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Absinthes Make the Heart Grow Fonder

Tony Sachs

Absinthe was never the most popular spirit on the bar; the high-proof alchemy of macerated or distilled herbs has always been an acquired taste. Unlike many finely crafted spirits, absinthe is not one to be enjoyed neat. Instead, it’s best consumed with water and sugar added in a specific and time-consuming ritual known as louching (click here to learn more). Furthermore, absinthe is not your everyday, after-work libation, but rather a spirit to ponder while whiling away the hours.

The ban on absinthe in the United States was lifted more than five years ago. In that time, curious consumers have tasted the once-taboo spirit, and connoisseurs have grown more discerning about the absinthes that they drink. For that audience—the impassioned imbibers attracted to absinthe for its taste—the following five brands are sure to impress.

St. George Absinthe Verte – The San Francisco–based company St. George Spirits entered the craft distilling business in 1982, long before the term “craft distilling” existed.  Absinthe Verte was the first U.S.-made absinthe to hit domestic shelves after the ban was lifted, and it remains one of the best. The unusually dry absinthe delivers aromatic notes of basil, tarragon, and cinnamon, in addition to sweet anise and bitter wormwood.

Vieux Carré – Though it pays tribute to New Orleans’s absinthe-soaked past, Vieux Carré is actually made in Pennsylvania. Regardless of its provenance, the spirit is among the finest U.S. absinthes and a great introduction for those who are new to the spirit. Vieux Carré offers up notes of anise, fennel, mint, and a hint of citrus, with just enough wormwood to let you know it’s there.

Pernod – During the almost century-long ban on genuine absinthe, Pernod became synonymous with the next best thing. It was not the genuine article, but it delivered the core absinthe flavors. These days, the centuries-old company has returned to its pre-ban roots and revived its original 19th-century recipe. During the ban, Pernod relied on a grain-alcohol base, but it now benefits from a healthy dose of brandy, which gives the final product a fuller, more robust flavor.

Jade Esprit Edouard – Before Ted Breaux created Lucid, the first post-ban absinthe sold in the United States, he was converting skeptics with a line of vintage absinthes that he faithfully recreated using original machinery and recipes. Esprit Edouard was the first absinthe that he reverse engineered from sealed antique bottles of the original spirit, and at 144 proof, it isn’t for the faint of heart. However, those brave enough to try it—or smart enough to not skimp on the water—will revel in its big, earthy, and well-balanced flavors. 

La Clandestine – Absinthe is called the green fairy for a reason—the vast majority of expressions are various shades of green, thanks to the herbs with which they’re macerated. La Clandestine, on the other hand, is distilled—not macerated—and the resulting clear liquid turns a milky white with the addition of water. It’s not quite as anise forward as many absinthes vertes, but it’s dry and herbal, and it offers a welcomed bit of spice.

The Absinthe Master

Shaun Tolson

T. A. “Ted” Breaux almost single-handedly brought absinthe back from the dead. Through his analysis of vintage examples, Breaux disproved the myths that the spirit was harmful, and he was instrumental in lifting the ban on absinthe here in the United States as well as in other countries. We sat down with him to talk about his craft, the spirit, and what all absinthe connoisseurs should know.

What made you want to study absinthe?

Absinthe was fascinating to me. Being a native New Orleanian, I would see the name around, but no one could tell me much about it. I got scientific theories and opinions, but nothing that was very credible.

To change the world’s opinion of absinthe, you started with vintage examples. How did you acquire those bottles and what did you do with them?

They really just fell in my lap; it really seemed like they found me. An old lady brought some bottles into a French antique shop, and a colleague of mine had an old bottle that was a family heirloom. His grandfather acquired it in Cuba a long, long time ago.

I analyzed the contents of those bottles, took information from the analysis, and essentially reverse engineered the brands.

What did you learn?

Analyzing these vintage absinthes has been a lot of fun for us. Many of them meet modern, stringent U.S. standards. We find that these products that were legitimately crafted and the top-selling products of their day, they were good. It’s pretty remarkable.

For decades, people believed that absinthe was a hallucinogen and that it was potentially poisonous. How did you dispel those myths?

We learned that there were a few poorly made examples, and the wine industry used those as a way to demonize absinthe. Unlike Champagne or Cognac, there was no appellation of control with absinthe. In those days, when people sold something as absinthe that was illegitimate, it usually contained some very harmful things. It was strictly “buyer beware”; people were very brand conscious.

The cheap adulterated products that were aimed at alcoholics were colored with things like copper sulfate. These poor alcoholics were imbibing a lot of these inferior products [and dying]. The whole situation with absinthe was not unlike the gin craze that happened in England about a century before.

In England during the previous century, a lot of people were dying from bad gin. It’s not because all gin was bad, but when it wasn’t made properly and [was] made cheaply with turpentine or whatever else they were using back then, it was potentially poisonous.

What made you want to revitalize the spirit?

It wasn’t what I set out to do initially. To do the analysis and write a book about it, that was the original intention. But I realized it would be more interesting to disclose the important things, keep some of the trade secrets to myself, and put the actual spirit out there.

A friend of mine in Paris happened to meet a guy who owned a distillery. It had been a prominent distillery in the 19th century but had faded into a bit of obscurity, and it was his mission to restore it. We formed a relationship back at the end of 1993 and I start distilling right away. It was like walking into the Nautilus from a Jules Verne novel, and I was Captain Nemo.

The first absinthes that you distilled under the Jade Liqueurs brand were—and still are—small-batch, premium spirits. What else can you tell us about them?

The eau-de-vie that we use for my ultra premiums, I have to have that handmade for me. It’s expensive and we can’t get much of it. I also source the plants from the original regions where they were sourced [during the 19th century] and I have to buy those plants a year in advance. I also have the luxury of aging my premium absinthes for three years before bottling them.

In addition to those small-batch absinthes, you now also make Lucid, which is a much bigger and more readily available brand. How do you make it and what makes it special?

Lucid is a product that we have to put in all 50 states. That means we have to make a lot more of it. The base spirit that we use for Lucid is a French spirit—the cleanest spirit that money can buy—and we can obtain a lot of it. The plants that we use to make Lucid are plants that I’ve screened and can get from commercial growers in larger quantities.

Lucid still has to be handcrafted and we’re still using 19th-century equipment, which is very labor intensive. It’s just that with Lucid, we can make more of it. If you walked into a café in Lyons in the 19th century and ordered an absinthe, you’d get something that’s very similar to Lucid. That’s what it’s intended to be.

Bringing Out the Best

Tony Sachs

Some spirits are best consumed neat. Others are better appreciated when chilled or served on the rocks. Some benefit from a splash of soda or shine when integrated into a classic cocktail. And then there’s absinthe. The spirit’s dominant anise, fennel, and mint flavors are, by themselves, unique among most alcohol distillations. But its separation from its peers is heightened further when louching—the time-consuming method of adding sugar and water—is added to the equation.

The purist segment of absinthe connoisseurs will tell you that the method is a necessary step in the spirit’s consumption. But louching is more than just a preparation, it’s a transformation. The technique, which rose to prominence during absinthe’s 19th-century heyday, requires a slow, dissolving drip of cold water over a sugar cube, which is set on a slotted spoon resting above a glass of absinthe.

Louching is considered the proper way to imbibe absinthe for two reasons. First, the spirit is notoriously high in proof; many brands register as much as 70 percent alcohol by volume—a stronger measurement than most cask-strength whiskies and overproof rums. If it weren’t for the addition of water and sugar, the alcohol would overwhelm the other flavors. Second—and perhaps more important—the slow, steady infusion of water releases essential oils from the herbs that are at absinthe’s core. During the process, the liquid slowly changes from a translucent emerald green to a milky whitish-green, and the flavors blend and soften. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to drink.

A modern-day twist on the absinthe ritual involves pouring absinthe over the sugar cube, lighting it on fire, and using the water to slowly extinguish the flame. This pyro-focused approach horrifies many purists, but it’s an interesting and appealing variation for laymen and newcomers. “The flaming sugar cube is going to caramelize the sugar, so it’s going to add a different flavor,” explains Todd Licea, a bartender at Manhattan’s absinthe-centric William Barnacle Tavern. “Different absinthes have different alcohol content, thus the sugar cube burns at a different temperature, so you get a whole different process happening depending on which brand you use. The flame is a lot more beautiful at higher proof.”

Idealists advocate that the perfect louche requires a Parisian café and a long and lazy afternoon, but absinthe spoons are easy to find and can bring a touch of Paris to any home bar. More ambitious absintheurs can go the route of an absinthe fountain, a large tabletop affair usually made of glass and silver with several tiny faucets designed for slow, steady, and beautiful louching rituals.

Complex Concoctions

Shaun Tolson

While the most popular—and the most finessed—method of enjoying absinthe requires a slotted silver spoon, a sugar cube, and a slow drip of distilled water, the once-controversial spirit can be equally enjoyed in cocktail form. For guidance on the topic, we sought out the expertise of Neal Bodenheimer and Rhiannon Enlil, two mixologists commonly found behind the bar at Cure, a forward-thinking New Orleans establishment that is deeply rooted in the city’s classics but also committed to cocktail experimentation.

“I love absinthe independent of cocktails,” says Bodenheimer, “so I generally have to convince myself not to put too much absinthe in drinks. It’s an acquired taste for many palates, but it’s a profile that many palates make their way to eventually, so we always like to sneak a little in when possible.” Emphasis on the word little. As Bodenheimer explains, absinthe is a great secret ingredient that can add complexity to basic cocktails, while an absinthe spray can do wonders for a libation’s aromatics. But because of its aggressive flavors, a restrained amount of the spirit goes a long way.

“Understand the proof, style, and ingredients featured in the bottle of absinthe that you want to use,” Bodenheimer advises. “Proof will help you determine your desired dilution and how much or how little absinthe you will want to use. The style of absinthe will determine the color and taste profile of your outcome. Last but not least, you will want to pair your ingredients with the ingredients featured in that particular brand of absinthe.”

Bodenheimer’s colleague, Enlil, held true to those principles when she created the Expense Account, a gin-based cocktail accented by absinthe, Becherovka—a clove-forward Czechherbal liqueur—and lime juice. “Anise goes great with clove, so the harmony of absinthe and Becherovka works pretty naturally,” she says. “When used judiciously, absinthe can really round out other complex components in a cocktail—anything from a dash to even three-quarters of an ounce, so long as it is not paired with flat or neutral flavors.”

Enlil has left her mark on other contemporary absinthe cocktails, like the Start and Finish, but for those hankering for something a little more classic, The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930, offers a dozen different absinthe-featured recipes. Click here for details on how to make Enlil’s Start and Finish, the Expense Account, and a few of the most popular absinthe cocktails that were once commonly ordered at the Savoy. 

Take the Game Online

Shaun Tolson

Last year, almost 40 million people visited the City of Sin, and we’re willing to bet that many of them spent time counting stacks of chips at a few of the casinos on the strip—there are close to 30 of them, after all. The problem with that, of course, is that gambling must be done indoors. As we’ve spotlighted elsewhere in this issue of Robb Vices, Vegas is also home to many spectacular pools and day clubs (click here for that story). Historically, those looking to gamble had to sacrifice time spent relaxing in the sun and by the pool. But now, thanks to Real Gaming, a new real-money online poker site, gamblers with a tablet or smartphone can bet the flop and push all in on the river from the confines of a private cabana or while stretched out on a daybed.

“The true differentiator of Real Gaming is that players can access the site on any device, anywhere and anytime,” says Lawrence Vaughan, the technology specialist who oversaw the site’s development and implementation. “We felt that this was the top priority to bring to online poker playing.

“We took our time,” he continues, “to carefully develop a new online poker-playing experience that is user-friendly in terms of its functionality, and most importantly, it is entirely safe and accessible. Unlike other online poker sites, we created Real Gaming by developing software from scratch, exclusive to us and our players. We are utilizing the newest technologies available in order to set the foundation for future development and continued innovation.”

Real Gaming offers a wide array of table stakes, starting with blinds as small as 1 and 2 cents and increasing to high-stakes games. Depending on the stakes that you play, you may even find yourself at a digital table with a professional player or two. In such a scenario, it’s important not to panic. Those easily detectable tells that you just can’t seem to hide? They won’t be a factor online. You can even play without those sunglasses—unless, of course, you’re at the pool.

High-Stakes Dining

Troy Johnson

If Las Vegas casinos exist for one reason, it’s to shower guests with obscene sums of money. That’s what they want us to believe, anyway. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re winning very large, that you’re splitting threes against aces and that, somehow—with panache, impeccable grooming, and unparalleled intelligence—you’re still winning. Now there’s the matter of allocation. You could use those spoils as the foundation of a college fund. Likewise, you could funnel it into sound ventures and investments. But most likely, you’ll look at your newfound wealth and see it as funny money. You earned it recklessly, after all, and lest you taunt the gods of the felt, you’d be wise to deposit it back into the local economy in an equally reckless, but oh so delicious manner.

If you’re looking for suggestions, we recommend that you start at the top, with a trip to the MGM Grand for a $425, 16-course degustation menu at Joël Robuchon. It’s the only Michelin three-star restaurant in Vegas and it’s the playground for a chef with a more expansive Michelin constellation than any other on the planet (he has 28 in total). Robuchon’s degustation includes foie gras (in an haricot vert mimosa salad), caviar two ways, white truffles (in an open matsutake-mushroom ravioli), and spiny lobster in green curry.

Sticking with a French theme, at Caesars Palace, Robuchon’s fellow Frenchman Guy Savoy has procured a wine list to end all wine lists, which includes gems from the cellar at his Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris. Savoy’s 14-course Innovation Menu is a show of what extreme talent can do with earth’s most precious bounties, including caviar, urchin, lobster, foie gras, black truffles, and wagyu beef.

Of course, Vegas is known as a city for fleshly pleasures, so if you’re in the mood to sink your teeth into something meaty, we understand. Carnevino, which is owned by Mario Batali and the restaurateur Joe Bastianich, offers steaks that have been dry aging since the days when Sammy Davis Jr. walked the strip. If you’re feeling generous, we suggest treating your good-luck craps companion to a dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye for two ($144) or a Fiorentina porterhouse ($160).

If you’d rather your steakhouse fare be served on a bun, the $777 burger at Burger Brasserie in Paris Las Vegas should do the trick. This not-at-all-American classic has Kobe beef, seared foie gras, Maine lobster, pancetta, goat cheese, and arugula slathered in a 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. A bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé Champagne accompanies the dish, because . . . well, because it can.

Those preferring to stay light on their feet would do well at barMASA at Aria, where the legendary chef Masa Takayama constructs a seasonal sashimi grand tasting menu ($181) that may just as well be called a collection of the sea’s greatest hits. From bluefin tuna belly and abalone to yellowtail and crab, the grand tasting menu highlights whatever is divinely fresh (and likely flown in daily from Japan).

It is possible that all the adrenaline has ruined your appetite and left you thirsty instead for a celebratory beverage. If that’s the case, swing on over to XS Nightclub at Encore. Sure, you could just spring for a bottle—prices start at $450 plus sales tax and a 20 percent server gratuity—but where’s the fun in that? If you want something that measures up to your legendary play, only the $5,000 cocktail will do. Available just for this year, this amber alchemy includes measures of Louis XIII Rare Cask 42,6 Cognac, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23-year-old bourbon, Martini Gran Lusso 150th Anniversary vermouth, and Bénédictine D.O.M. “Black Monk” 500th Anniversary Edition. It’s finished with Peychaud’s bitters, angostura bitters, and flamed orange oils, and it’s prepared tableside on a fitting vessel: a golden tray.

Once you’ve had your fill, you can return to the tables, where the action will be fierce and the cocktails are on the house.

Own the Night

Jenny Adams

Karie Hall knows her regulars. As the vice president and general manager of Las Vegas’s new Cromwell boutique hotel, she does more than anticipate a regular client’s expectations—she exceeds them. “We had a gentleman come in who has been playing at Caesars for many years,” Hall says, recalling the first night of the property’s soft opening. “He wasn’t at a private table, he was just playing one of our regular tables on the floor. We sent over a nice bottle of Glenfiddich anyways. He didn’t request it, but we know what he likes.”

Talk of Glenfiddich and table games always makes us think of the film Swingers, in which Jon Favreau memorably fumbles through an attempt to order a scotch at a blackjack table. “Any scotch will do,” he begins, “as long as it’s not a blend, of course. Uh, single malt. Glenlivet, Glenfiddich perhaps. Maybe a Glengow—any glen.”

The scene poignantly conveys the fact that there’s a right way and a wrong way to order a drink at the table. What’s more, proper etiquette for drinking and gambling in Las Vegas does exist. Here are four cardinal rules that will keep you looking and acting like a winner.

Rule 1 – Not All Tables Are Created Equal

If you are laying down $500 bets at a blackjack table, the casino will happily provide you with your tipple of choice. If you’re playing minimum stakes and ordering like a high roller, well . . . that won’t always work out so well. “If you are playing at a lower-minimum table and you want to drink something superpremium, that really can depend on a number of factors as to whether we will give it to you for free,” explains Hall. “It depends on how much you are betting, how long you’ve been playing. We might charge you for it or we might not. That’s really at the discretion of the managers on the floor at the time.

“At the Cromwell,” she continues, “we don’t even have wellliquor. It’s all top shelf. If you are coming in to play big stakes, we will hook you up with an executive host. This person will not only establish a credit line for you but also get to know your tastes and preferences. If you are in the Abbey [the Cromwell’s higher-stakes, reserved section], you can have anything you want. If we don’t have it on hand, we will find it somewhere and have it delivered.”

Larry Lepinski, chief operating officer of the Palms Casino Resort, concurs. “Let’s put it like this,” he says: “the higher the bet, the higher up the liquor shelf we reach for premium beverages. If it’s not on the shelf, we will find it and provide it to the table.”

Rule 2 – Keep the Felt Dry

You can splash the pot with chips, just don’t splash the table with a beverage. “There’s money involved, so we obviously suggest you use some common sense on how much you’re imbibing,” says Hall. “However, pretty much the only thing we ask you not to do is to put your drinks on the table. If you spill it, all the fun stops. We have to clean the felt, exchange the cards, and while the dealer will only lightly reprimand you, the people playing will be pissed off and usually pretty vocal about it. Particularly if you are all on a good roll.”

Rule 3 – Share the Wealth

Should you decide to purchase something, it can go a long way to also buy a round for the table. As Hall says, that’s “always a classy move.” But such generosity can be extended only so far. “You cannot buy your dealer a drink, for some very obvious reasons,” she laughs. “However, it’s appropriate to tip if you are doing well.”

Rule 4 – Bet Like You Drink and Drink Like You Bet

In the end, your drinking is much like your betting: If you’ve had too much to handle in either scenario, it’s best to call it a night. No one gets to the big leagues by seeing double and losing triple.

Pool Party

Dawn Garcia

Ahh, Las Vegas. The city of sin, the city that offers the freedom to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. It offers a world that caters to those who dare to live a little dangerously. It holds the sweet sound of slot machines, of dice hitting the table, and of spinning roulette wheels. It tempts visitors with cuisine prepared by some of the world’s most celebrated chefs, it captivates with beautiful showgirls, and it thrills with world-class nightlife. It’s Vegas, after all, and as far as what happens here, it’s safe to say the people around you know the rule.

The story of Las Vegas is a 108-year tale that starts with gold, is dusted with crime, and is influenced by big dreams. In 1905, Senator William Andrews Clark sold 600 lots in the middle of the dusty valley for $265,000, and just like that Las Vegas was born. Today the city is home to some of the world’s most elite and prestigious hotels, resorts, and casinos. In recent years, it has strengthened its commitment to unparalleled hospitality and unrepeatable experiences, and while much of that occurs after the sun has set, Vegas still offers a raucous party scene during the day. Here’s a closer look at three exclusive pool clubs that deliver three diverse experiences.

Rooftop Revelry

In two weeks, the Cromwell, a chic boutique hotel (the first stand-alone property of its kind on the Vegas strip), will open its doors. When it does, it will also unveil Drai’s Beach Club, a 65,000-square-foot sophisticated pool club set atop the 11-story hotel, promising panoramic views of the strip, 10 VIP bungalows and cabanas—each with its own private pool—a mezzanine level with 15 additional VIP cabanas, and a third pool with five private bungalows that overlook Las Vegas Boulevard.

Drai’s also plans to offer a fireworks menu, which is possible only because of the club’s elevated location. That means high-paying guests (those who spend at least $5,000) will have the opportunity to select a firework of their choosing and set it off at a time of their choosing. According to the club’s creator, Victor Drai, the vision for the venue took form almost two decades ago. Now that the day of its unveiling is finally near, Drai is anxious to see it in action. “The club itself is going to be such a movie star,” he says.

Pool Party

With reservations booked throughout the summer, the Encore Beach Club at the Wynn is, according to many, the adult pool party in Las Vegas. Justin Timberlake has been spotted there—he seems a good judge of a happening party scene—and so has Michael Phelps. No one can argue that the 18-time Olympic gold medalist doesn’t know his way around a pool. The club was formed thanks to a partnership between Wynn Las Vegas and Sean Christie's Las Vegas Nightlife Group, and it just won Nightclub and Bar’s 2014 award for Vegas Dayclub of the Year.

The club attracts some of the industry’s most popular DJs and other musical artists—the four-time Grammy Award winners Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will perform there on July 4—and it offers 26 private cabanas. Equipped with refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, and infinity plunge pools, these climate-controlled VIP enclaves are the ideal way to see without being seen.

The Royal Treatment

Gaining entry to Bacchus, Caesars Palace’s reservation-only pool club, is a bit like getting the emperor’s treatment. Set against a backdrop of Roman-style statues and pillars and overlooking the Garden of the Gods—the hotel’s collection of six general-admission swimming pools—Bacchus is often the sun-soaked area of relaxation for the property’s most affluent guests. If you’re intent on getting the royal treatment, we recommend renting one of the pool’s eight private cabanas, which each come with their own dedicated attendant. That’s important, because cabana guests have the luxury of ordering food from any restaurant on the property, a list that includes Nobu, Rao’s, Guy Savoy, and Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill. 

A Southern Blend

Shaun Tolson

Sure, Lexington and Louisville, Ky., offer unique bourbon experiences, and for good reason—the two cities serve as endpoints of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And while you can likely see and potentially taste some special blends at the Woodford Reserve distillery just west of Lexington, there’s one that you will only find at the St. Regis Atlanta. This particular bourbon, the St. Regis Special Selection Harmonious 6.0, is a proprietary blend created by a small group that included the property’s wine manager, Jennifer Sollinger; the director of food and beverage, Robert Brandenburg; and Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, Chris Morris. It offers hints of date, prune, and dark cherry, with strong buttery and vanilla notes that soften it beyond most other bourbons. The batch was unfiltered, which allows its subtle flavors to shine. It also gives the spirit a bit more punch up front, though that strength mellows quickly.

This year’s iteration, which is limited to about 180 bottles, arrived at the property only a couple of weeks ago and is the sixth special selection to be blended for the St. Regis Atlanta. “Sometimes you aim for something and you miss the target by yards or by inches, but you never hit the bull’s-eye,” Brandenburg says. “With this one, we felt like we really got it where we wanted to be. It works now in the summer because of the dark-cherry notes, and the prune and date notes take it into the fall.”

In September, for National Bourbon Heritage Month (which you already knew about, right?), the St. Regis Atlanta will be rolling out a Special Selection Stay package that includes a bottle of the bourbon and a Superior room ($599 per night). Fortunately, bourbon aficionados yearning for a taste of the Harmonious 6.0 won’t have to wait until the end of the summer. The hotel has added a bottle of the bourbon to its tailgating basket, which is available year-round; and bartenders at the hotel are pouring the special blend neat, as a part of vertical tasting flights, and in various cocktails, such as the Dramatist (see recipe).

Bourbon-Barrel Bliss

Troy Johnson

In talking craft soy sauce, numerous cities come to mind—Osaka, Yuasu, Tokyo, even San Francisco. Few would naturally think, “Ah yes, Louisville,” yet Derby City is where the United States’ only small-batch soy-sauce maker calls home. “This is a product you’d expect out of California,” admits Matt Jamie, owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods and maker of the increasingly famous Bluegrass Soy Sauce. “It was just something I said out loud when I was drunk and eating oysters,” he explains. “First, I Googled it and didn’t find another maker in the U.S. Then I thought, ‘There must be a reason why no one’s done this.’ But I couldn’t find a reason, so I did it.”

Truth be told, Kentucky seems destined for soy sauce. After all, most top Japanese producers buy their soy beans from farms in Jamie’s neighborhood. A huge underground limestone bed runs the length of the state, filtering rain into the mineral-rich hard water that makes bourbon so distinctive. It’s also great for fermentation—a crucial step in the soy-sauce process.

Then there’s the barrel surplus. State law prohibits bourbon producers from using a barrel more than once. It used to be that barrels were strewn about the state, made into planters or barstools. Now Jamie acquires many of them, which are crucial to his business—he ages his Bluegrass Soy Sauce for about 10 months in freshly emptied oak barrels from Woodford Reserve, which gives it that distinctive Kentucky terroir. The result is a lighter-tasting, yet thicker, more mahogany sauce. And whereas most soy sauces are dark and redolent of tar, Bluegrass delivers a touch of sweetness.

Jamie produces 7,500 gallons in a year, which may sound like a lot until you compare it to the 200,000 gallons that are produced each day by soy giants like Kikkoman. But big-name chefs continue to throw support behind his boozy Americana condiment. The James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Brock has it sitting on each table at his restaurant Husk in Charleston and Nashville. Bryan and Michael Voltaggio use it in their restaurants in Los Angeles and the greater Washington, D.C., area. Chef Edward Lee of 16 Magnolia in Louisville, makes it into a jam with rabbit rillettes in spring rolls.

For the third year in a row, Bourbon Barrel Foods will contribute an ingredient in the $1,000 Mint Julep at the Kentucky Derby, though Jamie is not at liberty to say just what the ingredient is. In that regard, it should be noted that while Jamie is most famous for his soy sauce, he also produces a full line of culinary goods, including spices, sugars, and—a surprise hit—a teriyaki-like sauce called Kentuckyaki. “I never thought I’d get into the catchy-sauce-names game,” he says, “but that one was too good to pass up.”

 

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