It started for me in South Station the other day, but really years earlier.
Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, elusive to say the least, equivalent to the cult cabernet fandom of Napa Valley's Screaming Eagle or Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus in the wine world. So, I began a voyage to Mecca of sorts, in Providence, RI, and Matt Jennings' stellar restaurant Farmstead. The Pilgrims with me: Ryan Sosti (Ruby Wines), TJ Douglas (Urban Grape and organizer of the trip), Chef Michael Scelfo (Russell House Tavern and soon to be Alden & Harlow).
It was also a trip down memory lane, my first bar shift ever was over two decades ago on South Main Street- maybe you can go home again? A sunny afternoon, I remembered one of my old haunts, The Hot Club, which was the same as ever; perfect, sitting on the deck enjoying a beer, there is a reason this place has been here so long. We met up with an old buddy of Ryan's who cringed (and affably took it in stride) when he regaled us with the story of his nickname- Vodka Bill. As if I didn't already know I was in for a long night? Then, on to Farmstead on the East Side (driven by Vodka Bill in an Escalade), for dinner, and of course, Pappy. Ushered in to a warm welcome from our gracious host and Chef Matt, we were quickly handed a cocktail.
The Kentucky Flower
1.5 oz W.L. Weller Bourbon, .5 oz St. Germain, .5 oz lemon juice, cranberry, egg white.
Light, frothy and delicious, be careful you could probably drink many of these- thank goodness we were in the process of being seated and greeted by the man himself- Julian Van Winkle III.
Matt Jennings had a tough task, to pair big, spicy, high proof whiskey with food. He performed with aplomb. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year Lot "B" is the lightest of the whiskeys we tried at only 90 proof- but this is by no means a simple spirit, delicious, rich vanilla and spice. Best part is you might even be able to get your hands on a bottle. Matt served a pungent and very tasty smoked cod rillette which held its own.
Next up was TJ's favorite, the Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 year, 107 proof. This is booming stuff- fig, vanilla, tobacco- spicy and tannic which paired with chicken terrine, vegetables, chicharrones and bourbon mustard. This was, indeed, bourbon lovers heaven- particularly after a couple of eyedrops of water to lower the proof (Julian's suggestion by the way).
Mr. Van Winkle introduced the main course with a nod to his grandfather who started working for the W.L. Weller distillery at the age of 18 in 1893. "I like to refer to this as butter bourbon, smooth and delicious." He continued with a wry smile, "I'm so glad you like our family's bourbon but in your enthusiasm you've created your own competition."
Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 year, absolutely my favorite with molasses, toffee and round vanilla creaminess. Chef Scelfo, across from me, thought this pairing was Chef Jennings' best- slow roasted pork shoulder and loin, turnip puree and golden raisins, fiddlehead ferns and pickled oysters. "Perfect along side the bourbon, not trying to go at it, you know? Let's the whiskey shine."
Ryan is a self-proclaimed dessert guy, so he was eagerly waiting on the final pairing, which beyond delivered. Pineapple upside down cake with candied ginger and bourbon ice cream along side Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23 year? Wow, I don't know how I got past security but I'm glad I did. The spice and proof of this spirit married very well with sweetness and showed of the whiskey's honeyed character. As if this wasn't enough, Julian's southern gentlemanly nature treated us to a special surprise. From Kentucky earlier that day he grabbed 2 bottles of a bourbon his father made in 1970 and bottled in 1984, then sat in his garage for almost 30 years. It was 14 year Pappy that drank like a mellower 15 year- what a way to end the evening.
We found the terrific new bar (only a couple months) called The Eddy, on Eddy street downtown on the way back to the train. Perfectly made cocktails with a tight, well thought out beer and wine menu- check it out when you're in town.
A train ride home, full and a only little buzzed (thank goodness the pours were small), swirling thoughts of bourbons I may not try again- this was a legendary boys night out.
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