I recently attended a fascinating – and delicious – tasting hosted by our May 2017 Brand Ambassador of the Month, Megan Breier. The event was called Oink & Barrel, and you’re going to want Breier to host it at your bar or restaurant. For those who haven’t read her feature on our site or had the great pleasure of working with her, she’s the West Coast American Whiskey Ambassador at Beam Suntory, and to say she knows a lot about whiskey is almost condescending. I’d say it’s safe to say that Breier knows more about whiskey than anyone short of master distillers and people who grew up in whiskey-producing families.
Tastings are all about learning something new. Sometimes that something new is small; sometimes it’s that a new expression within an established portfolio is available. And sometimes you learn things that forever change how you view elements of your world. In the case of Oink & Barrel and Breier’s engaging education, how I look at ham has been forever changed.
I’m not exaggerating. What I learned during Oink & Barrel shook me so hard that I’m seriously considering not serving or eating any turkey this Thanksgiving. That choice may very well extend to Thanksgivings through the foreseeable future. Call it blasphemous all you want – the country hams we tasted during Oink & Barrel changed me.
Before I pour (almost) everything I learned that day into this article, let me tell you what we sipped and nibbled. We started off with a palate-wakening whiskey cocktail, then kicked off the pairings with Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Broadbent country ham from Kuttawa, KY. Next, we delighted our palates with Knob Creek Straight Rye Whiskey and country ham from Benton’s, located in Madisonville, TN. The entire room seemed to lose their minds while pairing Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve and a Father’s country ham from Bremen, KY. And I don’t feel it’s hyperbole to say everyone’s eyes rolled back into their heads as they enjoyed the superb Knob Creek 25th Anniversary with a truly incredible country ham from The Hamery, which hails from Murfreesboro, TN.
There are two types of feed given to pigs destined to become country hams, grain and nuts/acorns. You can actually determine a pig’s diet by interacting with the fat on the ham you’re eating, something you, your staff and your guests will be encouraged to do when during Oink & Barrel. If the fat remains cloudy white after you rub it, the pig was fed grain; if it clears up, that pig ate nuts.
I also learned that American whiskey and country ham are essentially kindred spirits, and not just because they taste amazing together. It turns out that the angels get more than just their fair share of various spirits; they earn a share of at least 30% when it comes to cured ham. When you consider that the angel’s share of whiskey is about 10% it’s fair to say that there are some gluttonous, wastey-face angels up there enjoying some sinfully good country ham.
Before I could even think to ask why I was about to embark on pairing American whiskey with country ham, Breier explained the secret to pairing success. The goal is to pair high fat with high sugar content. Now it’s true that a bottled of a distilled spirit doesn’t actually contain any sugar, but we all know the overly simplified “sugar in, alcohol out” mantra of whiskey production. Thus, country ham and American bourbon and rye are a match made in Hospitality Industry Heaven.
I don’t want to give too much more away because I want you to reach out to Beam Suntory and host Oink & Barrel at your venue with your staff, guests, the curious community in which you operate, and other industry professionals. But I will divulge three more interesting facts Berier shared with us. One, it turns out that Booker Noe – you know, Jim Beam’s grandson – was a big fan of hunting and curing meats. Two, Booker was not a fan of single barrel whiskey because it lacked consistency; he preferred perfected small-batch whiskey because he could find out what worked, tweak it to perfection, and then repeat the results. And three, Breier can text Beam family master distiller Fred Noe, and she did when the idea of pairing Knob Creek whiskeys with the best country hams popped into her head.
You need this pairing in your life. And you need to dedicate at least a fleeting moment to the sacrilegious idea of replacing your Thanksgiving turkey with a high-quality country ham. Oh, and when you participate in Oink & Barrel, you need to exercise some restraint and refrain from eating all of the ham that will be set down in front of you before the tasting starts – those aren’t appetizers.