When I arrive in the new bourbon tasting room at the historic Beaumont Inn, there are already set-ups of four bottles of bourbon with empty glasses in front of each. Dixon Dedman, who with his parents own the inn that has been in their family since 1917, is famed for his bourbon tastings as well as his revival of the bourbon his great great grandfather used to make before Prohibition shut him down.
In other words, Dedman is a bourbon expert and I am someone who mixes the spirit with diet cola. But not this evening. Dedman is going to teach us how to taste the "terroir" of bourbon, meaning the type of land here — limestone rock and natural springs that give a special flavor to the wheat, corn and rye used to make bourbon. There is, I note, no diet cola anywhere in sight.
"When they char the barrel, it releases the sugars and caramelizes it," Dedman says as he pours Pappy Van Winkle, a 20-year old bourbon named in tribute to Julius Van Winkle by his grandson and great grandson, who are carrying on the family tradition.
That’s important because Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon, which means it contains no rye and thus gets its flavor from the interaction with the barrel.
"Focus on where you’re tasting it," he says. "That’s how you build your palate."
Because it’s wheated (who even knew that was a word?) Dedman tells me you can taste it in the front of your mouth.
Pappy Van Winkle has almost a cult like following says Dedman.
"When they’re going to release it, people sit in their cars in front of liquor stores for two days to get a bottle," he says.
At this point, I know I can’t ask for a can of diet cola.
The next taste is a sip of Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary named after the Senior Brand manager with 50 years of experience in the bourbon biz. Now I remember Four Roses as a cheap bourbon — the kind you do mix with soda pop, particularly at college dorm parties — but its roots go back 130 years. The brand languished and almost disappeared. The credit for bringing Four Roses back and making it a success goes to Former Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge.
The taste of this bourbon comes from the using some of the brand's 10 recipes — from five proprietary yeast strains and two mashbills (note that Kentuckians talk about bourbon ingredients in the same complicated way they do horse bloodlines) and rye. Dixon says to pay attention to its finish on the back on the mouth.
I’m getting it.
When Dixon was working on developing Kentucky Owl, he wanted to emulate the complexity of Four Roses. Later this month he’ll be releasing his Kentucky Owl Batch No. 7, the seventh of his limited release bourbons.
"It's an 11-year-old Kentucky straight rye whiskey and it's exactly what a rye whiskey should be," Dixon writes on Kentucky Owl’s Facebook page. "I put this blend together and bottled it at 110.6 proof. It's a full-flavored rye perfect for the coming fall weather."
Barrel aging can produce bourbons with a high proof count but then before they’re bottled, they’re watered down to around 80 proof. But Dixon wasn’t about to do that to Kentucky Owl.
"It’s full flavored," he said about this batch of Kentucky Owl and it sure was. "You can’t hide anything in barrel proofed whiskeys."
Later, when I’m in the dining room ordering dinner — the Classic Beaumont Inn fried yellow leg chicken, beaten biscuits, country ham — I glance at the bourbon list. I read that Dixon’s Batch No. 6 costs $40 a glass, and am glad I didn’t ask for a diet cola. Not just because I would have looked stupid but also because I had begun to get a sense of how to appreciate a great bourbon.
But the Beaumont Inn is about more than Kentucky Owl. It was built in 1845 as a girl’s school and was bought by Dixon’s great great grandmother in 1917. Two years later she turned it into an inn. Many of the recipes on the menu and in their cookbook have been favorites since they first opened including, fried green tomatoes, housemade pimento cheese, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, corn meal batter cakes with brown sugar syrup and the General E. Lee Orange Lemon Cake.
The latter, my waiter told me, was such a favorite of the general that he carried the recipe in his breast pocket. I guess that was in case anyone asked if they could bake a cake for him. I, of course, had to order that despite being a northern girl, and it was delicious — very light with a distinct sugary citrus taste. The lightness I discovered later was because the cake flour used in the recipe is sifted eight times.
The food at the Beaumont Inn is so good that a few years ago they won the James Beard America's Classic award, which is given to "restaurants with timeless appeal, each beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community. Establishments must have been in existence for at least ten years and be locally owned."
The inn itself is beautiful, all polished wood and thick carpets, antique furniture and the timeless grace of a wonderfully kept three-story historic mansion with an exterior of red brick and tall white columns. Located in Harrodsburg, the oldest city in Kentucky, it sits on a rise on several rolling, beautifully landscaped acres. I mentioned Duncan Hines a few weeks ago when I was writing about Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, well, Duncan was here quite a bit too and I can see why.
"Now write this down for the people in Kentucky," he told a reporter back in 1949. "[Say] I’ll be happy to get home and eat two-year-old ham, cornbread, beaten biscuits, pound cake, yellow-leg fried chicken, and corn pudding. And you can say what I think is the best eating place in Kentucky: Beaumont Inn at Harrodsburg."
The food here is real Kentucky fare — Weisenberger meal from a seventh generation mill not far from here, Meacham hams which the Dedmans bring to maturation in their own aging house. It's a process that takes several years and, of course, Great Great Grandpappy’s Kentucky Owl.
The following recipe is courtesy of the Beaumont Inn Special Recipes, their cookbook now in its sixth edition.
General Robert E. Lee Orange-Lemon Cake
9 Eggs, separated
a few grains salt
2 cups cake flour, sifted twice before measuring
2 cups white sugar, sift 6 times
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 lemon, juice
Grated rind (yellow part only)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Beat egg yolks to creamy texture; beat egg whites until stiff. Add baking powder and tartar to flour and sift six times. Mix all ingredients together. Divide batter into four greased 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn cakes upside down on a rack until cool.
Spread Orange-Lemon Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Store in refrigerator until serving time. Garnish with orange slices and fresh mint leaves if desired.
¼ pound butter, softened
3 egg yolks
2 (16 ounce) packages powdered sugar, sifted
4 oranges, rind of, grated
2 lemons, rind of, grated
4 tablespoons lemon juice
6-8 tablespoons orange juice
Cream butter; add egg yolks and beat well. Add powdered sugar and grated rind alternately with juices, beating well.
Original "Robert E. Lee" Cake
Twelve eggs, their full weight in sugar, a half-weight in flour. Bake it in pans the thickness of jelly cakes. Take two pounds of nice "A" sugar, squeeze into it the juice of five oranges and three lemons together with the pulp; stir it in the sugar until perfectly smooth; then spread it on the cakes, as you would do jelly, putting one above another till the whole of the sugar is used up. spread a layer of it on top and on sides.