Standing among the sweater-clad Canadians who have just disembarked at Louis Armstrong airport on this sweaty July afternoon in New Orleans, I spot a familiar face; whisky chef, Matt Jones in shorts, flip-flops, and tropical shirt. He's the only one dressed for this destination.
Several years back, fleeing Toronto's frigid winter, Jones pointed his car toward Peru and started driving. Reaching Mexico and into Belize, his winter excursion became semi-permanent. "With money running out I decided to take a mini holiday on an island along the coast," explains Jones. What does a bartender do on vacation? If you're Matt Jones, you find a short-staffed bar and start juggling bottles. When the bar manager recognises your flair and offers you a job, you say, "Yes!" His Belize side trip turned into a three-year stint on a tropical beach. "I didn't wear shoes even once for two of those years," he tells me.
But those shoeless feet eventually became restless and he was off to Kyoto where he counseled bar owners and trained their staff. "The dedication of the bartender in Japan is down to a science. I learned how to taste my cocktails making sure I wasn't serving anything that wasn't perfectly balanced. The whisky culture in Japan is huge and that's also where I fell in love with bourbon."
Now based in Canada, Jones is Beam's bourbon ambassador, which is why he's representing them in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, the Tour de France of cocktail shows. We take the shuttle into town and arrange to meet in the bar at the Hotel Monteleone. However, credit card problems interrupt my plans and it's three days before we reconnect. Where else but at a Beam whisky battle? Jones is the cheering squad for Maker's Mark 46.
"Bar tending has always been my focus and with my Celtic background I've always had an affinity for whisky. When I was younger, I drank shots and later got to know whisky in the complexity of cocktails. Realising how much flavour is trapped in the concentrated alcohol and being able to pull apart those flavours to create cocktails gave me an appreciation for the actual flavour of the whisky itself."
Jones is a new daddy now, and so is my writing partner, Blair. I thoughtfully arrange a post-New Orleans dinner for them in Toronto, hosted by AFT on Queen Street East. They discuss fatherhood, bourbon subtleties, fatherhood, New Orleans, and fatherhood. Blair's still recovering from a rocket-fuel Bloody Mary he concocted for us in New Orleans and to do Jones justice, he decides to stop first at The Caledonian, to "re-calibrate" his palate. "The Caledonian's signature Caesar cocktail should do the trick," he advises.
This Caesar is a uniquely Canadian Bloody Mary, fortified with clam juice and a bouquet of crispy vegetables. Donna and David Wolff, The Caledonian's owners, add a whisky spin, replacing vodka with Ardbeg 10 Year Old, and Worcestershire sauce with house-smoked horseradish. The result tastes more like the sea than the sea - like running a fishing net through a juicer. One sip and you're looking around for a one-legged old salt in a yellow rain slicker, boat parked outside. But drinking seawater?
"We stopped listening to the so-called experts," explains David Wolff, noticing Blair's eyes lighting up in the on-rush of flavour. The complexity of cocktails led them to think outside the whisky bottle.
The Caledonian offered Donna Wolff the chance to rekindle links with her Scottish homeland. Armed with her Gran's recipe book and chef, Sara Phillips, who breathed life into its pages, Donna set out to recreate her childhood flavour memories. "It's pub fare brightened with the flavours of Scotch," she enthuses.
David rejected simply matching whiskies and food. "The right approach was digging deeper into the flavour profiles of the whiskies then riffing off them to find the complementary food flavours - making the food match the whisky. Whiskies have a massive flavour spectrum, way more than wine, so you can enhance the flavour in food by using whisky in cooking. Bowmore's Rachel Barrie said it best," he continues, "it brings out the sea in seafood, the sweetness in dessert, the smokiness in smoked food. The alcohol equivalent of salt. A small amount goes a long way to season a dish."
Ever helpful, Blair advises a Scottish gentlemen sitting next to him, "You should try the smoked salmon."
"No, thanks, I'm driving," he replies, eyes twinkling. Why? Because after a secondary whisky curing with Ardbeg 10 Year Old, it's slightly cold-smoked to enhance the natural smokiness of the whisky while sustaining the salmon's delicate sea flavours. Served on a bed of potato, capers, and avocado salad, this salmon, though smoked, exudes catch-of-the-day freshness. Blair gobbles his down.
"Once we find something that works we ask where can it go now," David says. Chef Sara drizzles haggis neeps and tatties with whisky gravy, adding new savoury layers to this traditional Scottish dish; her steak is topped with whisky-herb butter.
His New Orleans recovery mission long forgotten, Blair ravenously wolfs that down too. A Feis Isle tradition, oysters floating in Islay whisky transport you to the tiny coastal village of Kildalton, while a lip-smacking, organic salad with white balsamic whisky vinaigrette has you devouring all your vegetables. Crème brûlée infused with Balvenie Double Wood whisky? Yes! I believe. Amen, brother. I believe!
One dish uniting Canada with Scotland appears on their menu for just one week. The Haggis Burger (a half-pound haggis topped with caramelised onions and gooey Ardbeg-smoky whisky cheese fondue secured on a brioche bun) is so sinful that had The Caledonian been in business back then, the serpent would have skipped the apple and served this to Eve instead.
Back to business: Palate firmly re-calibrated and belly bulging, Blair heads on over to AFT to reconnoitre with Matt Jones, whose presentation demonstrates his "mixo-gastro" ethos, bringing elements of food into cocktails and whisky into food. Each dish showcases the specific characteristics of the whisky. "I am not classically trained but have been exploring ways to bring whisky into my food for a long time," he confesses.
Jones's methods reflect the Wolff's. They extract flavours from the whisky and cook around them. "In bourbon, it's the baking spices, the savouries, the caramels, the vanilla," he explains. "The alcohol burns off in the cooking process and you're left with just those concentrated flavours."
Tonight Matt Jones has teamed up with AFT chef Mike Beck. They begin with smoked duck salad with a Basil Hayden's bourbon glaze, accented with roasted walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Add watermelon radish and the duck is as refreshing as the smoked peach bourbon tea we sampled before this event.
A mixologist and whisky chef, Jones has a wide range of taste-concoctions making it difficult to identify his signature drink. However, an Old Fashioned with Knob Creek bourbon washed in duck fat is the big bang in his universe of whisky flavours. He cools the rendered duck fat before adding it to bourbon to prevent cooking off any of the alcohol. After sitting an hour, it's refrigerated to separate the fat from the bourbon. Jones skims off the fat and filters the bourbon, removing any lingering grease. The result is bourbon infused with rich but subtle duck flavours. This Old Fashioned has a savoury counterpoint that balances the orange citrus and sweet notes.
Blair can't resist a second glass as Jones points out that "whisky infused duck fat can be used to sauté mushrooms or onions giving them just a hint of whisky flavour." Blair adds "duck fat" to his mental grocery list.
"I'm a barbecue guy," Jones enthuses. "I just love braising with Knob Creek. Here's a little trick I learned from Jim Beam's Fred Noe. When they have their big family barbecues, they get these pork cutlets to grill. Someone will ring a fire bell and that's when the cutlets are doused with a bottle of Booker's bourbon. It just caramelises everything in such a beautiful way with just a little kick from the alcohol."
Blair's now chowing down on a Flintstones-sized sous-vide and smoked beef short rib nestled on a fluffy pillow of mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus.
Jones brings this food and whisky extravaganza to its crescendo with bourbon pecan tarts topped with crème anglaise. Rich, dense, and oh so sweet. I am distracted. "Where does he find the room?"
By the time you read this we'll have spent another week in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail 2014. It's reassuring to know that Jones will be there too, to soothe, if not re-re-calibrate my Blair-devastated palate.
Sweet oak that is gentle on the palate. Caramel, vanilla with a morsel of cherry. Wheat cereals tease with a sly spice.
Loaded with caramel, maple and vanilla. This big brother to the original is lifting more fat oak. A southern gentlemen of cereals with traces of cinnamon spice.
Small Batch Nine Years Old 50%
As the name would suggest, this bourbon has a pair. Big oak. Big caramel. Big chilli heat balanced with rib sticking baking spice nuttiness.
Light and floral for a Beam bourbon. Rye pepper with lemon orange citrus pith and an enduring spiciness that tames any insinuating sweetness.
10 Years Old 46%
A juxtaposition of burly concentrated smokiness and delicate sea flavours. Lemon salt water taffy and malt cereal notes puff away to more smoke.
from Whisky Chef, Matt Jones
“Whisky is not wine and trying to pair a dish with wine is way different than trying to pair it with whisky.”
“Whiskies with a wheated profile such as Maker’s Mark go so well with desserts with the caramel, vanilla and wheated profile.”
“Soft and light whiskies such as Basil Hayden’s enhance soups and vinaigrettes and light and floral styles of dishes.”
“Big bold intense whiskies such as Knob Creek are more for braising and enhancing sauces and bringing out baking spice flavours.”
“I don’t serve that actual whisky along with the dish since I want the focus to be on the flavour profiles of the whisky emanating through the dish.”