When it comes to bourbon, most people have heard the saying: “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” From there, however, the differences between bourbon and whiskey — and scotch whisky for that matter — tend to get a little murky.
Short of visiting the distillery or taking a trip to Bourbon County, Kentucky, however, what’s the best way to get into bourbon and whiskey? Visiting a place like Bayou & Bottle is a good place to start.
One of several whiskey-focused bars in town, Bayou & Bottle, the swanky lobby bar headed by international celebrity chef Richard Sandoval at the Four Seasons Hotel Houston, offers more than 100 bourbons and whiskeys on its menu ranging from American whiskey to Irish, Scotch and Japanese whiskey.
To further educate the customer, a bourbon stewardess — similar to a sommelier for wines — is on staff to help with selections and to lead whiskey-bourbon tasting flights. Bayou & Bottle is also holding whiskey-pairing dinners several times a year. Last Friday, we were invited to experience a Beam Family bourbon dinner in celebration of National Bourbon Heritage Month.
The four-course bourbon dinner kicked off with a cocktail hour that featured Old Fashioned cocktails made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon. On hand to educate us about the spirits we were drinking was Beam Suntory’s Hailey DeLaRosa, who gave us a quick refresher on the ABC’s of bourbon.
Why is bourbon called America’s native spirit? In order for a whiskey to be classified as a bourbon, she explained, it has to be made in America. The barrel it’s stored in has to be a brand new barrel made of American oak. Whereas Scotch whiskeys are distilled from malted barley, bourbons must be distilled from a mash made up of 51 percent corn, corn being the number one crop grown in the American Midwest. And, while there are several more rules that bourbon makers need to follow (which are regulated by law), these were the main points that make bourbon a uniquely American spirit.
Education complete, it was time for dinner. Bayou & Bottle’s chef de cuisine Alejandro di Bello and chef de partie Jonathan Cooke presented each of the courses as they were served.
The first course of spicy corn chowder and avocado melba toast was paired with Maker’s 46, a bolder, stronger bourbon wherein classic Maker’s Mark bourbon is aged for 10 weeks in a barrel containing charred French oak staves. Smooth but decidedly bold, the bourbon opened up with the addition of an ice cube and stood up nicely to the spiced creaminess of the corn chowder.
The second course was a standout for me, both in terms of composition and pairing. Plump slices of pecan-smoked venison sausage served with black cherries and delicately crisp fennel tempura (shown below), were finished off with an apricot sauce that incorporated the bourbon pairing, an Old Grand Dad “bonded” bourbon.
“Bonded” bourbons are created during a single distillation season at a single distillery, are aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse and are bottled at 100 proof (making it 50% alcohol).
It’s a lot of background information, I know, but the gist is that it was, for me, a beautiful bourbon. Smooth, with what I would characterize as a long, feminine finish, the Old Grand Dad “Bonded” had lovely vanilla notes and a delicacy that reminded me of aged anejo tequila. It was my “discovery” of the night as far as bourbons go, and a bargain to boot: A bottle runs less than $30 retail.
For the third course, the chefs changed things up a little by moving away from bourbon and letting us taste rye whiskey, in this case, a Knob Creek Rye. The difference, when compared to the Old Grand Dad “Bonded,” was notable. I felt a lot of heat when I took my first sip, and there was a lingering burn in the center of my tongue. DeLaRosa explained that the differences I experienced could be attributed to the use of rye instead of corn as the main distillate.
The Knob Creek was paired with a beautifully plated main course of braised brisket cubes served with chubby Pont Neuf potatoes fried in beef fat, bourbon-glazed baby carrots and rich Knob Creek demi-glace. The chefs explained that the stronger constitution of the rye whiskey would help cut through the richness of the plate, and it did with flying colors.
The final course was a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream paired with Bakers Small Batch. The idea behind this pairing was to highlight the toasted nut and vanilla notes displayed by this bourbon.
In the end, we’d tasted three bourbons and a rye whiskey and learned a lot about this native brown spirit we call bourbon. That in itself, was enough, but we had one last surprise. Before we left, DeLaRosa brought out a bottle of the soon-to-be-released premium whiskey Little Book (shown above), for us to try. The 120 proof, blended straight whiskey will hit shelves this October. We were the first consumers in Texas to get a taste of it.
Bayou & Bottle in Four Seasons Hotel Houston, 1300 Lamar 713-650-1300
Hours: Monday to Saturday 11 am – 2 am; Sunday noon – 1 am; lunch 11 am to 2 pm; dinner 4 pm to midnight