Smoke gets in your rye
Creativity marks over-the-top whiskey dinner

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Restaurants go to great lengths to successfully pair food with wine and, increasingly, with the budding number of craft beers. But cocktails are meant to be sipped as aperitifs to stimulate the taste buds for the meal to come, right?

We found out otherwise during a recent dinner at Merchant, a farm-to-table restaurant and retail establishment just off Madison’s Capitol Square. There, the bartending team of J.R. Mocanu and Samuel Gauthier blended Wild Turkey bourbons with multiple ingredients into a swirl of cocktails paired with creative courses by Chef Michael Liotta. 

What we drank was as complex as what we ate – a credit to the relatively new mixology movement that’s every bit as concerned with the ingredients as is any good chef.

In both cases, at Merchant, the results were impressive.

Wild Turkey was the spirit of choice owing to the dinner’s guest of honor, Eddie Russell, master distiller at the Lawrenceburg, Ky., facility. Russell, a self-described bourbon ambassador, guided diners through the Wild Turkey brands as we sipped and supped.

A group of about 60 attended the Sunday night affair. “It used to be just Kentucky girls who drank bourbon,” said Russell, obviously pleased with the number of women attending. “Now it looks like that applies to everyone.”

The evening’s esthetic was country cooking with a touch of game food, Merchant co-owner and host Joshua Berkson told the crowd. There was, however, no actual wild turkey on the menu.

The evening kicked off with an appetizer course featuring Wild Turkey-glazed meatballs, buttermilk hush puppies and pimento cheese toast. The trio was paired with a cocktail featuring Wild Turkey American Honey Liqueur blended with apple-cranberry syrup, Bittercube blackstrap bitters, the wine-based French aperitif Byrhh and Champagne.

The meatballs were plump and their glaze semi-sweet, and the hush puppies large and flavorful. The crostini that formed the cheese toast’s foundation were a little hard, but the pimento was ripe and luscious under a thin cap of melted cheese. The cocktail with the bourbon-honey underscore was alluringly sweet and strong, the Champagne’s effervescence serving as an excellent palate cleanser.

“Potted rabbit” was the next course, with a dark leporide shank shredded and served beside a dressing of whipped mustard and sour cream with crostini and several slices of fresh Beauty Heart radish. The accompanying cocktail blended its base of Russell’s Reserve bourbon with an orange-thyme claret, fresh lemon and orange juices and Cocchi Americano Italian aperitif.

This cocktail came on quite a bit stronger, with pronounced citrus flavors. It proved a fine match for the tender, woodsy-tasting rabbit and bright splash of the radish.

The next course proved be one of the evening’s favorites. The Salad Paysanne – country salad – was a wonderful blend of shredded frisee, braised golden beets and a house-cured ham hock and wild boar crepinette astride a bed of warm, black baby lentils. It all worked very well together, including the frisee, something I tend to remove from my salads.

The accompanying cocktail began with the dangerously strong Wild Turkey 101, adding fresh lemon juice, Lillet Blanc, what we assume was a homemade beet-tangerine cordial and absinthe. The licorice notes, so prevalent on the nose, disappeared altogether on the palate, and the cocktail’s complexity, with as many ingredients as the salad, strengthened a course that was a symphony of flavor and texture.

But it was during the next course that things got really interesting, at least on the cocktail side.

Liotta served a large shank of buttermilk-fried pheasant nestled in cider and pancetta-braised collard greens with smoked honey and “crushed” potatoes. The meat was succulent, while the greens retained a smoky character that would come into play in a big way with the accompanying beverage.

Our attention was drawn to the bar, where one of the staff was blowing what we thought may have been nitrogen “smoke” onto the cocktail glasses. They’re chilling the glassware, we thought. We were wrong.

The cocktail that arrived included “bacon-fat-washed” Wild Turkey Rye blended with sherry, hickory-smoked spiced demerara and Bittercube orange bitters. Gauthier said he took leftover bacon fat from the kitchen and rendered it down to liquid form. He next whisked it with the rye whiskey. He chilled the mix until the fat congealed, then removed and discarded the solid fat, leaving the rye with significant flavor overtones from the pork.

And the smoke? It was real smoke, which gave the cocktail a campfire aroma. The drink was heavily smoky on the palate, with the sweetness of the rye, sherry and sugar coming through. You either loved the drink or found it unpalatable. We found it fascinating, especially in the way it complimented the dish.

Our remarkable evening finished with butter pecan semifreddo – frozen mousse – served with Snickerdoodle cookies for dipping. Also, shots of Wild Turkey Rare Breed barrel proof whiskey and Kentucky Single Spirit Barrel 101 were served neat.

Serving bourbon neat or on the rocks is Russell’s preferred method of consuming the spirit he distills, he said. At one time, we would have agreed, but at dinner at Merchant, our minds were opened to cocktail possibilities the likes of which we had never dreamed.