Where’s the bourbon?

While I rarely eat fast food these days, once in a while something appears on a menu that I have to try, just to see if it’s for real.
Well, it happened again last week. While driving down Brownsboro Road, I saw a billboard trumpeting the new Spirit of Kentucky Burger at McDonald’s. What’s Kentucky about it? Apparently, it’s the “bourbon-flavored sauce.”

I almost drove off the road. Bourbon-flavored sauce? What in the name of Pappy Van Winkle is that?

Here’s the lowdown regarding what the burger entails, by way of a McDonald’s press release: “Thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, bourbon-flavored sauce, fresh tomato, crisp leaf lettuce, slivered onions and white cheddar layered on a quarter pound of 100 percent pure beef and served on an artisan roll create a taste that is sure to be a local favorite.”

OK, I’ll bite. Literally. And here’s what I’m going to say before I say anything else: I’m no expert, but that “bourbon-flavored” sauce doesn’t taste like any bourbon I ever had. It’s actually an extremely sweet barbecue sauce that sort of has a curious flavor that’s difficult to pinpoint. It reminds me vaguely of Arby’s sauce. But it certainly didn’t taste anything like bourbon or even bourbon-tinged barbecue sauce.
(To be fair, McDonald’s didn’t use actual bourbon in the sauce, which might have scared off the teatotalers among their audience, so getting actual bourbon flavor was a tall task).

Apart from that, the sandwich really is just a burger. The distinction, I suppose, would be the Applewood smoked bacon and white cheddar which, along with the sauce, “create a taste unique to Kentuckiana,” according to the McDonald’s PR engine.

The sandwich, sans fries and drink, is $4.79, which isn’t chump change when you’re talking fast food. And at 640 calories, if you do add fries and a soft drink, you’re not only getting into the $8 range, you’re also banging on the door of a full day’s caloric intake. Just add Alka-Seltzer. (I did).

The meat on the sandwich is basically the same thing you get from a quarter pounder. The onions are what adorn a Big Mac, and lettuce is lettuce. I will say the tomato slice seemed nice and fresh, but even the Applewood bacon didn’t really distinguish itself and was a bit undercooked for my liking.

But I think what I came away with after eating my half burger (that’s all I could get through, much to my dog Darby’s delight) was that it really just tasted like McDonald’s. I believe that McDonald’s and Taco Bell are their own food groups; if I crave a burger, I never equate that with a trip to the Golden Arches, and if I crave Mexican food, Taco Bell never enters into my run for the border. McDonald’s just tastes like itself, if that makes any sense.

That said, the Spirit of Kentucky Burger was actually conceived by regional McDonald’s owners, and just 99 restaurants in and around Kentucky will offer the item through the end of May, so it is a bit exclusive.

“We are excited to give our customers a new premium sandwich that is inspired by the local flavors of Kentuckiana,” Frank Ward, a McDonald’s owner/operator and Kentuckiana Co-op president, said in the press release. “At McDonald’s we like to give all of our customers something to love and the Spirit of Kentucky Burger is sure to make a lasting impression.”

I’d be surprised if that were true, but I will say that the burger, for what it was, certainly wasn’t as wretched as, say, the McRib Sandwich, that unholy creation from the depths of fast food hell. Hey, and it’s hard to dislike anything that has bacon on it, right?

Plus, you have to like the timing, which clearly was no accident. All eyes will be on Louisville for the next two weeks, and Bourbon Country will benefit as a result. Maybe the Derby tourists will dig the Spirit of Kentucky Burger. Maybe they’ll down it with a mint julep.