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Perfect pairings: Bourbon and chocolate

Elmertlee_2Sometimes the combination of two discrete things is so perfect, so sublime, so harmonious, it’s enough just to enjoy the synergy of flavors at play. I had cause to reflect on this whilst enjoying one of my favorite pairings, bourbon and chocolate. If you’ve got whiskey lovers in your social circle, this would suffice as a dessert and requires exactly zero cooking on your part. In our case, last night we enjoyed Elmer T Lee Single Barrel (90 proof) with Scharffen Berger 62% semisweet chocolate. The semisweet had the right balance of richness and bitterness to call out the honey-vanilla flavors in the bourbon, which in turn had enough burn to accent the underlying sweetness and cut through the cocoa butter of the chocolate. I took miniscule nibbles and infinitesimal sips to extend the pleasure of the experience as long as possible.

I first acquired the taste for whiskey some 16 years ago, working at the Santa Fe Opera and living with a Texan named Jim. The choices there were Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey, the latter being actual bourbon as opposed to just whiskey. But it wasn’t until I became involved with DPaul, who is Kentuckian, that I began to explore the diversity of real bourbons out there. Together we’ve toured the distilleries for Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark and Labrot & Graham (maker of Woodford’s Reserve). Touring the distilleries is worthwhile, though there are no tastings involved — almost all are in dry counties. They do, however, often give you bourbon candies at the end, the best of the bunch being Ruth Hunt’s bourbon balls, which use Woodford’s Reserve. Most of these distilleries are in stunningly beautiful settings, set amongst the "hollars", rolling green hills with babbling brooks meandering through the valleys. Both Labrot & Graham and Maker’s Mark‘s grounds are positively idyllic. At the latter, you can dunk your own bottle in red wax for a fun souvenir. These days, new distilleries have cropped up all throughout bluegrass country, and boutique labels have emerged, raising the profile of what was once fairly lowbrow brew.

About a week after we visited Wild Turkey, some four or five years ago, one of their barrel houses had a fire. It’s amazing this doesn’t happen more often — the air within the barrel houses is vaporous with alcohol fumes escaping from the barrels. The "angel’s share" they call the attrition of bourbon due to evaporation. Wild Turkey’s fire sent flaming barrels of bourbon rolling into the river below, contaminating the local water supply. Wish I had been there to see that!

Our favorites are Woodford’s Reserve or Knob Creek when drinking bourbon on its own (or with chocolate!). For Manhattans, though, I like Maker’s Mark, as it has a natural cherry flavor that complements the maraschino and bitters nicely. When making juleps, I’m less picky — the sweetness and mint overpower any subtlety the bourbon brings to the party. Derby Day is just two weeks out, though, so it is in fact julep season. Stay tuned, and I may just post a recipe.

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