From Akons to Oak Barrels

It might not seem the most obvious of pairings but as Charles K. Cowdery discovers, pig and whiskey is a match made in heaven
By Charles K Cowdery
For Chuck Talbot, a retired agriculture professor who once worked for Heifer International, it is all about sustainable agriculture. For Nic Heckett, a former financier, it is all about producing an American ham to rival the great hams of Europe such as Spain’s Jamón Serrano and Iberico, Italy’s Prosciutto Crudo, and Germany’s Black Forest. For your correspondent, it was a chance to eat pig and drink whiskey in the sylvan splendour of western West Virginia in springtime.

Black Oak Holler Farm is not in Kentucky, but you can’t tell. By appearances, it could easily be the countryside around Loretto, in Marion County, where the Maker’s Mark Distillery is located.

The Kentucky border is about 25 miles west, as the crow flies.

Topography here is somewhere between hills and mountains, what Kentuckians call knobs. Even knobs have hollows, written and pronounced locally as ‘holler,’ where a little flat land beside a stream is pinched between two steep, wooded slopes. That describes Black Oak Holler Farm, which consists of a small house, more than 200 acres of rolling, wooded land, and lots of pork on the hoof.

The forest here is oak and hickory, important for the pigs’ diet. Oaks from this region are harvested to make bourbon whiskey barrels.

As whiskey-related tourism grows in Kentucky and Tennessee, many in the region foresee it becoming like California’s Napa Valley, with sophisticated locavore cuisine to complement the locally-made drink. There was nothing like that in Kentucky 20 years ago
but now restaurants such as the Oak Room at the Seelbach Hotel, Proof on Main, Limestone, Holly Hill Inn, and Corbett’s serve sophisticated takes on traditional regional products and flavours.

I first tasted Heckett and Talbot’s ham last summer at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, where resident chef Ouita Michel served it at the debut of Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Seasoned Oak Finish Bourbon. Although she referred to it as Kentucky Country Ham, a well-established type, she acknowledged that this expression was more artisanal, more subtle and refined in its flavour, and much less salty.

"Ham, like whiskey, develops its flavours through aging. For ham, one or two years is what it takes"

That whiskey and ham pairing worked fine but we didn’t have anything to compare it to. This time we assembled a panel of whiskeys which included Maker’s Mark, Eagle Rare Single Barrel, Four Roses Single Barrel, Wild Turkey Rye, Elijah Craig 12 Years Old, and Weller Antique, to get a range of styles and ages. Our tasters included Heckett and Talbot, Nadine Talbot, a chef; Cincinnati restaurateurs Steve Geddes, Jay Denham, and Justin Dean; Bob Perry, a chef now teaching in the Agriculture School at the University of Kentucky; Steve Muntz, a colleague of Chuck’s from Heifer International; and local hoteliers Rush and Ruth Finley.

But back to the pigs.

Jamón Serrano translates as “Mountain Ham,” and that’s what Heckett and Talbot call their product. The company is called Woodland Pork. The pigs are a cross of several breeds, including local wild boars and Ossabaw Island hogs, which are descended from the Iberian black-footed hogs of Jamón Serrano and Iberico fame. Iberian hog meat is high in monounsaturated fats.

The Spanish call them ‘four-legged olive trees.’ Those monounsaturated fats are healthier for humans than the saturated fats typically associated with meat.

Sustainable agriculture is another side of this story. Heckett and Talbot’s pigs are bred not just for taste but also to match well with the region’s agricultural conditions and traditions.

Suitable for small farms because they require none of the industrial infrastructure of factory farms, they eat grains and forage, especially in the fall when acorns are abundant. As in Spain, they improve the land and trees, and their meat commands a premium price.

We tasted two hams as well as some cured loins, and also enjoyed fresh cuts on the grill. The grilled meat was unusually moist and tender. Typical American pork, bred to be lean, often cooks up dry. This is anything but.

One of the hams was cured by Nancy Newsom, a top producer of traditional Kentucky country ham. The other was done by Ronny Drennan at B&B Broadbent to Woodland Pork’s specifications. Newsom’s ham was salted and smoked while Woodland’s was cured with salt only and, of course, time.

Ham, like whiskey, develops its flavours through aging. For ham, one to two years is what it takes.

American whiskey is especially hard to pair with food because it is so boldly flavourful, and yet from past experience I suspected the milder, wheated bourbons probably would not fare well.

They didn’t. Both the Maker’s Mark and Weller Antique simply disappeared, although the Maker’s did complement a cured loin we also had on the board.

Best of the bunch, and the only pairing that impressed Justin Dean, was the Wild Turkey Rye.

Its earthiness brought out that same quality in the meat, especially the less salty Woodland ham. Heckett explaines that whiskey goes well with his hams because their big umami flavour builds as the taste buds work through the salt, giving the meat a great mouth feel and exceptionally long finish.

Umami, a Japanese word, is the legendary fifth taste (after salt, sweet, sour, and bitter), often translated as savouriness.

Among the bourbons, the 12 Years Old Elijah Craig showed well as did the 10 Years Old Eagle Rare. The Eagle Rare worked both straight and well-diluted with water, especially with the grilled fresh meat.

Wild Turkey Rye was the standout and taken with the Woodland ham created a combination of flavours neither seemed to possess on its own.

Heckett concedes his meat is a work-in-progress, but it may be appearing soon on charcuterie plates at some of the region’s top restaurants and bars.