Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of interviews with local chefs.
Matt Jamie was knocking back beers and oysters with a friend more than a dozen years ago when he tossed off the idea of opening a soy sauce brewery. Hey, there wasn’t one in America, so why not?
There’s one today, by the name of Bourbon Barrel Foods, all thanks to Jamie, and the soy sauce fermented in the Butchertown Market business is the signature product as well as the only American soy microbrewery. And while the business has been growing since Jamie founded it in 2006, over the last six months, there have been a couple of interesting leaps.
The first was the release of Jamie’s first book, titled “Eat Your Bourbon Cookbook,” a tome that not only tells his story but also presents seemingly countless recipes.
Secondly, the soy sauce product line recently expanded to include three new products in addition to the signature Bluegrass Soy Sauce, which famously is aged in bourbon barrels for a year.
The new products include a double-fermented Imperial Soy Sauce, made with a second fermenting and an added six months in the barrel; a version of the original that is smoked with bourbon barrel staves; and Small Batch Bourbon Ponzu, a spin on a Japanese ponzu made with an infusion of Old Forester instead of the traditional sake.
The new products lead the way into a more aggressive marketing focus for Bourbon Barrel Foods.
Jamie has begun conducting tasting events with limited seating, but it won’t end there — he said his goal is to begin having guest chef dinners, and a recent acquisition of a liquor license will allow the business to expand focus to also conduct events such as mixology classes.
(Bourbon Barrel Foods also makes products such as bourbon barrel bitters, bourbon-smoked spices, cocktail cherries and a whole lot more bourbon-infused products.)
Jamie offered me a private tasting of the new soy sauces recently, and I was blown away by the products. I had always been impressed by the complexity of the original soy sauce — let’s just say if the only soy you’ve tried came in a container with either a red or green top, you’ve been missing out — but the new ones take it a higher level.
Impressive as the sauce was, most importantly, I came away impressed with the Louisville native’s passion for what he does.
He’s traveled all over the world and had the idea for the expanded product line while doing a tasting at a bar called Flyte in Osaka, Japan, where customers can choose from more than 200 varieties of sauce for tasting.
It was, he said, similar to a bourbon tasting here in Kentucky, insomuch as it was about getting people to appreciate the many flavors present in the sauces.
Education, therefore, is fast becoming a key aspect to Bourbon Barrel Foods’ focus.
“It has to be,” Jamie said, in between talking about his sauces. “I’m a blond guy who lives in Kentucky and makes soy sauce for a living.”
He added: “People who are passionate about food want to get educated about what it is. We want to let people know we do this.”
He talked about how the Imperial Soy, blended with butter, makes a perfect pairing for steak. The Ponzu came about in part because, thanks to use of lemon zest in other products, he finds himself with unused lemon meat. That led to the citrus-infused sauce.
“I literally made some lemonade out of lemons,” he deadpanned.
A single drop of the sauce makes the palate come alive. Jamie joked about how his daughter, Madeline, tasted the smoked soy and said, “It tastes like country ham.”
Jamie beamed when he mentioned Madeline, 13, and his son Max, who is 14. They cook with their dad, which is no doubt why Madeline could pick out the flavor of country ham in a soy sauce.
Jamie said he and Max make fresh-squeezed smoothies anytime they’re together. Their palates have been getting an education all their young lives, it seems.
And while Jamie has traveled everywhere from Spain to Japan to Australia, mostly because of his business, he plans to take his kids to the Grand Canyon this summer — all for fun.
“We’ll probably take one bottle of soy sauce and get a picture,” he said with a smile.
And so, the new catchall brand umbrella is “Eat Your Bourbon,” from the book to the products to swag. It’s a perfect placement in bourbon country, obviously. In fact, Jamie said he even sued Arby’s at one point, as he already owned the trademark.
“I knew it was gold when I trademarked it,” he said.
All of this after he’d been living in Florida, having dropped out of graduate school and begun working in a restaurant as a line cook. He didn’t know at the time just how far that interim job would eventually take him.
“I thought cooking was cool and fun,” he said. “It was a hobby of mine, and it turned out it was a passion. And I was good at it.”
Look for the next event to take place Aug. 28 in the on-site Kitchen Studio, featuring a food tasting ranging from togarishi skirt steak to a watermelon mint cooler.