We know: you would never do something so sacrilegious as cooking with your Pappy.
But let’s say the Van Winkle family offered you some bottles for a dinner. Chef Bobby Benjamin got that offer.
Benjamin is the head chef and owner of Butchertown Grocery in Louisville, Kentucky. Earlier this year we caught a few minutes with him while he was over a hot plate making beignets with Pappy 12, to talk about cooking with bourbon in the heart of bourbon country.
“A lot of chefs have been cooking with bourbon,” he explained, “But I think what’s cool about cooking with bourbon here is that we really focus on the Kentucky ingredients. And there’s so many different flavors of bourbon that can add.”
Bourbon flows steadily in Kentucky even as it becomes harder to find in other parts of the country, but even in Kentucky the Pappy reservoirs have run drier in the last two years. For him this cooking session was a bit of a special occasion.
Which is not to say that he doesn’t experiment with bourbon in food regularly.
“We took white balsamic, and we put it in a bourbon barrel just to see what happens,” he explained. “And it could have either been a $1,000 mistake or it could have been something special.
It turned out to be something special. “We did four months, eight months, we did a year. And so what’s been really really cool is to see the difference of white balsamic at 4, 8, 12 months, and how much flavor it gets out of that.”
But there’s more flavor than what the barrel has to offer. For the evening in question, Benjamin used 10 and 12 year Van Winkle, to varying effect. We asked him what it was like cooking with Pappy—he just laughed: “It’s ridiculous.”
But the flavors were impressive, and the bourbon was multi-faceted even on food. Sometimes it works as a savory component. “Even with our sauces, it’s nice to be able to try things out,” he explains. “We pair mushrooms in bourbon that’s what we do with our gnocchi dish. It’s unique for Kentucky—that chance to give you a flavor that you’ve never tasted in your life.”
“With the 10 year we want to keep it light, so we like to put it with Hamachi and a little bit of spice, but not aggressive.” He chose the 12 year to pair with his beignets. “We think it’s a little more well balanced. It’s almost as if the sweetness really elevates the Pappy, but at the same time the Pappy really elevates the sweet beignet.”
He makes the beignets typically with Wild Turkey American Honey at his restaurant. “I think that’s what’s fun about coming to Kentucky you come to Butchertown Grocery and I almost guarantee you that you’ll taste things that you never tasted in your life.”
That’s about as far up the Pappy line as he’ll go, though. After that it’s in a glaze, or a glass.
“When you look at the 20 year, you don’t really wanna mess with it so much,” says Benjamin. “I like serving the 20 year with pork and apples, so we do pork belly and apple sauce, you’re golden.”
And then of course, the fabled 23-year-old.
“I would never use it to cook with,” says Benjamin. “I respect it too much.”