Holly Hill’s Ouita Michel: Bourbon without food isn’t complete

A pair of restaurateurs from Lincoln, Neb., took the tasting course while touring the Bourbon Trail.

A pair of restaurateurs from Lincoln, Neb., took the tasting course while touring the Bourbon Trail.

“How about cheese with bourbon?” Ouita Michel cheerily asks a group of 15 adults gathered at Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Nobody, including me, returns an excited look about the idea, but our expressions don’t dampen Michel’s enthusiasm or smile.

The chef in residence at Woodford (who also is chef-owner at Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Windy Corner and Midway School Bakery), says cheeses have become some of her favorite foods to pair with Kentucky nectar.

“I wouldn’t kid you on this one, it’s really, really good. And before you leave here today, I’ll bet you’ll agree with me.”

She’s leading a class at the historic Versailles distillery in an effort to teach how many flavors go well with bourbon and even improve the spirit.

She leads us to taste a small cube of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and follow that with a small sip of bourbon.

I’m amazed. She’s right. The salty, dry cheese allows the Woodford’s fruit flavors to push through.

As we sip and nibble, Michael says showing people how to pair bourbon and food has become a personal mission, one centered on enlightening drinkers who too commonly eat nothing with their adult beverages.

Such behavior is an American thing, some unwritten rule that cocktail hour is mostly about drinking. Yet, every European country eats something with cocktails and wine, not only to enhance the flavor of each, but to ensure something is in the stomach to retard alcohol absorption.

To my surprise I’ve heard American winemakers call even their best products “sauces for food,” and permanently relegated to a support role for what arrives on the plate. Why that message isn’t trickling down to the tippling masses isn’t clear.

Woodford Reserve Distillery chef in residence, Ouita Michel (at right), spoke to an attendee during the bourbon and food pairing class. Photo by Steve Coomes

Woodford Reserve Distillery chef in residence, Ouita Michel (at right), spoke with an attendee during the bourbon and food pairing class. Photo by Steve Coomes

“You don’t have to have food with bourbon to enjoy it; we all know that,” Michel says. “But to me, you’re leaving something out, kind of missing something, really, if you don’t have something good to eat with it.”

Today she’s supplying us nearly 40 different tastes of fruits, nuts, meats, cheeses and syrups, all flavor-forward elements Michael benefit bourbon.

Tasting the Woodford alone “primes the pump and gives you a reference point,” she says, and true to her word, the whiskey easily maintains its place as the session’s baseline.

We then taste orange two different ways: first a nugget of the actual fruit; then a piece of the peel.

“You will notice that the orange adds some effervescence in the mouth,” she says, and indeed it does brighten the bourbon’s floral notes. “To make good pairings between food and bourbon, you need some flavors that contrast and others that echo back.”

The salty cheese mentioned earlier is a contrast flavor: the salty and nutty notes of the cheese sharpening the sweeter flavors in the bourbon. The orange tastes are echo-back flavors that stir memories of bourbon laced desserts.

“The orange really makes it taste like Grand Marnier,” an attendee says.

I agree only to a point: It tastes even better than Grand Marnier.

“It’s like a little party in your mouth, isn’t it,” Michel adds.
Toasted hazelnuts deliver another echo-back flavor, amplifying the Woodford’s notes of caramel and oak.

Next come dried cherries followed by a swig of Woodford: an intense combination.

“I like this pairing because in both cases it’s about dehydration of liquid,” Michel says. “The cherries go from being kind of sweet and mild to much more complex as they dry. Bourbon does the opposite thing in that it mellows in the barrel, and as it’s dehydrated, it picks up the flavors of the barrel.”

The small group is an eclectic one: about half are in their late 20s to early 30s; the other half in their 50s to 70s. Some are Kentuckians, others, such as a couple from Nebraska, are following the Bourbon Trail. All appear similarly amazed, however, at how well the food and booze bond in the mouth.

A taste of Kentucky sorghum draws out grassy notes in the bourbon, which Michael credits to their shared terroir and limestone water supply.

She says that in Japan, many sushi lovers drink scotch with their futomaki, nigiri and sashimi.

“We can do better by showing them that bourbon goes with sushi, don’t you think?” says Michel. “Doesn’t that sound fun?”

Well, I’m not sure frankly, I think to myself, but I might give it a shot next time I have sushi.

When we taste postage-stamp-size squares of Benton’s bacon, the ingredients’ shared flavors of smoke explode in my mouth and then linger for a good while. (I squirrel away two more pieces for further research.)

A taste of basil pesto has the opposite effect: no flavor reaction on my tongue about 10 seconds, and then minty and vegetal tones arrive. Tomato pesto connects flavors of tobacco and dried fruit found in each.

A slice of country ham is a pure echo-back flavor reminiscent of fresh pork. The ham’s smoky nuances remain, but references to salt retreat to the background

I expected the rye crackers would bring some sparkle to the Bourbon, since Woodford’s mash bill is 18 percent rye. Yet when combined in the mouth, it’s exuberantly spicy and delivers some subtle yeasty and biscuit flavors.

Michel’s cornbread and beer bread are simply fabulous with the bourbon. Accented with a pimento cheese spread … just imagine for yourselves.

I revisit the bacon and find its smokiness more delicate than before and summoning a memory of many campfires.

Sounds corny, I know, but that image really flashed through my mind, and according to Michel, I’m not crazy.

“So much of eating is about food memories,” says Michel, adding that people often concern themselves with getting full rather than tasting. Sipping bourbon with food, she added, should cause drinkers to slow down and consider what they’re tasting.

The afternoon shocker comes with a taste of green olive: tender and salty but amazingly mellow with bourbon in the mouth.

(Days later I chat with artisan ham maker Jay Denham and co-owner of the Cure House. The former chef had just finished cooking at the James Beard House in New York as part of a multi-chef dinner. His charcuterie course included green olives, pickles, chowchow and Elmer T. Lee bourbon. Clearly, the combination works.)

About 30 tastes into the session, palate fatigue sets in. Despite frequent rinses of water, the bourbon and the food flavors are separating themselves: still good, but unity is fading away.

Of course, no cocktail hour will feature this many varied tastes of food, but Michel’s effort proves her conviction that food and bourbon must and should go together.