Waiter, there's bourbon in my dinner

Liza Weisstuchmeets two chefs putting Bourbon at the heart of their dishes
By Liza Weisstuch
When Laurent Geroli took a job as a chef at Louisville's legendary, stately Brown Hotel in 2007, he was not prepared for the culture shock. Having spent 10 years as chef at a Ritz Carlton resort in Key West, Florida, he arrived in Kentucky knowing very little about Bourbon: how it was made or that it was even popular. So he headed to a Bar and took his education upon himself. Not long into his self-instruction, he realised something every chef is bound to understand: here's a flavour that should be essential in the kitchen pantry.

It's de rigueur to talk about Bourbon's versatility at the bar. It's a common stand-in for rye in a rich, heady Manhattan. It takes a star turn in mint juleps, the quintessential light summer sip. Now American chefs are stepping up to showcase the spirit's versatility in the kitchen.

"To do any sauce, you have to have great flavour. Classical peppercorn sauce is made with Cognac, but when you substitute that with Bourbon; it's just awesome," Geroli said with gusto. "The charcoal of the barrel brings sweetness, a nice flavour. That's why I cook with Bourbon."

And there you have it, in no uncertain terms. The Brown Hotel is renowned for its Hot Brown, a baked open-face sandwich piled with Bacon and turkey then soused with what looks like the runoff of a volcanic eruption of a Bechamel cheese sauce. Last year, the 85th anniversary of the dish's invention, the hotel's restaurant sold 16,000 Hot Browns.

Meantime, Geroli, a French Canadian, was taking advantage of the ubiquitous native spirit, giving dishes that are staples in his classical French repertoire sassy makeovers. He ticked off his recent culinary creations.

“Definitely ice cream, anything butter or vanilla? I can incorporate Bourbon into it. It’s good with meat and dairy products. It’s nice with salmon, something with a strong, oily taste,” he said.

Salad dressing? Never. Too light, he insists. “You need something heavy with it to be satisfied.” Thus: Bourbon-bacon ice cream, (“I was shocked, such a good flavour.”) French onion soup with Bourbon substituted for the sherry. (“Wow.”) Pork Belly Braised in Bourbon, seared with a whole bottle of Bourbon. (“The Bourbon caramelises all over the place.”)

“I never noticed until I played around. It really has a good body for cooking,” said Geroli, who also teaches cooking classes for Maker’s Mark.

“In classical French cooking, we use a lot of sweet wines, Marsala, Madeira, Port. It takes a strong wine to make sauce. Bourbon is stronger in alcohol, but it’s still a great flavour to play with. When I finish a sauce, I like to put more in it to get flavour to come out. Try to make a sauce with gin. You can get sick just to think about it.” He laughs, but he doesn’t joke.

Clever play is also happening at Big Jones, a Chicago restaurant that evokes antebellum southern charm with its wrought-iron chairs and chandeliers, damask wallpaper and more than 60 Bourbons on the bar. The restaurant features “heirloom and heritage cooking with Cajun, Creole, Lowcountry and Appalachia influences.” But that’s only part of the story. Chef and co-owner Paul Fehribach is a default culinary anthropologist. As he explains it, he’ll consider different regions and research the trends and traditions at different points in history. Then he reconstructs that cuisine.

He calls his menu “intimately regionally focused.”

When I spoke with him in June, the 19th century cuisine of the Appalachian region, the mountainous, rural stretch between southern New York and northern Mississippi, was his obsession du jour.

Fehribach and his staff are focused on contemporary technique and presentation. Inspiration comes from history and provides the baseline, so to speak. The rest of the song builds upon that. Bourbon is one of the key instruments they use to harmonise the compositions these days.

There’s the obvious combination: chocolate and Bourbon. To wit: chocolate Black walnut Bourbon tart prepared with walnuts Fehribach gathers.(“Good ole’ fashioned country cooking,” he breezily clarifies.)

But it’s the seasonal dishes that are sure to thrill whiskey aficionados. Consider: wood-grilled quail basted with a cocktail of cane syrup, Bourbon and house Worcestershire sauce with fois gras butter swirled in at the end.

“Bourbon isn’t as sensitive as wine when I cook. So much of the flavour is the wood and the char,” said Fehribach, who grew up in a German Catholic area of Indiana and has been cooking “since I could see over the stove.” “I cook with Bourbon that I’d drink. I like Bourbons with more wood. I’m a big fan of Buffalo Trace for cooking. It’s a robust, full bodied Bourbon that shines through no matter what you do with it.”

But as far as these chefs see it, Bourbon imparts more than just flavour and body into a dish.

“Where we are in Kentucky, there’s a whole history,” Geroli said. “We love pork, potatoes, corn. Bourbon just goes so well with the food. Put one and one together and you come up with great recipes.”

Chocolate pecan tart


Short crust

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour ½ cup powdered sugar ¼ teaspoon salt

  • 4 ounces unsalted chilled butter

  • A few drops ice water


  • 12 oz bittersweet chocolate chips

  • 3 oz unsalted butter

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 3 large eggs

  • ¼ cup sugar

  • 2 tablespoons sorghum molasses (may substitute dark corn syrup)

  • 1 oz espresso or strong black coffee

  • 1 cup chopped pecans

  • 1 oz Bourbon

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. In the food processor, process the short crust ingredients until they pull together and form a ball, tamping down the sides as necessary. Press into a 10-inch tart pan and chill thoroughly. Remove chilled pie crust from refrigerator, prick with the tines of a fork, and line with foil and pie weights. Bake for 25 minutes, until the edges are just beginning to brown. Remove weights and cool on a wire rack.
3. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt chocolate and butter. Set aside. In a medium bowl, beat eggs well. Add sugar, sorghum, espresso and salt to eggs and whisk together. Stir in butter and chocolate mixture and chopped nuts. Stir one final time and pour into partially baked pie crust. Bake for 15 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit, or until centre is set. Let tart cool and remove from tart pan.
4. Serve warm with ice cream or dollop of freshly whipped cream.