- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - Del Frisco’s Grille in Stamford tried something new one evening a few weeks ago: It hosted a full-course bourbon dinner.

About 17 guests paid $75 for the experience, which began with chicken liver pate paired with a fig sour cocktail (a large one, over ice, in a bucket glass) and ended with a sticky toffee cake served with a snifter of bourbon-laced Kentucky coffee.

But don’t presume the guests just drank bourbon throughout the dinner, the way they might wine. They also ate bourbon, because each of the courses was prepared using bourbon at one stage or another.

A good example, as explained later by concept chef Shawn Quinn, was the chicken liver appetizer, which came topped with onion jelly. “There was bourbon in the jelly,” Quinn says. “We glazed it with Maker’s Mark, so when you were taking a bite, it was matching the cocktail you were drinking.”

Meanwhile, the cocktail served with the chicken liver was also mixed with Maker’s Mark, one of the best-selling bourbons. A fig infusion gave the cocktail a sweet density, but the soda and lemon sour contributed an acidity that Quinn says “brought out the lusciousness of the chicken.”

That’s a nuance that some might have missed while tasting and sipping, because the dinner also was a seminar. Guests sat at a long table in a private dining room, and at the start of each course, Mike DePasqua, the Connecticut-based territory manager for Jim Beam Brands, gave a brief lecture on bourbon, its history and types, that went down easy.

DePasqua quickly covered the basics, that bourbon must be 51 percent corn and aged at least two years in a freshly charred new oak barrel. But those few limits leave room for great variation - either fascinating or bewildering - that helps explain the surge in craft bourbons and brown liquors in general. Discussion becomes part of consumption.

So one listens when DePasqua says rye is traditionally the second grain used in bourbon, and that rye is spicy where corn is sweet. But the distiller who invented Maker’s Mark 60 years ago substituted red winter wheat for rye, making it exceptionally smooth for the time. (His formula succeeded almost too well. Popularity and prestige do not pair well, and Maker’s Mark has had to fight to defend its reputation.)

The degree of charring also affects taste, DePasqua says. Thus Knob Creek, the bourbon used in the dessert coffee, is considered bolder and more aromatic, partly because it is aged in barrels charred with a level four flame. But even that maximum blast lasts only 10 seconds.

The final bourbon on the menu, Basil Hayden, had a higher rye and lower alcohol content than the others, making it spicy and smooth at once. It was used in a maple, lime and ginger cocktail served with the third course, braised short ribs coated in what Quinn describes as “an almost lacquered sauce” of root beer and bourbon. (Disclaimer: The bourbon in the sauce was not Basil Hayden, which is a pricy “small batch” brand.)

The fourth whiskey, however, was not a bourbon at all. It was a Knob Creek rye, deployed for contrast. And by that point in DePasqua’s talk anyone could guess that to be called rye a whiskey must be 51 percent that grain. At dinner, the Knob Creek rye was used in a tart Boulevardier cocktail that accompanied the second course, a thick slab of Nueskes bacon served over grits. (Nueskes is the name of a renowned Wisconsin purveyor of apple-smoked meats.)

Quinn says the bourbon dinner was an experiment in more ways than one. Not only was it the first such dinner, it was served simultaneously at all 23 Del Frisco Grilles across the country and was planned at the restaurant group’s headquarters in Dallas. The group grew from a Double Eagle Steak House in New Orleans, and its Southern roots resonate with bourbon. But Quinn says the prime mover for the dinner was the liquor.

“We have done beer or wine dinners, but we wanted the challenge of a bourbon dinner. Preparing anything with spirits is tricky,” he says. “But I think brown liquors right now are super-hot (and while) wine and food has always made sense, I think now you definitely want bourbon and brown cocktails as accompaniments at dinner.”

In fact, Quinn says a goal was not just to introduce diners to bourbon and bourbon cocktails, but to the idea that spirits could be consumed like wine with each course. The menu was planned with input from the chefs at each Del Frisco’s who would actually do the cooking. At the Stamford Del Frisco‘s, one of the group’s newest, that was David Columbia, who emerged from the kitchen to briefly introduce each course.

Before getting busy, Columbia says the odd ball on the menu was the chicken liver pate served in a jar rather than on a charcuterie platter. Here, it would be a rich mousse to which the cocktail would impart “a nice warm feeling cutting through the fat.”

Quinn says that is how the overall menu was devised, with each element intended to complement the other, even if every element might not be detectable. Where else was bourbon? In the au jus sauce for the slab bacon, in the mascarpone cream on top of the toffee cake and in the Chantilly cream in the coffee.

“I think there’s a lot you can do with bourbon and brown liquor in general and food that matches well, ” Quinn says, adding one idea on the table is for a “progressive” alcohol dinner.

“We might do one course with beer, one course with wine and one course with cocktails. I think we’ve opened that up,” he says. “People want to know about pairings, extending their palates, extending their thought process.”

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Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com

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