In the late 1980s the idea of using Bourbon to cook with was the occasional Bourbon Ball or some other chocolate fudge combo, baked beans and the daring chef would substitute Bourbon for Brandy in a recipe. Then came Woodford Reserve. The Brown-Forman people started to actually promote cooking with Bourbon and they hired a chef in residence at the distillery. They came out with a cookbook and a flavor wheel to help with this promotion. The first chef retired and Ouita Michel took his place as chef in residence at the distillery.
I was involved with the Woodford Bourbon Academy teaching a history segment to compliment the excellent distilling class taught by Chris Morris. There was always lunch involved and I remember Ouita’s first Academy. I could tell that she was going to be a game changing chef. She had some excellent recipes involving Woodford – Orange Bourbon glazed chicken I believe with Bourbon in the salad dressing and the dessert as well. More importantly she had a presentation to make about Bourbon and food. Ouita’s “flavor wheel” involved pairing the Woodford with actual foods to see not only how the food changed the Bourbon but also how the Bourbon changed the food.
What Ouita did was arrange on a plate an olive (for salty flavor), aged parmesan cheese, toasted hazelnuts, dried cherries, a slice of orange, dark chocolate and sorghum molasses on a spoon. She invited the participants to take a sip of Woodford to get an idea of how it tastes and then to take a bite of the olive and then take another sip of Woodford. As we worked our way down the line we would discuss how the flavors changed. It was very interesting to note the changes when eating orange pulp versus orange zest. She was teaching not only what to eat with your Bourbon in this demonstration but also what would work well when cooking with a Bourbon. She had indeed taken the concept of Bourbon and food pairings to the next level.
This knowledge was used by Ouita to design her foods for the lunch. The Bourbon/orange vinaigrette was an unexpected pleasure to me. The orange and sorghum glaze on the chicken also worked very well. As I continued to work with Chris Morris at the Academy Ouita tried several recipes that were based on one or another pairing from her wheel. She eventually came out with a cookbook with Woodford Reserve Distillery and also took this knowledge to her restaurants as well. Cooking with Bourbon was becoming mainstream and Ouita had a large part in this happening.
Another important point Ouita makes is that it is okay to enjoy a glass of Bourbon WITH THE MEAL as well dessert or after eating. I have long enjoyed a glass of Bourbon with a steak dinner, but it opened me up to other foods as well. It works very well with chicken dishes such as Ouita has developed. Anything with fruit in it works well with a Bourbon in my opinion. And of course Bourbon and Chocolate work very well together.
There are now many chefs out there cooking with Bourbon. The use of Bourbon in this way is simply another piece of the puzzle that is the growth of sales and part of the Bourbon Boom. Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer created a city wide panel to promote Bourbon and cuisine in Louisville. This interest is growing but it only took root because of the pioneering work done by Ouita Michel and other chefs cooking with Bourbon at the beginning of the 21st century.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Holly Hill Inn