Myrtle Beach cocktail columnist details the art of doing the bourbon dinner right

For Weekly SurgeMay 7, 2014 

Bourbon dinners seem to be growing in popularity on the Grand Strand much like wine dinners did earlier this century. This trend is a welcomed one for those of us who enjoy America’s claim to fame in the spirits world.

For some people, these pairing dinners are mere expressways to a hardcore buzz. However, the purpose behind the dinners has a lot more romance and thought involved than simply getting the attendees to their happy place.

Similar to a wine dinner, there are unspoken rules that you have to extend to pull off a bourbon dinner. Serving the right thing at the right time is imperative.

The first course, for most chefs, is something light. Most commonly, a salad or seafood dish will start a multi-course meal. You can’t just pour bourbon in a glass and pair it with light, delicate flavors. Almost always, the first course should be paired with a cocktail. Using bourbon in a drink that may echo a flavor in the dish or reflect an ingredient is important at this stage. The first course will set the tone. A julep, smash, sour or something innovative would be appropriate.

Bourbon fanatics will balk at this and resort to their purist ways. I do not blame them and I am one of them. However, if you serve straight bourbon from the get-go, you will, as they say, “burn the taste buds” of the guests. This happens when too much alcohol hits your tongue and gives it that numbing sensation that is associated with a decent buzz. This is a problem because you do not want to numb the taste sense when you are at a pairing dinner. At least not yet.

The flavors in bourbon can be complex. Notes of caramel, hazelnut, vanilla, smoke, earth, toast and even some more exotic ideas are found in bourbon. These come from the barrels that are used in the aging process. In fact, aging is the only difference between moonshine and bourbon. Moonshine will have some flavor, but, overall, you will only taste the burn of the alcohol because it has not been mellowed by aging in charred wood barrels.

We will assume we’re talking about a three-course meal for sake of argument, so this brings us to the main course.

Grilled meat, barbecue, anything roasted and bacon are all great things to see for the main course at a bourbon dinner. For this course, it might be appropriate to serve bourbon on the rocks. I have seen bourbon served neat with the main dish and it worked just fine. A little ice would have made it even more palatable. Remember, it is a pairing dinner. You want the guest to get the flavor of the bourbon as it balances with the food. A straight pour of bourbon may be too overpowering for some dishes or some of the people eating. A great tactic is to make ice spheres for the main course and that adds a little more flair to the pairing and also allows for a slower melt rate, which will support the flavor of the bourbon through this course as well.

The main course can also be used with a cocktail, but the bourbon folks will want at least one course featuring pure whiskey. You want to showcase the various ways to drink bourbon with food. Keep that in mind.

The dessert course is where people get incredibly lazy and boring. Serving honey bourbon for dessert is a cop out. It does not show creativity and tends to negate the whole purpose.

First, bourbon, by law, must be 80 proof in the bottle. Most of the honey versions are “bourbon infused with honey and liqueur” that total around 70 proof. If you are going to have a bourbon dinner, you better serve real bourbon.

My second problem with this is that it does not leave the dinner on a high note. If the chef served vanilla ice cream for dessert at a wine dinner, you would feel very let down with your last impression. I find this to hold true if you serve a honey liqueur for the last course of a $60 (or greater) meal.

Dessert is the time to make a fantastic cocktail that matches the dessert or to create your own infusion. A walnut-infused bourbon or an orange bourbon slush would make a great finishing touch to a bourbon dinner. This is the last chance to impress.

We relish in the fact that bourbon dinners are growing in popularity for the Grand Strand food scene. They will either affirm the restaurants professional ability or that they have no idea what the purpose for the dinner is. If you are not sold on bourbon just yet, these are great events to see bourbon in a different light. If you are a hardcore bourbon fan, these events will show you the pairing concept and, maybe, inspire your thoughts about drinking bourbon. Either way, they are loads of fun and great ways to socialize around good food and drink.

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