A quick flip through any Junior League cookbook from south of the Mason-Dixon will yield a recipe for pimento cheese, that smooth but zingy spread that looks so tantalizingly summery when packaged up in a Weck jar. Designed to be daubed on chips, smothered on toast, or perhaps guiltily just spooned into your mouth, this concoction of artery-clogging deliciousness is a staple of cocktail parties, buffet spreads, and Derby Day. No picnic or family gathering in Kentucky or Tennessee would be complete without a homemade batch. You can even mix a bit into your grits, splash a teeny touch of hot sauce on it, and enjoy it with a cup of coffee at 8 a.m.
J.P. Fetherston, the bar manager at Washington, D.C.'s Southern Efficiency–a Derek Brown institution dedicated to whiskey and cheeky variations on Southern fare–understands the obsession. "You can slather it on a whole multitude of things," he told me. Most Southerners have their own twist–and like any regional food, tiny battles are fought on a daily basis about what is the "proper" recipe combination. But Fetherston says that, like with most things at Southern Efficiency, they "aren't too rigid and dogmatic" about precisely recreating an old-fashioned pimento. Instead, their recipe calls for cabot cheddar cheese, cream cheese, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, mayo, and roasted red peppers, rather than the pimento peppers that give the dish its name. What's more, their chefs add pickled scallions and hint of the pickling juice itself for added tang.
If you want a firm drink to match–and counteract–the velvety coating left behind in your mouth, Fetherston recommends steering clear of bourbon, calling it "too hot" to cooperate with the pimento. Instead, an unblended American whiskey will spark a more complimentary feeling on your tongue. He recommends Michter's, which he considers "basically an after-dinner bourbon," because it’s aged in already-used barrels and lends a bit of butterscotch and vanilla to the mix.
The perfect cocktail pairing, according to Fetherston, has a hint of sweetness to counteract all that spicy creaminess. His recommendation? A Manhattan variation called a Fourth Regiment, which originally appeared in an 1889 cocktail book 282 Mixed Drinks from the Private Records of a Bartender of the Olden Days, but owes its popularity to the cult favorite The Gentleman's Companion, the 1930s libations guide-turned-adventure tale. With a dash of celery bitters at the end, the cocktail offers a bit more complexity than your typical Manhattan.
- 1 oz. rye whiskey
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- Dash of Angostura bitters
- Dash of orange bitters
- Dash of celery bitters
- Stir with ice. Strain and serve.