla Infused or Whiskey Barrel-Aged)

1/3 cup heavy cream

Vanilla ice cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 375. Peel the pears and then cut them in half. Remove the cores with a melon baller or pairing knife. Slice the pears starting an inch down from the stem, keeping them still attached (if a slice comes off, just roast it next the the pear in the pan and add it at the end).

Find a pan that fits all four halves snugly but in one layer. Put the butter in the pan and heat on the stove until melted. Place the pear halves in and fan the slices gently. Baste with a the melted butter and then sprinkle the sugar on them evenly. Place the pan in the oven and roast for about ten minutes or until they have just begun to brown. Remove from the oven, take the pears out with a spatula and set aside. Pour the maple syrup into the pan and heat to a boil. Add the cream and stir, cooking about another five minutes until the sauce has thickened. 

To serve, put two pear halves on a plate and drizzle with the warm maple caramel sauce. Add a dollop of vanilla ice cream if you like. Serves 2.

“If they are not crispy, chicken wings can be a big disappointment,” writes Laura Sorkin in this introduction to Wings with Maple Hot Sauce.  “I never cared for them until I tried a recipe that involved baking them in high heat for almost an hour.  Wow, what a difference.  Most of the fat is rendered, leaving crispy skin and tender meat.  Wings are now my son’s yearly request for his birthday dinner and we are always game for trying new sauces.

“Runamok Consiglieri, Curt Alpeter is all about wings and developed this sauce using the Cardamom Infused Maple for the sweet counterpart to the heat of Texas Pete’s.  Curt is from Ohio which is near enough to Buffalo, New York that we are going to allow that he is a wing expert by proxy.  He has related to me that the chopped scallions and cilantro are key.   I did not include measurements because it should be a little-of-dis, little-of-dat kind of dish.”

Wings with Maple Hot Sauce

Chicken wings

Vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

Texas Pete’s Hot Sauce or similar

Runamok Cardamom Infused Maple Syrup

Butter, softened

Scallions, chopped

Fresh cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 400.  Place wings in a sturdy pan, making sure there is enough room for a single layer.  Drizzle just a tad of vegetable oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper.  Place in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven, flip the wings over and return to the oven.  Bake until crispy and brown, about another 20 – 30 minutes.

In the meantime find a bowl large enough to hold all the wings.  Pour equal amounts of hot sauce and maple syrup and butter.  If you are cooking a few pounds of chicken, try 1/4 cup of each.  Combine with a fork, mashing up the butter and blending it.  Don’t worry if the butter leaves chunks, it will melt when you add the hot wings.

When the wings are fully brown and crisp, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and put in the bowl with the sauce.  Add scallions and cilantro.  Toss until coated and serve immediately with plenty of napkins.

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Sparkly Maple Bourbon Smash

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce Runamok Maple syrup (Sparkle Syrup or Sugarmaker’s Cut)

1 ounce lemon juice

1 lemon twist

Combine over ice and serve.