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Portage House crafts riverside heartland cuisine

Portage House in Jeffersonville, IN

Chef Paul Skulas may not hail from Southern Indiana, but he grew up close enough in northwest Ohio. Post-Marine Corps, he honed his Southern chops by training at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina, and working with “Big Bad Chef” John Currence in Oxford, Mississippi.

Paul Skulas of Portage HouseFurther stints in Louisville led him to join restaurateur Alex Tinker in launching Portage House (117 East Riverside Drive, Jeffersonville, IN, 812-725-0435, eatportagehouse.com). We don’t usually pry so much into a chef’s background, but Skulas has a palate and an approach to Midwestern fare that seems very much his own. Southern Indiana and north central Kentucky both have rich farm country, so it’s not surprising that so many restaurants in the area draw on local sources for their provender. Portage House is no exception. About 80 percent of the beef, lamb, chicken, and pork comes from Hensley’s Homegrown. (The Broadbent country hams come from Lyon County in western Kentucky.) While oysters and some other fish have to be shipped in, Skulas also works with regionally farmed catfish.

Big Four Bridge in distance from Portage HouseThe building now occupied by Portage House was a private residence until two years ago, and it’s a safe bet that the occupants loved to sit on their front porch and watch the boats on the Ohio. The spot is literally within walking distance of the Big Four Bridge, as seen in the background of the photo at left. The location is wont to give diners of a philosophical bent thoughts, as Thomas Wolfe called it, “of time and the river.” Surrounded by the country bounty of Southern Indiana and the urban bourbon across in Louisville, the view from the patio of the Portage House is truly epic.

Ratcheting up Midwestern cuisine

watermelon and cauliflower at Portage House

It’s probably a good idea to arrive hungry for dinner at Portage since the portions are generous and the entrée prices are mostly under $20. (Steaks can push that envelope a bit.) Seasonality changes the menu often, of course, but our timing (just before Labor Day) was perfect to get the end of the lush part of summer and the first long-ripening crops of fall. Two starters prove that point. The tangy salad of cubed watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and a herb vinaigrette spoke of the summer heat in the fields. The roasted cauliflower with a lemon caper vinaigrette and chili flakes teased up with the promise of autumnal brassicas. The just-picked cauliflower was crisp and sweet—entirely devoid of the skunky quality it picks up in storage.

Trout at Portage HouseOne of the lighter entrees on the menu—amid the bratwurst, pastrami-cured duck leg, bbq chicken thighs, and ribeye steak—was a whole roasted trout, shown here. What so delighted us about the dish was the exuberant arugula, cucumber, and red onion salad that covered the fish. The crisp and piquant vegetables made a perfect counterpoint to the slight crunch of the trout’s breaded skin and soft, sweet flesh. Moreover, the fish was adeptly boned without disturbing its symmetry.

24

11 2017

Chocolate and bourbon make best of friends

Erika Chavez-Graziano offers bourbon balls at Mesa in New Albany

We were glad to see Andy Embry behind the counter at the cookware store and demonstration kitchen Mesa (216 Pearl Street, 812-725-7691, mesachefs.com) in New Albany. Mesa offers an ambitious schedule of cooking demonstrations led by local chefs. We had signed up for the bourbon and chocolate tasting program that is usually offered once a month, according to Mesa owner Bobby Bass.

Embry had been remarkably engaging and knowledgeable when he guided us through the Evan Williams center in Louisville (see this post). And he had offered some good pointers on tasting bourbon. So we were curious to see how he approached pairing bourbon with chocolate. His partner in the demonstration was Erika Chavez-Graziano, founder of Cellar Door Chocolates (cellardoorchocolates.com), which has three shops in Louisville.

“Chocolate brings out the sweetness of bourbon,” Embry told our group as the tasting began. We each had three small glasses of bourbon and three of Chavez-Graziano’s confections in front of us. “Take a bite of chocolate and let it melt in your mouth,” Embry advised. “Then take a sip of bourbon and let the flavors blend in your mouth.”

Whiskey tastes with chocolate

Bernheim Wheat and milk chocolate


We began with Bernheim Wheat Whiskey. At 90 proof, it was the lightest and the softest of the Heaven Hill whiskies. Embry and Chavez-Graziano had paired it with a 38 percent milk chocolate truffle. Embry prefers milk chocolate with bourbon. “It pairs better because it is smoother,” he said. “It brings out the best in bourbon.” The milk chocolate was light enough that it didn’t step all over the toffee and spice of the wheated whiskey

Elijah Craig and salt caramel


Next was Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon. This is one of our favorite bourbons. The nose has sweet fruit, fresh mint, and vanilla notes. The taste is woody with a hint of nutmeg and smoke. It’s one of those bourbons with a pronounced “Kentucky hug” in the finish—warming all the way down. Pairing it with a bourbon-barrel-smoked sea salt caramel gives the caramel a slight toasted note, while the caramel accentuates the wood and spice in the whiskey.

Henry McKenna and cinnamon truffle


Finally, we tasted Henry McKenna Single Barrel with a cinnamon truffle. The McKenna is bottled in bond with the barrel number on each bottle. The nose shows caramel and vanilla, while the taste is a swirl of oak, toasted spices, and honey. The cinnamon in the truffle plays especially well with the sharp spices in the whiskey.

Make your own bourbon balls


Chavez-Graziano is a self-taught chocolatier who is so serious about her craft that she imports and roasts her own cacao beans. She participated in the tasting with great enthusiasm, but also managed to make a batch of bourbon balls to share with the group while Embry was talking.

Erika Chavez-Graziano makes bourbon balls at Mesa in New AlbanyShe began by melting chocolate and cream in a double boiler behind the counter. For best results, she said, use couverture chocolate rather than compound chocolate. Couverture contains cocoa better, while compound chocolate substitutes another oil.

For every pound of chocolate, Chavez-Graziano adds one-half cup of whipping cream. She also stirred in a little sea salt and a generous splash of bourbon. Then she removed the pot from the heat and set the mixture aside until it was cool enough to roll into small balls. For the final touch, she rolled each one in dark cocoa powder. Do not use Dutch-processed cocoa, she told us, because the processing alters the flavor by removing the natural acids.

Chavez-Graziano passed the tray of truffles to all the guests. “The most selfless way to express love to people,” she said, “is to feed them.”

We were only sorry that we had finished our bourbon.

22

11 2017

Huber’s shows a farm can do it all

Huber's farm stand

At roughly 650 acres, Huber’s Orchard, Winery, & Vineyards (19816 Huber Road, Borden, Indiana, 812-923-9463, huberwinery.com) is the largest farm in Southern Indiana. And with 90 acres under cultivation with grape vines, it’s also the largest wine-grape producer in the state.

But what matters most to the Hubers is that the farm has been family-owned and operated since 1843. That’s when Simon Huber emigrated from Germany and settled on 80 acres in Southern Indiana. Now into the seventh generation of Huber oversight, the operation has grown and diversified. But, says Dana Huber, the family has not lost track of its roots. “We are farmers first. Our main goal is to keep the farm in the family.”

The farm was mainly a PYO operation through the 1970s, she explains. In 1978, the winery opened in a renovated dairy barn. Today, the farm is a popular destination with a Farm Park (complete with miniature tractor rides) for families, a farmstand, a bakery, casual restaurant, ice cream shop, and tasting room. The Hubers opened the state’s first distillery in 2000 and tours of the winery and distillery are usually offered twice a day.

Field to food


caramel apples at Huber's farm standBut what’s best about Huber’s is the bounty of the land—and the many ways to enjoy it.

The farmstand (at top of the post) offers the succession of vegetables and fruits from spring through fall. Fruits alone include strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and peaches. Nothing beats a just-picked, perfectly ripe piece of fruit. But that’s no reason not to also enjoy some strawberry or peach ice cream. Or blackberry or blueberry bread. Or strawberry rhubarb pie. Or sweet peach or strawberry wine. Or blueberry port or peach brandy. You get the idea.

The Hubers grow 10 varieties of apples that ripen from mid-August through mid-October. Some apples are cast in red crackle, others in caramel (above). The fruit finds its way to the farmstand, but also into caramel apple nut bread, apple pie, apple cider donuts, and homemade apple cider. That’s not to mention Razzy Apple sparkling wine and Huber’s own apple brandy.

Fruit in the bottle


The winery and distillery are a big part of the operation, creating more than 70 wines, dessert infusions, fortified wines, and distilled spirits. That makes the tasting room in the upper loft the best place to end a visit. Dana’s husband, Ted, has been growing wine grapes for nearly 30 years. In 2013, Huber’s Winery became part of the Indiana Uplands designation. Unlike European wine region designations, the AVA (American Viticultural Area) specs describe the geography but do not limit yields or specify permitted varietals.

Dana Huber pouring cabernet francWe tried some fruit wines and found the blackberry wine would make a good dinner companion. The Hubers make it nearly dry with nicely rounded tannins and intense fruit. Many of the grape wines are made from French-American hybrids, particularly some varieties popular in cold-climate Michigan and Wisconsin. The Hubers make what we think of as farmstead wines. The vines are heavily cropped and picked very ripe. Fermentation is by the book to wine-school standards. The pleasant winesy reflect the generous soils and climate where they are grown.

Of those we tasted, our favorites were the Seyval Blanc and the Cabernet Franc. The Seyval was smooth and fruity, expressing characteristic green apple and melon. If it had been aged on the lees, it might have gained even more complexity. The Cabernet Franc was also soft and ripe. The tannins that remained were principally green, and they gave the wine an impression of being robust. Aged in oak barrels, it seems to have benefited from the micro-oxidation without picking up excessive oaky flavors.

20

11 2017

Schimpff’s Confectionery proves enduring sweet story

Warren and Jill Schimpff

Jill and Warren Schimpff (above) could have been a comedy duo. Instead the husband and wife—married for 50 years—are the George Burns and Gracie Allen of candymaking.

They are also the current proprietors of Schimpff’s Confectionery (347 Spring Street, Jeffersonville, IN, 812-283-8367, schimpffs.com). Warren’s great-grandfather opened the shop in 1891. Several additions later, it remains a fixture on Jeffersonville’s main drag. It is also the self-proclaimed “oldest, continuously operated, family-owned candy business in the United States.”

Building a business around the American sweet tooth is always a good bet. In the Schimpff’s case, the confection that has sustained them through thick and thin is the simple cinnamon red hot. “We’ve been making them for 126 years,” Jill tells us when we arrive for a candymaking demonstration. “They’re the ones that have carried through the longest.”

It’s best to call ahead to check on tour availability, but the Schimpffs clearly love what they do—and love an audience. In fact, the couple annexed the building next door so that they could add a demonstration Candy Kitchen. They still make red hots the old-fashioned way. In a practiced routine, Jill dons a headset microphone to keep up a running banter with observers. Warren slips on heavy gloves and, completely deadpan, does the work.

Warren Schimpff mixes the blob

Time-honored techniques


He begins by heating sugar, corn syrup, water, and red coloring in turn-of-the-century copper kettles over an 85-year-old cast iron stove. When the mixture reaches 320°F, Warren lifts the kettle and spreads the hot liquid on a water-cooled table that is as old as the shop itself. He stirs in cinnamon oil and lifts and folds the mixture as it cools and thickens into a big, red blob.

With big scissors, Warren cuts off manageable portions and feeds them into a traditional drop roll machine that flattens the blob into a sheet of red hots. Candymakers once had to crank the machine by hand. But the Schimpffs made a concession to the 20th century by adding a small motor. (It’s still running in the 21st.) The final step in the process is the most dramatic. Warren lifts a cooled sheet and then drops it back onto the work surface. As the sheet breaks apart into 100 glistening hard candies, he can’t help but break into a grin.

Jill and Warren Schimpff turn blob into cinnamon candies

Schimpff’s offers other flavors of hard candies, including sour lemon drops, anise drops, and local favorite fish-shaped drops in assorted flavors. They also make an assortment of chocolates, peanut and cashew brittles, and Modjeskas, another local specialty. The caramel-covered marshmallows are named for a famous touring actress who performed in Louisville in the late 19th century.

But cinnamon red hots remain the shop’s mainstay. The Schimpffs even blow some of the cinnamon exhaust from the candymaking process out onto the sidewalk to entice passersby inside for a true taste of tradition.

17

11 2017

NABC proves brewpub grub can be healthy, too

With its working-class-hero graphics and its no-nonsense approach to craft brewing, the New Albanian Brewing Company (NABC) has been providing the suds of choice for thirsty folks in New Albany, Indiana, since 2002. In 2009, the original pizzeria brewery, now called NABC Pizzeria & Public House (3312 Plaza Drive, 812-944-2577) was augmented by the downtown NABC Café & Brewhouse (415 Bank St., 812-944-2577, newalbanian.com).

Stacey serves meal at NABCIn 2015, Stacie Bale took over as café operations manager. Serving both lunch and dinner, the café bustles, even outside the normal evening hours when brewpubs do their biggest business. Bale’s approach to the grub has something to do with that. She aims to make brewpub fare as healthy as possible both for the customers and for the local agricultural community. With those goals in mind, Bale sources most of her raw ingredients locally, makes a point of using non-GMO corn, cornstarch, and local oil (no mean feat in corn country), and offers a range of plant-based meals. Bacon, chicken, and beef are all free range and pasture-fed from nearby Hensley Homegrown.

One of the most impressive innovations Bale introduced to the menu was greaseless air frying. She keeps an array of small air fryers lined up in the kitchen so several fried dishes can be produced at once. Most are used for crispy waffle fries, onion rings, or the occasional catfish special.

NABC beerThe beers show a great range from agreeable session ales (like the one shown here) to the extremely hopped and high-alcohol Hoptimus. That’s an IPA with 10.7 percent alcohol and 100 IBU (international bitterness units). Bale uses the Community Dark (3.7 percent alcohol, 13.2 IBU) to great effect to make Beer Mac & Cheese, one of the favorite side dishes. She was kind enough to share the recipe. If you don’t have NABC handy, use your local brewery’s brown ale.

NEW ALBANIAN BEER MAC & CHEESE


NABC mac and cheeseServes 4 as main course, 8 as a side dish

Ingredients


2 cups uncooked macaroni
12 ounces NABC beer (Community Dark or 15-B)
8 ounces cream cheese
2 cups shredded cheddar
2 teaspoons chili powder
cayenne to taste (start with 1/8 teaspoon)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper

Directions


Boil a large pot of salted water. Once boiling, cook the macaroni until tender (8-10 minutes). Stir occasionally. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, pour beer in a second large pot. Place the pot over high heat, and add the cream cheese. As the beer starts to simmer, break the cream cheese into pieces with a whisk and whisk into the beer. Add the 2 cups shredded cheddar. Warm and whisk until completely smooth.

Once the pasta is cooked and drained, pour it into the cheese sauce. Reduce the heat to low, then stir and cook another 3 minutes to thicken. Add spices and mix in thoroughly.

15

11 2017

Fine distractions at Louisville’s Red Herring

Louisville's Red Herring at night

Located next door to the Silver Dollar (see our biscuit post), Red Herring (1757 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, 502-907-3800, redherringlou.com) opened in April 2017 in the 112-year-old Hilltop Theater. It might be the perfect complement to its next door neighbor. Red Herring is far from retro, despite including PBR on an otherwise stellar list of regional craft beers.

Red Herring interiorIf we lived in the neighborhood, they might have to put our names on two of the barstools. For starters, Red Herring is open from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day. You can segue seamlessly from breakfast to lunch to happy hour to dinner to evening entertainment without changing seats. The room is huge, as you might expect from a former theater, with seating downstairs and on a balcony above. The entertainers also set up on the balcony.

Crispy fried chicken skins at Red Herring in LouisvilleThe food at Red Herring exemplifies modern bar fare. On one hand, you can order Texas smoked brisket or a six-ounce burger of Black Hawk Farms beef on a housemade brioche bun. The kitchen also does a knockout charcuterie plate with chicken rillettes made in-house, as well as a vegetarian harissa hummus. The dish that made us smile widest, though, was a bowl of crispy chicken skins. The skins are brined in the house pickle juice, soaked in buttermilk, and battered with a locally milled flour. Once they’re deep-fried, the cooks drizzle them with hot sauce aged in a bourbon barrel.

“Southern calamari,” our server deadpanned.

The bar serves 100 classic cocktails and a slew of the staff’s own creations. We enjoyed the house signature Red Herring, which is yet another variation on sweetened bourbon.

RED HERRING COCKTAIL


2 ounces bourbon
1/4 ounce concentrated Demerara sugar syrup
2 dashes Bittercube Orange bitters
1 dash Fee Brothers’ Black Walnut cocktail flavoring
Orange zest

Add first four ingredients to cocktail shaker. Stir. Pour into rocks glass filled with ice cubes.
Flame the orange zest and drop it into the drink as a garnish.

With a bowl of Southern calamari and a Red Herring in hand, we were ready for the evening music. New Albany, Indiana, banjo picker Steve Cooley and some pals gave us several fun sets of bluegrass. Here’s a little sample:

13

11 2017

Le Moo nails the essentials of steak and bourbon

Steer on wall of Le Moo in Louisville

Every city needs an unrestrained steakhouse. From the fiberglass steer in the parking lot to the real taxidermied longhorn on the wall inside, it’s pretty clear that Le Moo (2300 Lexington Rd, Louisville, 502-458-8888, lemoorestaurant.com) does steak without restraint.

Le Moo is a major special-occasion restaurant, and like any good over-the-top place, it has one booth of truly over-the-top seating. The upholstery comes from 17 pieces of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage. There’s a $500 minimum to reserve it, but it does seat four to five people. And Wagyu steaks with top wines will meet the minimum handily. (Actually, the domestic prime Angus is maybe even beefier and friendlier to the wallet.)

Chef Chip Lawrence at Le Moo in LouisvilleWe were visiting with Mint Julep Tours (see the Harvest post), and since it was our second meal of an already young day, we prevailed on our server to split a small steak. Executive chef Chip Lawrence (that’s him on the right) had already planned to serve a four-ounce filet for the culinary tasting, even though the smallest steak on the usual menu weighs in at twice that. But a beef filet tapers from the broad Chateaubriand through the filet mignon down to a narrow tail. By cutting closer to the tail, Lawrence could still get a super-thick steak that was a bantamweight by comparison with the rest of the menu.

Steak and grits, oh my


Steak dinner at Le Moo

Our plate might have been modest, but Lawrence certainly made it special. It was the small-plate version of a Platonic steak dinner. The filet was grilled medium rare and came with brussel sprouts, popcorn grits, and a country ham demi glacé. The grits were cooked with cheese. The distinct popcorn flavor came from popped corn ground up in a blender and added to the grits. It’s a trick we’re going to try at home for sure.

Le Moo carries more than 100 bourbons. The bartenders can make anything you can think up, but we decided to honor the beef with a Central Kentucky classic, the Bluegrass Breeze. At Le Moo, they use a marvelous Austrian liqueur for the apricot flavor. It’s made with apricot eau-de-vie and fresh apricot juice.

BLUEGRASS BREEZE


2 ounces Basil Hayden Bourbon
1 1/2 ounces Rothman and Winter Orchard Apricot
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Demerara sugar syrup
lemon peel

Add ingredients through sugar to cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into white wine glass. Twist lemon peel over drink and wipe lightly on rim of glass. Discard peel.

Cheers!

12

11 2017

Harvest spreads local flavor across the menu

Pouring hambone broth over country ham tortellini at Harvest in Louisville

There’s no question where your food comes from at Harvest (624 East Market St., Louisville, 502-384-9090, harvestlouisville.com). This farm-to-table pioneer in the NuLu neighborhood (that’s New Louisville to us outsiders) covers the walls with joyous portraits of the restaurant’s purveyors. There’s also a map showing a 100-mile radius around the restaurant. Says partner Patrick Kuhl, “it’s our goal to get 80 percent of our food from inside that circle.”

The state’s “Kentucky Proud” program helps, Kuhl says. It’s been a boost to former tobacco farmers “because it provides incentive for farmers to grow food and for restaurants to buy it.” Animal proteins are pretty easy, he notes. But to have local produce year-round requires planning and preserving. The kitchen relies heavily on a vacuum sealer and a big freezer. And in keeping with the farm-country ethos, the restaurant also does a lot of pickling.

We visited Harvest on a Mint Julep Tours (502-583-1433, mintjuleptours.com) culinary tour to sample the imaginative food and drink. We were blown away by a purely Kentucky adaptation of an Italian classic: tortellini en brodo (at the top of the post). The tortellini were filled with shaved country ham, while the egg-white-clarified broth was made with the ham bone. Country ham was the perfect Kentucky analog to Italian prosciutto.

Pickled chicken thigh at Harvest in Louisvile

Pucker up for cooking with heart


Pickling is central to the cuisine at Harvest. Barrel-fermented chow chow, pickled slaw, and a house pickle plate are always on the menu.

Jeff Dailey brings board to table at Harvest in LouisvilleAnd sometimes all that spice and sour finds its way into dishes like the next one we tried. The protein star was a chicken thigh pickled and brined and fried up crisp, served on perfectly braised greens with bacon and a hint of bourbon in the pot likker. Next to it was a hot and sweet sauce of beets and blueberries! As a contrast, the dish also included a nice fluffy biscuit smeared with that Southern classic, pimento cheese. That’s sous chef Jeff Dailey bringing it to our table, with chef de cuisine Ryan Smith behind him.

Pickle even creeps onto the drink menu. Pickled peaches are a Southern classic. They’re usually served with ham or fried chicken. But the bar found another use for the leftover pickle juice. It goes into a drink called Peter Piper’s Peaches. Here’s the recipe:

PETER PIPER’S PEACHES


1.5 ounces Michter’s Rye
3/4 ounce simple syrup infused with serrano pepper, cinnamon, allspice, and clove to taste
1 ounce peach pickle brine
two dashes bitters

Combine ingredients and pour over ice in a lowball glass with a sugared rim. Drink. Repeat.

11

11 2017

Swank cocktails on two sides of the Ohio

Bartender mixes Remember the Maine at Mr. Lee's Lounge in Louisville

When we walked up to the plain, brick-fronted building on a residential stretch of Goss Avenue in Louisville’s Germantown, we were dubious that we’d come to the right spot. But sure enough, a tiny brass plaque announced the structure as “Mr. Lee’s.”

exterior of Mr. Lee's in LouisvilleWe opened the door and stepped through the portal of a time machine. As our vision slowly returned in the all-enveloping darkness, we found ourselves in a film-noir world. We half expected to see Nick and Nora of The Thin Man trading snappy bon mots between sips in the corner booth. The brightest spot in the place was the center of the horseshoe-shaped bar. The brass and glass and steel gleamed. The bartender’s white shirt seemed to glow. Welcome to Mr. Lee’s Lounge (935 Goss Ave., Louisville, 502-450-5368, mrleeslounge.com). The Coen brothers couldn’t have staged it better.

Every bar and every lounge is peddling a fantasy narrative—whether it’s the good-ol’-boy, shot-and-a-beer watering hole or a snazzy lounge with velvet drapes and leather banquettes. But Mr. Lee’s is the only place we know in Louisville that aims for and hits the mark of “sophisticated with just a whiff of danger.” It has a speakeasy vibe that feels like just the place where a guy might loosen his tie, unbutton his collar, roll up his sleeves and contemplate the state of the universe. That would be over a house-smoked Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, smoked black tea, and bitters. It’s not all retro, though—many drinks use spirits from Copper & Kings. (See previous post.)

Be sure to visit after dark. Otherwise, it hurts your eyes to come out into the sunlight.

The Butcher at The Butcher and Brooklyn in New Albany, Indiana

A cocktail to chew on


Across the Ohio, Brooklyn and the Butcher (148 East Market St., New Albany, IN, 812-590-2646, brooklynandthebutcher.com) emphasizes small plates, big steaks, and a cocktail program that stays in touch with the urban trends. A relative newcomer (it opened in early 2016), the restaurant has become New Albany’s go-to spot for steak and tony spirits. The dining room is bright and breezy, and so is the upstairs lounge by the big windows on Market Street.

The photo here shows that upstairs lounge, where we stopped for drinks because the steakhouse restaurant side had not yet opened for dinner. The basement also contains a hideaway known as the Lantern Bar. It shares some of the speakeasy vibe of Mr. Lee’s, but plays on its cellar location with exposed brick walls, candles on the tables, and jazz on the weekends. Brooklyn and the Butcher maintains a good wine and beer list to complement its spirits, but cocktails are the focus of the beverage program.

Given the name of the place, we had to order a drink called The Butcher. (That’s it above the subhead.) Fat-washed cocktails are all the rage—or have been since the first bartender figured out how to infuse bacon into bourbon. The Butcher is a pretty sophisticated take on the science-experiment approach to cocktails. It combines fat-washed Old Forester bourbon, Malmsey Madeira, Demerara sugar, and Angostura bitters. The bar staff prepares the bourbon by infusing it with beef marrow fat for several days before chilling to separate booze and ooze. It’s a round, smooth drink with a full but not greasy mouth-feel and a sweetness quotient somewhere just north of a Manhattan. Or maybe that should be southeast, where Brooklyn is just over the bridge.

10

11 2017

Copper & Kings bucks bourbon trend

distiller Joe Heron of Copper & Kings

Joe Heron may be the most colorful distiller in all of Kentucky—which is saying a lot in a region that prides itself on colorful characters. In 2014, Heron and his wife Lesley launched Copper & Kings (1121 East Washington St., Louisville, 502-561-0267, copperandkings.com) in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, one of the oldest parts of town. It’s now one of the hottest, and Copper & Kings is part of the happening vibe.

Although bourbon is basking in a renaissance, Heron hasn’t jumped on the artisanal bourbon bandwagon. “We would never do bourbon. There are too many good bourbon producers,” he told us as he led us through the distillery, which is surrounded by a huge butterfly garden. Instead, Heron said, “we want to make definitive American brandy.” He quickly clarified that he didn’t mean cognac in the French style. “We’re about fruit intensity to reflect the American taste and palate.”

Copper & Kings distills grapes from central California and apples from Michigan. Heron himself is a South African who relocated from Minnesota. “We wanted to be anchored in the heart of American distilling in Kentucky,” he said, as if there was no other choice. “We wanted to carve out an identity in the land of bourbon.”

Brandies at Copper & Kings

Named stills and sonic aging


A walk through the facility is a peek into Heron’s approach—and the workings of his mind. “Brandy is the one spirit where the philosophy revolves around concentration and retention,” he mused. “The pot still is a tool of intensity.” Heron has named his three stills Isis, Magdalena, and Sara after women in Bob Dylan songs. “You can’t be a real distiller until you’ve named your stills,” he told us with a practiced shrug. He double distills to clarify the spirit, keeping some fermentation flavors and culling out others.

As fond as Heron is of his stills, he contends that “maturation is as important is distillation.” As he pointed out, “Brandy is promiscuous. It takes on flavor very quickly.” To instill a distinctly American character to the finished product, he ages most of the brandy in Kentucky bourbon barrels. Heron also uses American white oak barrels for the grape brandy and Spanish sherry casks for the apple brandy. Cr&ftwerk series brandy is aged in craft beer barrels.

“You muscle bourbon into shape,” he said. “But you stroke brandy into shape.”

Don’t expect hushed aging cellars at Copper & Kings. Heron has embraced “sonic aging.” Music is pumped into the cellars so that giant sub-woofer speakers can “pound a bass pulse into the spirit by increasing the contact between the spirit and the barrel through sound waves,” he said. He changes the Spotify playlist daily. “The principle has existed for a while. We are the distillery that has embraced it.”

Liquors and liqueurs


It probably goes without saying that Heron and his team like to experiment. The distillery has already launched more than 30 products, including several varieties of absinthe and gin, Orange Curaçao, and Mistelle—a muscat brandy liqueur infused with honey. For the Brewskey line, Copper & Kings distills craft beer and ages the result. “It tastes like whiskey with the flavor of beer,” Heron explained.

bartender Eron Plevon at Copper & KingsAfter passing through the art gallery, we reached the top level tasting room with a roofdeck and city skyline views. When we finally got to taste, we were glad that the products seem to justify Heron’s enthusiasm. We sampled the lavender absinthe, which had a marvelous swirl of anise and lavender botanicals, in a glass of Death in the Afternoon. (Just add champagne.) And we sampled the flagship spirit of Copper & Kings, the American Brandy. Tasted neat, it had sparkling fruit on the tongue and a long, smooth finish. It was brighter and sweeter than cognac—more like a Spanish brandy made from Pedro Ximenez grapes.

Wisconsin Brandy Old FashionedIt was showcased well in the trendy Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned. Bartender Eron Plevan mixed a jigger of brandy, a few dashes of bitters, a sugar cube, orange slices, maraschino cherries, and a splash of soda. (Copper & Kings made the bitters-infused soda, too.)

“It has all the authenticity of Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Heron said with a grin.

07

11 2017