The cuisine of Chef Ouita Michel is known for its local foods and flavors. From the agriculture, bread and meats of Kentucky, to the bourbon of its distilleries, there is a distinct Bluegrass taste in her culinary creations.
“I’m a Kentuckian, through and through,” says Michel. “I identify greatly with my part of the country. I see myself as an ambassador of the area, its food, and its spirit — bourbon.”
Michel opened the Glenn’s Creek Café restaurant in the visitor’s center at the Woodford Reserve Distillery this past January. The bourbon-centric concept is Kentucky Proud-certified by the region’s pro-local program.
“Three of our businesses are in Woodford County, so I’ve always thought of Woodford Reserve as being our hometown bourbon,” says Michel, who operates six eateries in the area, including a fine dining restaurant at the Holly Hill Inn in Midway, KY. “And it’s also the primary bourbon consumed in this area.”
Michel has also served as Chef in Residence at Woodford Reserve for the past six years; the position legally allows the distillery to serve liquor in individual servings, paired with food. So how does Michel determine bourbon and food pairings? With the Woodford Reserve flavor wheel.
The bourbon flavor wheel is a pie chart in which different slivers contain flavor notes that the distiller finds within that liquid.
“The distillers might find toasted nut in the whiskey’s finish, and I’ll think that that pairs naturally with toasted hazelnut,” Michel explains. “The Distiller’s Select we’ll pair with sorghum. Sorghum salad, sorghum dressing, sorghum juleps, sorghum-crafted butter— always fresh Kentucky sorghum.”
Sorghum, a cereal grain grown in the south and often used as a sweetener, extends the bourbon’s finish, “and the orange caramel notes are brought out more,” Michel notes. “We’ll also pair it with fresh oranges, or dried cranberries. You’ll see a lot of chutneys in salads.”
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is a more powerful spirit, with enhanced wood notes. “One thing it pairs well with is coconut macaroons,” Michel says, “Or pecan nut oats and pralines.”
With bourbon, food pairings can be against the grain of what people believe about the potent spirit. “Some people think that bourbon doesn’t go with any foods,” Michel explains. “But bourbon can enhance certain food flavors. It can be a flavor builder instead of a flavor destroyer.”
The flavor wheel helps customers identify specific notes among the variety of flavors within premium bourbon. “Sometimes food flavors can reflect back on the palate, and accent flavors within the spirits, so that the memory can latch onto those flavors and recognize them more easily,” Michel explains.
“Other times, food flavors can contrast well with a spirit,” she adds. “For instance, the dry bourbon rye pairs well with sweet cherry.”
Michel’s work with the flavor wheel “brings another perspective on how we present the flavors of Woodford Reserve to the consumer,” says Chris Morris, Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller. “When Woodford Reserve is paired with the appropriate foods, it simply explodes on the palate.”
The food releases the pertinent flavors of Woodford “in a way that leads to a greater appreciation of both the spirit and the food,” he adds. “It greatly enhances the tasting and drinking experience.”
It also makes bourbon—which sometimes can be an intimidating spirit for consumers—more approachable.
“Ouita’s Woodford Reserve food pairings have opened up a whole new level of appreciation and accessibility for consumers,” Morris explains. “Many who would never have tried a bourbon, much less Woodford Reserve, now have ‘permission’ to give it a try.”
Why? Michel has helped break down the mindset that bourbon is a strong, harsh spirit, or that it is exclusively a “man’s drink,” Morris says. “Ouita has helped us demonstrate that Woodford Reserve is a sophisticated, approachable spirit with flavors much like those found in a great wine, craft beer or cognac.”
For her part, Michel has found that there are two camps among the bourbon aficionados. “The first believe that you’re not allowed to mix bourbon with anything. You sit back with a glass of it and that’s it.”
The second group, she says “thinks, ‘Let’s mix it with every sweet flavor there is. And then when they come in for our pairings, we tell them ‘Nothing is going into your glass. Every flavor experience is going to come from the food items.’ I think this is very eye opening for folks.”
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Cheers Magazine. Reach him at KSwartz@EPGMediaLLC.com