BY TOM YATES
It might be hard to remember a time when the Kentucky Bourbon Trail didn’t meander through the Bluegrass connecting local distilleries through common ground or when there was no Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrating all things bourbon. Right now, (along with horses and basketball) they’re both part of our cultural heritage. Funny, long before the Bourbon Trail was established (1999) and distilleries built multi-million dollar visitor centers with chef-driven eateries to accommodate the exploding bourbon tourism industry or before the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (1992) cemented itself as the center of the bourbon universe during its run, I was helping bang out bourbon dinners at a restaurant in downtown Lexington. Back in the day, bourbon dinners were a novelty and not a thing. At the time, our restaurant happened to have a very large bourbon selection and when we were approached about hosting a bourbon tasting/dinner, we jumped all over the opportunity. With little experience and unbounded naivete, we kept the dinners very simple until they gained popularity and the notion took hold. Nowadays, bourbon dinners are indeed a thing. The notion stuck. Over the years, with single barrel bourbons, small batch bourbons, blended barrels, and craft bourbons crashing the party, bourbon dinners (and bourbons) have gotten more complex and sophisticated. It’s a good time to be a bourbon lover.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival started out in 1992 as a dinner with a bourbon tasting. Every year, it built on its popularity until it skyrocketed into a two week event that draws over 50,000 attendees a year to the beautiful town of Bardstown, Kentucky. Bourbon mania.
Sixteen years after that inaugural dinner and bourbon tasting, I found myself teaching, cooking, and demonstrating a 5 course bourbon inspired meal for 250 bourbonites at The Culinary Arts; Bourbon Style Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Full circle.
I have a tender spot for my two year stint teaching the bourbon cooking school. Oh sure, planning, prepping, traveling, and cooking in an archaic portable makeshift kitchen had its challenges, but it was always great fun. With the festival just around the corner, I can still feel how my nervous excitement swelled and calmed moments before service when the bell tower chimed My Old Kentucky Home through the serene shaded grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Cue the music and light the burners. Lucky Kentucky boy.
With smoky undertones from the charred barrels blending with subtle notes of vanilla, spice, caramel, honey, and oak, the inherent qualities of bourbon lend themselves readily to both sweet and savory preparations. While I’ve applied it to just about everything, bourbon’s natural affinity with pork gets me every time.
Slow Roasted Bourbon-Lacquered Pork
With a few tweaks, I ventured back to the simplicity of my first bourbon dinner with an easy going preparation. Time. Little effort. Big payoff.
To jump start the bourbon factor, I made a quick brine with 1 cup hot water, 2 cups cold water 4 tablespoons Maker’s Mark bourbon, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 3 tablespoons salt, and 3 tablespoons brown sugar. After chilling it down with 1 cup crushed ice, I poured it over a 4 1/2 pound Rolling Rock Farm Boston Butt pork roast, massaged it into the meat, and slid it into the refrigerator to marinate/brine overnight.
Slather and rub.
The next day, I pulled the pork from the refrigerator, drained the brine, patted the pork dry, and slathered it 1 cup bitingly sharp Maille dijon mustard. While the pork roast came to room temperature, I mixed 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar with 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 1/2 tablespoon ground cumin, 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme, 3 tablespoons Bourbon Barrel Smoked Bourbon Sea Salt, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper.
After massaging and packing the spiced brown sugar rub onto every inch of the pork roast, I scattered sliced Casey County candy onions into a large roasting pan, nestled the pork roast over the onions, added 1 1/2 cups chicken stock, and 1/2 cup bourbon before sliding the roast (uncovered) into a preheated low 325 degree oven for 4 1/2 - 5 hours, basting the meat with the pan juices every 45 minutes and adding stock when needed.
As the fat melted into the meat, it swirled through pan juices, sticky candied spice rub, and bourbon spiked stock. Think about it. It was a basting dream. Even at a low oven temp (with that much sugar action) I kept a close eye on the pan drippings, adding more liquid/bourbon when needed. Baste. Wait. Baste. Repeat.
When the internal temperature of the pork reached 190 degrees and it was beautifully smothered, covered, and lacquered, I pulled the roast from the oven, tented it foil, and let it rest for 25 minutes.
After 5 hours, the pan juices were highly concentrated. To loosen them up a bit, I slid the roasting pan over 2 stove top burners, turned the heat to medium, and added a scant 1 tablespoon flour. When the flour bubbled up, I soften the sauce with 1 cup chicken stock, 1/2 cup water, 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, and an extra splash of bourbon to perk it up.
I ripped thick shards of pork from the sticky burnished roast, nestled them into puddles of smoky sweet bourbon pan sauce, and tucked buttered Weisenberger Mills cornbread waffles to the side before finishing with fresh grassy parsley, slivered Casey County sweet red banana peppers, bright quick-pickled shallots, and pickled garlic cloves.
I’ll drink to that.