Say Yes to Cocktails With Dinner

Four Roses and Daveed's show how bourbon cocktails can work with a meal

On a “first date,” my friends Dave and Giselle went to China Grille, an upscale Asian restaurant off New York City’s Fifth Avenue. This was long ago, but even then I was into wine, so as he later related the details of their evening I asked what they drank.

I laughed when he told me, “Jack and Coke.” Not before dinner, I said, with dinner. He said again, maybe a bit confused, “Jack and Coke.”

Personally, I’ve always considered cocktails an early evening libation suitable with finger foods but not the main course. I mean, maybe knocking back margaritas with a chicken burrito platter would be OK, but even then I’d probably instinctively opt for a cerveza.

Apparently, though, pairing cocktails and fancy food is a hot trend in the restaurant business. To learn more about it, a few dozen local bourbon lovers recently climbed the narrow spiral staircase to Daveed's upstairs dining room and tasted through a selection of Four Roses bourbons and cocktails. Chef David Cook prepared a series of small dishes intended to pair with each whiskey, while Al Young (“Brand Ambassador”) talked us through each course.

Al explained that the bourbon brand dates back to the 1880s and began with a romantic tale. The founder, it’s said, asked a young Southern belle to be his bride and she promised to respond at a big ball. If she was not wearing a corsage of four roses, she had decided not to accept his proposal. Luckily, her gown was adorned with the flowers and the Four Roses brand was named in honor of the pair’s eternal love.

Now, I recall drinking Four Roses “American whiskey” in my youth and it was far from high-end stuff. It seems that beverage-giant Seagram’s had decided (for whatever reason) to split the brand into two distinct categories sometime in the 1940s. From that point, “Four Roses” was blended and marketed in the U.S. as a lower-cost (eventually, bottom-shelf) brand. In Europe and Asia, however, a premium bourbon with the same name continued to be available.

It wasn’t until the brand was sold to Kirin (the Japanese Brewery conglomerate) that Four Roses bourbon became available once again in the U.S. The brand’s opaque history is the subject of a book that Al is working on, but suffice to say that the Four Roses you’ll see for sale today is literally not your father’s whiskey.

In fact, all Four Roses bottlings are complex blends of two separate “mash bills” (i.e., the recipe for the base whiskeys, which contain different proportions of corn, rye and malt), fermented with five different yeast strains that reportedly create different characteristics in the finished product. For those who are counting, that means the master distiller, Jim Rutledge, has 10 different base products to blend together in various proportions to make his bourbons. (Get more info about Four Roses here.)

The evening’s first pairing was a single-barrel, 100-proof bourbon served with a delicious, delicate grilled shrimp atop a grainy, maple Johnny cake with a smoky/sweet corn relish. The whiskey, unfortunately, whomped the food. It was thick and unctuous, showing cherry and tobacco flavors backed with a good dose of rye spiciness. The chef (who admits that pairing food and wine is “a lot easier”) was looking to match the whiskey’s fruity, maple character but the powerful alcohol and heat was just too much for that shrimp.

The next pairing was better: a wonderful grilled “P’tit Basque” cheese sandwich with fragrant truffles and rich apple butter was paired with the 90 proof, small-batch bourbon. The slightly lower alcohol and the richer dish stood up to one another and the aromatic truffles matched the vanilla aromas in the whiskey perfectly.

The best pairings of the night, though, were two cocktails. The bold, sweet flavors of a “perfect” Manhattan (the single barrel bourbon mixed with sweet and dry vermouth) made for a spectacular match with a substantial slab of short rib meat, braised with cocoa and coffee flavors. And, even though the cocktail proved a touch too sweet for me, an enormous Mint Julep worked as an herbaceous, refreshing counterpoint to the fruity, smoky, nutty flavors in a boneless chicken thigh with paprika, dried cherries and walnuts.

Bolstered by my newfound appreciation for cocktail pairing, I can finally understand my friend’s intuitive pairing choice all those years ago. Jack and Coke would actually be a terrific match for something boldly flavored and slightly sweet, like Cantonese ‘Char Siu’ marinated pork spare ribs. It works for many of the same reasons as David Cook’s pairing of cocoa/coffee-braised short ribs with that Manhattan.

And now, 20 years later, Dave (if you’re reading this): I humbly apologize for laughing at your beverage selection. And the next time I find myself in an upscale restaurant with an over-priced, pedestrian wine list, I just might drink a cocktail, too.

DAVEED'S: 934 Hatch St., Mount Adams, 513-721-2665; details here.

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