Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dinner with the Beams of Heaven Hill

Well... After a smooth flight from Philly to Louisville, the Heaven Hill folks got me to the Brown Hotel, where I settled into my room and munched on some of the goodies they'd provided (this is by way of letting you know that yes, they paid for this). After a bit of refreshment, checking of e-mail, and amusement at the responses to the #3 STAG Poll (more fun to come, folks), I spiffed up my ensemble and went down to the lobby bar, where I met up with the other folks on the junket -- fellow whiskey writers Chuck Cowdery, Gary Regan, Stuart Ramsay, and drinks writers Terry Sullivan (who does some damned funny stuff for us in Malt Advocate; happily he'd brought along his equally funny wife, Monica), Bill Spain (who covers booze and tobacco for MarketWatch), and Allen Katz -- and Heaven Hill master distiller Craig Beam. We had a round of last year's Evan Williams Single Barrel -- nice way to start an evening -- and headed out to Limestone, bourbon country chef Jim Gerhardt's restaurant.

I'd heard about Limestone, and had the pleasure of Jim Gerhardt's cooking -- he's devoted to the foods of Kentucky, and tries to use them as much as possible -- and I was looking forward to this dinner. We stepped into the lounge, where Craig's father, Parker Beam, was waiting for us. Always a pleasure to speak to Parker, a real gentleman. We sipped more Single Barrel -- then Terry and I shifted to Elijah Craig 12 Year Old -- and munched on some nice finger food: Jim's signature potato crisps, barrel-smoked trout tartlets (not so hot: low on flavor, didn't realize they were smoked until I saw the menu), some sliced house-made sausage with caramelized shallots on toasted bread crisps (delish, and quite nice with the shallots), and EWSB-glazed beef tenderloin on dark rye bread (very nice, about the size of a quarter, and beautifully tender).

We adjourned to the next room for dinner. But first, we had an assortment of whiskey treats. There were three of the beautifully designed bottles of Parker's Heritage Collection on the table: solid, big-shouldered no-neck bottles, looking like three offensive linemen. They were bottlings from the three different dumpings ("Sounds so much better than "three dumps," doesn't it?" said Chuck) of the whiskey: one at about 122 proof, one at 127, and one at 129. We got sip samples of each, and sniffed and sipped; added water and repeated. I found my thrill in the 127, which seemed richer than the other two. Chuck said the whiskeys were clearly Parker's: "You like the barrels from up in the hotter floor of the warehouse," and Parker quickly agreed.

This is an 11 year old whiskey that came from barrels with tapered staves. We tried to get an explanation of just what that meant -- and why it was important -- but either we weren't being clear or the bourbon was too loud, because I just couldn't get clear on what it was. Parker did say that they had some of these tapered stave barrels done with a deeper, #4 char, and that because of the tapered staves, there was more loss from a barrel. Hmmm... More experiments are going on, he and Craig said, and it sounded like a lot of them had to do with cooperage. Some of the experimental bits sounded almost trivial -- heads held together with tongue-and-groove joints instead of the usual dowel pegs, for instance -- and Chuck suspected it might be experimentation for the sake of experimentation.

The whiskey we tasted next was anything but that. Craig pulled out a pint bottle of malt whisky, Kentucky-style: 51% malt, 49% corn, but otherwise done by bourbon-style procedures -- new charred oak barrels, same proof points as their bourbon, and so on. It was mighty young, only about 6 months in the barrel, and it smelled it. The flavor was, well, "interesting," as Gary put it with a self-realizational grin. There was clearly corn, but some of the silkier sweetness of malt. I'd like to see what this was like with about 70% malt, and about 5 more years on it. Interesting, yes. Potential? Harder to say. Sure is good to see Heaven Hill continuing to push things.

Dinner commenced. We got three spears of white asparagus with thin slices of Newsom's Country Ham (crisp light sparrowgrass and salty, rich ham), topped with a luscious Sauce Bearnaise that hit a great balance between creamy and tart. Then it was EWSB-Scented Apple Celery Soup -- good, but I'm just not big on celery. The next course was a cioppino with clams, crawfish tails, and lemonfish (I think he said lemonfish), finished with EWSB. I was not that nuts on this one, either. The fish was delicious, a delicate texture, but the sauce was overpowered by the bourbon. Jim said after the meal that he doesn't like doing reductions of bourbon, but prefers to add it right at the end of cooking.

The next, main course, hit me right between the eyes, the high point of the dinner: veal scaloppini with an EWSB truffle sauce, braised red cabbage, and spatzel. I got one whiff of it -- rich nutty meat, delicately measured bourbon and hint of earthy truffle -- and asked the waitress if I could please skip the wine -- a cabernet I just wasn't warming to -- for this course and get a pint of the Bluegrass Brewing Nut Brown Ale I'd seen on tap in the lounge. She brought it, and it was a magnificent match for the hot veal and sauce. I was in heaven. Dessert brought apple strudel and whiskey sauce, which was even better with a little more of that 127 proof Parker's.

After sitting around making fun of each other for a while, we went back to the hotel, where we settled down in the hospitality suite, and, believe it or not, sang. Gary Regan had us laughing ourselves sick with a full-motion version of "O'Reilly's Daughter," I sang the old Phil Harris chestnut "The Preacher and the Bear," and Sullivan was quite moving with a quiet, heartfelt rendition of John Prine's "Sam Stone," looking just like an old Irish pub singer...or, well, how I imagine that would look. I also made everyone try some Hpnotiq, the blue tropical fruit juice and cognac ... stuff Heaven Hill imports. I'd never tried it, and I was damned if I was going to be all alone. Well, it tasted mostly like fruit juice, tropical fruit juice, but perked up right nice when I tipped some bourbon in it. Finally around 1:30 we called it a night. I'm sorry there are no pictures, but it's probably for the best.

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