Kentucky Bourbon Trail

I remember very clearly the first time I saw something about barrel aged liquor.   I was in a subway in New York and there was poster advertising about how Jack Daniels is clear before it goes into the barrels.  After years of aging, it took on the colors of the barrel and came out a light brown.  I was in my late teens so I was more interested in Burnett’s Vodka and Bacardi Limon at the time, but this alway stuck with me.

Anyone who has drank a significant amount of alcohol with me knows that I’ve been a Gin man for quite a while now.  This was my sort of my graduation from shitty alcohol in my late teens and early 20s to something a little bit more sophisticated.  My curiosity for the culinary world began to drift into the alcohol I was drinking.  It was interesting to me how different brands seemed to have different spices and how you could pair it with things like cucumber and enhance the taste.  I began drinking my alcohol straight (or neat), or on the rocks without a chaser.  Alcohol became less of something that just gets you fucked up and more of a new world to explore.  About a year ago I starting drinking and enjoying Bourbon, which you could probably say has sent me down an alcoholic rabbit hole of exploration.

I have written a couple posts about my food travels through Kentucky, but the real reason I drove five hours through the worst state in the country (Ohio) was to gain a first hand education on American Whiskey, specifically Kentucky Bourbon.  The more I tasted and the more I read about this spirit the more I wanted to see how it was made, the people that make it and taste it directly from the source.  I planned out visits to six distilleries in five days and what resulted from it was a deep appreciation for all things Bourbon.

Now I’m not going to make this a post where I go into great detail and give a “review” about each distillery I traveled to.  I will say that I visited Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve.  The thing I want to do with this post is share history of Bourbon, a little bit of the process and try to help you understand why I now have such a deep appreciation for something that seems like just another liquor that you buy in a bottle.  I’m also going to try and do it in a way that is interesting to you.  I hope I can help you appreciate the next drink of bourbon that you try and if you haven’t had Bourbon before, maybe it will motivate you to try it.


So what is Bourbon anyways?  It’s actually very simple.  Bourbon is a Whiskey made out of a combination of at least 51 percent corn, malt(grain), wheat and rye.  The percentage of corn is very important, as you legally cannot call what you’re making “Bourbon”, unless it contains a minimum of 51% corn. That is the first legal requirement we will get into.  From there, everything is ground up and mixed with water.  This step is why 95% of Bourbon in the United States is produced in Kentucky. Kentucky’s rivers and lakes are covered in massive amount of limestone.  Limestone acts as a natural filtration for iron and produces iron-free water that is perfect for Bourbon.  You may bring up that there are plenty of places in the world where this much limestone exists as well, which brings us to our second legal requirement for Bourbon.  It must be produced in the United States.  You take grain and cook it in water. The water extracts the sugars from the grain and puts them into solution. This mixture is called the mash.  Next, adding yeast consumes sugar and releases alcohol through the process of fermentation. The mash ferments until it reaches approximately 11-12% alcohol. At that point, the alcohol kills the yeast and the fermentation process stops.


It is then ran through a giant still, think of it as a giant copper chimney, and heat is applied to the bottom which separates the solids from the clear (the alcohol evaporates) and gives you what distillers call white dog, but the rest of just call moonshine.  This clear grain alcohol typically ranges from 125 proof all the way up to 160 proof, which brings us to our third legal requirement.  The white dog cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof and cannot enter the barrels at more than 125 proof.  Distillers use water to alter the proof throughout the process.


Now we enter the fourth legal requirement for Bourbon — It must be aged in new, charged oak containers.  That’s right, a Bourbon barrel must be set on fire for a period of 15-55 seconds and may not be used to age Bourbon a second time.  The barrels are then placed in a large warehouse filled with other barrels for different periods of time, typically four to six years.  Depending on which floor the barrel sits on, the Bourbon will taste different due to pressure and humidity.  The liquid enters the crevices of the barrels in the Summer and is then expelled in the Winters.  Think of a ten year Bourbon has having the liquid enter and leave the barrel ten times.  There is no legal requirement on how long the bourbon sits, but the more expensive Bourbons sit for decades.  Bottles of a 23 year aged Pappy Van Winkle can go for $5,000 if you can find it.  The fascinating thing about that price tag to me, is it is made the same exact way a $20 bottle of Buffalo Trace is made — a combination of corn, wheat, rye and mash, then aged in oak barrels.


Just like Jack Daniels told me all those years ago, the clear liquid leaves the barrels as a light brown liquid that can legally be called Bourbon, as long as it is as least eighty proof when it enters the bottle for sale.  This is the fifth, and final legal requirement to sell Bourbon.  These legal requirements are why you will never see a low alcohol Bourbon, fruit flavored Bourbons or clear Bourbons.  You may see a bourbon blended a flavor additive, but it is illegal to add any flavoring or coloring during the distilling process.  What you’re seeing is basically moon shine taking in flavors from the wood which gives is a deep, sweet flavor depending on the type of oak the distiller used and the amount of time the barrel was allowed to burn.  If you’ve ever had Makers Mark 64, you are tasting French oak that is added to give you a smoother taste than American oak. The long char opens the pores in the wood to add the sweetness.


So if you actually read all that you might have a deeper appreciation for your next glass of Bourbon.  What you’re drinking is the product of hundreds of years of perfecting, potentially a decade or more of aging and generations of people working to create the perfect American Whiskey.  What’s more amazing is there is absolutely no waste when it comes to Bourbon production.  The leftover corn mixture is sold to farmers to feed livestock and the barrels are sold to make other types of Whiskey and barrel aged beers.

I will leave you with this.  The production, the history and the science are absolutely fascinating parts of something you could see as so simple.  Even more interesting are the people responsible for the production.  Master Distillers dedicate their lives to producing something that may turn out to be a complete waste of time but they won’t know for five to ten years while it ages.  Generations of families have been employees of distilleries and see it as their family calling to work for the business.  So much time, love and tradition go into the industry in Kentucky.  The perfect example of this is Freddie Johnson, a third generation employee of Buffalo Trade Distillery and led my two hour tour throughout the facility.  Even if you didn’t appreciate all of this, I hope you will read his story.

All Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon.”

Dad’s Favorites Deli

Whenever I’m in a different state on vacation, I typically will look for places that I probably will never have the chance to eat at again — Or at least not be able to find within 100 miles of home.  I’ll start out by reaching out to anyone I know in the area then I’ll move on to the internet trying to find anyone in the area who is writing about food. Sometimes I’ll simply do a search on Instagram for pictures of the food in the area and follow up with a search about the restaurant’s story.  I prefer smaller places owned by some guy that decided one day that he was going to sell his food for a living. I think the story behind the food is almost as important as the food itself.


Enter Dad’s Favorite Deli, where a guy that cooked for family and friends for years decided to open up a little deli in 2008 in a random strip mall next to a gun shop and sell sandwiches, soups and his cheese spreads.  Now when I say random strip mall, I mean that when you GPS it you’re led directly into a fence.  From there, you must figure out for yourself that you must drive all the way around the fence (not into it, Michael Scott) and around a strip mall.  After navigating to the front of the mall, you must look for the small sign pointing you in the direction of a hallway that shares a gun shop, a jewelry store and a coin laundry.  In this hallway, sit five or six small tables and an open door all the way at the end.  Here, from 11am-3pm Mon-Fri, Dad is open for business.


When you walk in to the small shop, the first thing you realize is Dad himself is making your food.  There are a number of other employees but how many places can you go anymore where the owner is the one putting everything together and making sure your order is done correctly?  The mystery location, the hallway and the presence of Dad make this such a better experience than going to some mass-produced sandwich shop where their only goal is to finish out their shift.  Care seems to be put into ever tray that goes out of their little assembly line style kitchen.


Everything I read before my visit said the Asiago Pot Roast Sandwich was the way to go. This is exactly what it sounds like — pot roast and Dad’s Asiago Cheese Spread on French bread with a red pepper sauce for dipping that could probably making anything taste delicious.  Seriously, that red pepper sauce is like crack.  I ate there two hours ago and I’m still thinking about the taste.  The beautiful part of this sandwich is the lack of bullshit.  Four ingredients make up this sandwich, not one of them a “special” ingredient, but all four are done perfectly.  The bread is soft with the smallest bit of crunch to add some texture, the pot roast is tender and the cheese adds a slightly smokey bite.  The red pepper sauce tops it all off and adds a little tangy bite.  Since I’m on my way to obesity I added a soup which for today was Mexican corn chowder and was equally as great as the sandwich.  This entire meal cost me eight bucks.

Aside from the Pot Roast Sandwich Dad also offers seven other sandwiches, two soups made daily and macaroni and cheese.  Every menu item uses a different version of his cheese speads, which you can order in the shop or through his website.  On Tuesdays, he serves several different kinds of Tacos, in addition to the normal menu.

I absolutely love places like this.  Some guy enjoyed cooking food for family and friends and bravely decided he would give it a go to do it professionally.  This is what makes food so great — trying someone’s creations and knowing that they took a risk to serve it to you. There’s nothing flashy or special about Dad’s Favorites from the outside but once you avoid running into the fence and pass through a hallway filled with people eating his food, it’s quite obvious that Dad has created something special here.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Cajun in Kentucky

Hey guess what, I’m beginning another post with a question that I have no way of finding your answer to.  Remember back in March where I made the statement that food vacations are the best vacations?  No? well maybe you should go back and read that post before this one.  Yes?  Well, lets get started on another installment of John drives really far away and eats literally everything.

This time around I’m in Kentucky with six days of planned culinary checkpoints.  Not just that, but I’m visiting five bourbon distilleries in those six days. I’m in Lexington and Louisville — with stops at Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Makers Mark and Jim Beam.  I will also be making stops at three breweries before the week is over.  I guess if you wanted to come up with a catchy title for this vacation, you could call it John Consumes Kentucky.

So after five hours of driving, I decided it was time for me to establish myself within the Kentucky food scene.  Time to let the people of Lexington know that John Moors doesn’t fuck around when it comes to food.  Actually, I walked to a little Cajun-Creole joint called Bourbon n’ Toulouse I had been reading about on the intrawebz to get myself into some NAWLINS cuisine.

Here’s where I say that I know what you’re thinking, when you’re probably not thinking it at all, just so I can bring up something.  NOW I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE PROBABLY THINKING.  John, why on earth are you eating Cajun-Creole food in Kentucky?   Well, during my research before this trip I kept seeing people talking about this little joint called Bourbon n’ Toulouse.  Word on the street is back in 2004, a retired elementary school teacher spent every dime he had to open this place up with a basic business plan of serving some damn good food.  Apparently this model has worked, as everyone I talked to that is familiar with the Lexington area recommended it.


Bourbon n’ Toulouse is a little spot, a step up from a hole in the wall, that has about ten tables inside with a large counter where you order your food.  Behind that sits a table with twenty or so various hot sauces that you are free to bring to your table.  All food is served on styrofoam plates with plastic forks.  I went with a half and half, meaning I got to order two different entrees.  My choices were chicken étouffée, which is basically a spicy roux gravy with shredded chicken next to their chicken, shrimp and sausage gumbo, which is apparently cooked for two days (!!!!).  There are ten or so other options that you can pick from including jambalaya, chicken chili, red beans with sausage — and if you’re not into any of that there is also a BBQ menu with pork, chicken and chili dogs.


If you’re ever in the Lexington area this is probably your spot.  The spice in the food goes deep into your soul, which is that way Cajun food is supposed to do.  Portions, as you can see, are plentiful, and I can respect any joint that served their food with styrofoam and plastic wear.  The people there are friendly and are glad to help with any questions about the area.  The guy taking my order recommended a BBQ place which I will be going today.

More to come tonight, as John consumes Kentucky/Gets really fat.  Also, I’m in a bit of a rush so I didn’t proof read any of this.  If you see any mistakes, please let me know and I’ll get them fixed.  If you don’t see any, I either did a really good job writing this or someone already gave me a heads up.

Whole Hog BBQ – North Carolina

Most people take vacations to see new things, like the beach or historical landmarks. Some go to Disney World. Others go overseas to experience culture outside of our great, great coutry. When it came time for me to spend a week away from work, the only logical thing to do was to drive ten hours to Eastern North Carolina for some whole hog BBQ.  I’m here to say the next time you have some time off and can’t figure out a place to go – drive somewhere far away and plan a couple of places to eat that you can’t get locally.  Not only does the traveling make the food taste better, but you get to experience another region’s culture that, in this case, has taken hundreds of years to perfect.

If you’re not familiar with Carolina BBQ, or BBQ in general, there are arguments on the proper ways to cook, season and sauce the pig depending on where you’re at.  If you’re in Eastern North Carolina they cook a whole hog over wood coals, meaning an entire pig is placed on top of burning wood embers for a long, long period of time and then chopped and mixed together.  Their choice for sauce is a simple mixture of vinegar and spices.  The Western part of North Carolina uses only the shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, cooked over wood topped with a vinegar sauce combined with different amounts of tomato.

Once you get into South Carolina, you get different cuts and the addition of mustard into the sauce.  I didn’t get to South Carolina on this trip so that will have to be another day.

I’m here to say, without question, Eastern Carolina style is the winner in this region. Whole hog style gives you a mixture of different flavors, from both white and dark meat, and every bite can be different.  The vinegar adds a little tang but GOOD whole hog BBQ shouldn’t require any additional sauce. Finally, what makes whole hog BBQ really shine are crispy pig skins mixed into the BBQ.  My god.  This gives you salty, crispy little bits mixed into the pork adding yet another flavor and another texture.  I would say there are no words, but the whole point of this is putting things into words.  Moving on.

I will be doing a lot of material on smoked pork in the future, so I’ll save you time some time today from the smoked meat education and get to the point of this post.

The first place I went was Skylight Inn BBQ.  If you want some more info on them, use Google. There is more information than you could ever ask for.  This is the best BBQ I have ever had. Hands down, from a man that has a pig tattooed on his arm. If you have never had whole hog BBQ, you should immediately drive to Aiden, NC in the middle of absolute nowhere and try this.  


I was sitting at the Skylight Inn thinking “What should I do next?” and the only thing that made any sense was to do a Bang-Bang.  Before you think that my idea was to do something innapropirate, let me educate you for a second. A proper Bang-Bang is where you go out to eat, and then you immediately go to a different place to eat.  It could be two lunches, or two dinners, and is absolutely essential when you’re eating in an area that you will not be returning to in the near future.  I got into my rented Doge Dart, which is a fine choice for a compact vehicle (I don’t care what anyone says), and headed to Dudley, NC, which is somehow even more in the middle of nowhere than Aiden, NC, but is also home to Grady’s BBQ.


You probably can’t find much information on Google about Grady’s.  It’s old school and you can tell before you walk in that the food is going to be a combination of both authentic and legit.  Before you question why I would risk my health eating at a hole in the wall place like this that CLEARLY doesn’t focus on appearance or cleanliness, Grady’s has a posted 99.5 out of 100 health inspection score.  That’s right, North Carolina requires all restaurants to post their scores within their building to the public. Why doesn’t every state do that?

Anyways, same story here.  Whole hog BBQ and the best collared greens I ever had.


I then retreated and spent the rest of the day recovering until my next altercation with Carolina BBQ in the form of Allen and Son BBQ in Chapel Hill which does not, in fact, cook whole hog.  They use only the shoulder but do use the Eastern Carolina sauce.  I realize this post is called “Whole Hog BBQ” and this is not “Whole Hog BBQ” but I don’t care.  Allen and Son was my first experience with Carolina style non-tomato sauce so I feel it is only right to include them.


The lessons you should take from this post:

  1. If you’ve been eating pulled pork your whole life you owe it to yourself to go and try whole hog BBQ.  It’s life changing.
  2. When traveling in an area you do not frequent and that has good food, a Bang-Bang is essential.
  3. Go on a food vacation.