I remember the first time I ever tried bourbon. I even remember the distillery. I was 17 and at the Christmas party for a small construction company for which I’d worked over the summer and I had to leave earlier than most of the people. Before I was allowed to leave, I had to take a swig from a bottle of Jim Beam.
I’d like to say I liked it right away, but I didn’t. It was horrible and took some effort to swallow! But I did and I lived. People say bourbon or Scotch are acquired tastes, but I disagree. They’re flavors you can’t really enjoy until you kill enough taste buds over the years to enjoy the great flavors in whisky without being overpowered by them.
Before reaching that point, though, there are other ways to enjoy bourbon or Scotch. Don’t get me wrong… the absolute best way is in a glass that shows it off with just a couple drops of water. The water opens up a whisky so that you can smell more of what it has to offer. And if it’s a high ABV (alcohol by volume), like something over 50 percent, it’s actually better to add a bit more water. It’s not meant to get you drunk faster; it’s just more of what was in the cask. Drinking it without a bit of water can usually just burn out your sense of smell so you just get the alcohol. And whisky – whether Scotch, bourbon, rye, whatever – usually has a lot more to offer than just the booze. Scotch is going to have notes of toffees and peat smoke and even iodine and tar. It sounds odd, but those can all be good things. Bourbon has vanilla and caramel, maybe spice and burnt sugars.
However, back to enjoying bourbon without pouring it into a glass. Those great bourbon flavors come out when bourbon is added to food, too. Its sweetness compliments desserts, adding layers of depth. The caramels and spices work well with savory dishes, adding a bit of sweetness, too. The depth of flavor works well in sauces. Bourbon especially compliments pork and chicken, but can work great with beef and fish, too. Keep in mind, there are bourbons that are really only for drinking, but there are a lot of really affordable bourbons that are great to cook with. My favorite is Larceny, which is very similar to Maker’s Mark, but a couple years more aged and about 2/3 the price of Maker’s.
Here’s the great thing about adding bourbon to dishes – it’s easy! A basic bourbon glaze can be kept indefinitely: 1 part molasses, 1 part bourbon, simmered until it’s about half its original volume is all it takes. Adding some spices like cayenne or chipotle, along with salt and pepper, adds some variety. A couple cautions, though. If it’s heated over too hot of a fire, it can ignite. Be sure to simmer or dilute it. When grilling, it can burn like sugar so apply it to the food just at the end of the cook.
One of my favorite ways of cooking with bourbon is adding it to fruit. Fresh cherries, soaked in bourbon, then grilled… Heaven! They can soak overnight, then go in a grill pan over a hot fire until they start to slightly char. They can be enjoyed just like that or canned by covering them in half water/half bourbon. Canned, they’ll keep for up to a year, until the next cherry season. Oh, this works great with peaches, too. Maybe that is a southern thing, peaches and bourbon. They really do great together.
Taking the fruit/bourbon combo a step further, a quick and easy cranberry sauce with nothing but fresh cranberries, turbinado sugar and bourbon makes a great smoked turkey sandwich go from good to fan-tas-tic! Simply simmer a package of fresh cranberries with a couple tablespoons of sugar and a quarter cup of bourbon. Let the cranberries soften for about 15-20 minutes, then refrigerate the cranberry sauce. It can work great for a Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s even better on a sandwich any time.
Bourbon goes great with apples, too. In my Bourbon Compote, grilled apples, cinnamon, bourbon and pecans combine to make a pork chop topping that will make you want to move to Savannah.
How about as part of a wet rub for pulled pork? You bet! You can even inject a pork butt with bourbon. Putting fresh poblano chiles with bourbon and salt and pepper in a blender makes a simple but great wet rub.
Then there’s the obvious course for bourbon: dessert! Adding bourbon to a pecan pie works so well, but what about whoopie pies? That’s easy, too. Make the whoopee pies (my favorite recipe is from Gourmet) normally, but add 2 ounces of bourbon to the filling and you get a chocolate whoopie pie with a bourbon filling that you’ll want to make again and again.
And don’t ignore Scotch. It can add a great flavor to dishes, too. The sweetness of bourbon lends itself to food more easily, but grilling oysters and adding a drizzle of browned butter and Scotch with some bleu cheese crumbles make oysters that any restaurant would be happy to serve.
And my Steak Au Poivre uses scotch to add a twist to a dish that typically uses brandy, and grilling the dish adds the flavors of smoke and fire.
Whiskey, especially bourbon, is an ingredient that’s hard to beat when you want to add a touch of sweet, a touch of depth, a touch of great to just about any dish. It’s good over ice cream and it’s great drizzled on grilled salmon.
Bourbon glaze adds complexity to grilled meat, poultry and fish.
- 1 cup bourbon, such as Larceny, 1793, Old Forrester
- 1 cup molasses
- Combine bourbon and molasses in a sauce pan and simmer over low heat until the volume is half the original and the mixture is thickened.
- Remove and cool (refrigeration isn't required).
- When adding to dishes, add salt and pepper, chipotle or cayenne, to change the glaze for different dishes and just to try some variety.