A new homegrown festival celebrating some of our favorite things — craft spirits and beer — will sprout in Miami and we hope, grow roots, thanks to support from the right folks. Charles K. Cowdery is one of those folks, an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. Not only is he a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009,) he is the author of many books including BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004) and is editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader, the only publication dedicated exclusively to American whiskey. So it should be no surprise that CRAFT Spirits & Beer founder Jennifer Massolo tapped Cowdery to participate in her inaugural festival, and likewise that he accepted.
We are thrilled to welcome Cowdery into our flagship restaurant in the Design District for a private pairings dinner kicking off what looks to be a weekend full of fun and learning, the genuine way. Paired with the menu above, Cowdery has selected a thoughtful, well-rounded tour of American whisky from east to west coast, as well as its tender middle where it all began. A High West Silver Western Oat Margarita with half salt rim will start things off, followed by Palm Ridge (Florida,) Koval 100% Rye (Chicago,) Balcones Single Malt (Texas,) and finally Dry Fly Bourbon 101 (Washington.) As a primer to CRAFT and our menu, we hooked up with Cowdery to get his take on Miami as a whisky town and much more. We can’t wait to meet and taste with him in person. Click here for your ticket.
The Genuine Kitchen: What is your relationship to Miami?
Chuck Cowdery: None. I did some marketing work for Burger King in the 80s, but otherwise have not spent any time there, so I’m very much looking forward to getting to know the city a little bit, especially coming from Chicago in November.
TGK: Coming from the midwest where bourbon whisky is not only plentiful but part of the cultural fabric of the community and its heritage, how do you understand Florida’s role in the American whisky story with its sugarcane-based, traditionally mojito-loving cocktail culture? Is Miami headed for a whisky revolution?
CC: Aged spirits pose some special challenges for distillers so it’s not surprising that craft-oriented distillers want to try their hands at whiskey, even in a community where some other spirit tends to be more popular. There are, of course, plenty of craft opportunities with rum and other spirits as well. People today don’t want to be limited. Traditions are great but nobody wants to be boxed in by them. Most craft distillers want to be innovators. Also, Miami has historically been the principal gateway city between the two cultures and in any good gateway, things move in both directions.
TGK: Generally, how do you approach pairing food with whisky? What pairing for this dinner most excites you to taste and why?
CC: To me, balance is the most important thing. You don’t want the drink to overpower the food or vice-versa. It’s not unlike fashion or interior design, in that you want there to be some element that ties the two together. Maybe it’s smoke or a certain spice note. Ideally it shouldn’t hit you over the head. It should be subtle. All of these pairings will be challenging, because some of the spirits are original and will be unfamiliar. My role is more like a commentator. It’s up to the chef, distiller and mixologist to make it work. Typically with spirits I think the entrée is the toughest match.
TGK: Are there some whiskies better for tasting alone, others better for cocktails, and others best matched with food in your opinion? If so, name one example of each please.
CC: It’s Kismet, really. If something works, it works. There certainly are whiskeys, heavily-peated single malts or very old bourbons come to mind, that don’t work well with anything else and are best considered on their own merits. Though at the same time, for cocktails you want clear flavors in your base spirits that won’t get buried under the other ingredients. With food, it’s tough because whiskeys tend to be strongly flavored so the challenge for the chef is devising a dish that can stand up to them.
TGK: What advice would you give to novice whisky drinkers looking to get their feet wet? Is there a natural progression of whiskies you’d start with to develop the palate or should one just dive in head first and taste a bunch of things?
CC: I tell people you don’t necessarily have to start with the most popular, mainstream brands like Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s (in major producer American whiskey), but it’s not a good idea to immediately try to identify and start with ‘the best’ either, because without a base of knowledge you won’t have any basis for recognizing whether it’s ‘the best’ or not. Maker’s Mark is a good bourbon for beginners, because if Maker’s is too strong for you, you might not be a whiskey person. Likewise in scotch, don’t start with Islay single malts. Start with a good blend like Johnnie Walker Black. Craft is another whole thing but one of the great things about craft distillers is that the distillers themselves tend to be very approachable, so you can talk to them and figure out what you might like in their portfolio. Mixologists are a big help with this too. Even if you prefer straight spirits to cocktails, mixologists are still going to be your best guides. Another tip for beginners is that water is your friend. Don’t be afraid to dilute the spirit, up to a 1:1 ratio, with room temperature water to knock down the alcohol a little so you can taste what else is there.