Bourbon Tasting with Fred Noe at Gravitas

Fred Noe has bourbon in his blood. The great-grandson of Jim Beam, Noe has continued his family's tradition by running the production of Jim Beam bourbons as well as those vended under the brands Knob Creek, Bakers, and Basil Hayden's. On a recent warm spring evening, Noe hosted a bourbon tasting at Gravitas in which attendees were treated to a variety of cocktails as well as a four-course dinner.

Admittedly, I've always been more of an Irish whiskey girl (a shocking revelation, I'm sure, coming from an O'Leary). However, as part of my developing interest in mixed drinks, I've started to sample more distinctly American spirits and beverages and was therefore eager to learn more.

During cocktail hour I sampled a wonderful Old-Fashioned made with rye infused with blood oranges and dark cherries. The fruit flavors tempered the liquor's woody flavor and made for a refreshing, but bold, cocktail. A Manhattan, also made with blood orange and cherry bourbon, didn't suffer for its lack of vermouth (left out as not to overwhelm the berries) and tasted delightfully dry and crisp. Although I was able to pace myself with regards to drinks, I had more trouble resisting the trio of delicious passed appetizers: a rich quail egg atop kielbasa, fried goat cheese risotto balls with red onion jam, and a short rib and blue cheddar croquette dressed in jalapeno marmalade.

The four-course dinner that followed was a marathon of various bourbon cocktails, terrific food pairings, and amusing anecdotes from Noe. I adored the starter of roasted sweet corn tamale and venison chile served with seductively sweet "ambrosia," served with spicy sweet punch made with lemon juice, bourbon, ginger beer, and vanilla-infused honey. Next came the "speakeasy" (Bakers, vermouth, chipotle pepper simple syrup, and club soda), whose stronger oak taste went well with the spinach salad and bourbon-and-orange-glazed poussin. (Poussin, by the way, is my new favorite variety of fowl. Who knew baby chicken flesh could be so succulent?).

For the main course, guests enjoyed a splash of the hearty Knob Creek Single Barrel (served neat or on the rocks) and filet mignon with a potato galette and fried sweetbreads. At this point, those of us who weren't drifting off into our dishes enjoyed a "Kentucky Creamer" (Bookers, amaretto, cream, vanilla, egg, coffee, chocolate grappi) paired with a thick chocolate brownie and peanut butter ice cream. Course #4 = Best Cure For Insomnia Ever.

Like many other guests, I came away impressed with the diversity of flavors found within that opaque category known as "bourbon" as well as excited about the range of cocktails that incorporate this delightful dark spirit. I'm not yet a whiskey-to-bourbon convert, but a few more Ambrosias might just do the trick...

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Joanna O'Leary