Rained out, but drinks flowed

The Bourbon and Beyond festival’s second year was sadly ravaged by torrential rain and flooding of Champions Park, leading the city to cancel Sunday’s festivities (safety necessitated such a decision). Festival-goers had trudged through mountains of mud for the likes of David Byrne and Lenny Kravitz on Saturday night, but as B&B announced via media release, Sunday would have simply been too dangerous. While it’s clear Mother Nature had other plans for outdoor entertainment, Louisville still experienced an influx of tourism over the weekend, and our nation’s native spirit continued to flow at other venues.

I was lucky enough to attend a special collaboration dinner at Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Friday evening, sitting among new friends from Sonoma, California, Ohio and elsewhere, all in town for the festival. With Sunday a washout, I’m thrilled these folks were still able to leave Louisville dazzled by culinary cocktail pairings from some of our town’s best: The Mayan Café, Cellar Door Chocolates and Evan Williams. The Cocktail Collaboration Dinner was an integrative, delicious walk through bourbon-soaked history, one where the past of our region met cutting-edge flavors and innovative, local talent.

I’m still swooning.

The Cocktail Collaboration Dinner began with an interactive tour of Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on West Main Street. Our Bourbon hosts took my friend Megan and me (along with many other folks, split into three groups) through the exhibit — which begins at the foundation of EW at “The Wharf.” We sampled Evan Williams Signature Black Label paired with honey-glazed pecans, dried apricots and cherries as we watched images of bourbon history splash across a screen. We then moved on to the distillery, where Evan Williams 1793 was paired with Kenny’s Farmhouse White Cheddar (Megan and I may have snagged a few extra bites at this one) and later the EWBE replication of the Phil Hollenbach Co., where Evan Williams Master Blend was paired with Broadbent Country Ham. On our last stop through the tour and final amuse-bouches, we bellied up at the “Mad Men”-style Max & Harry’s bar, where Evan Williams 12-Year paired seamlessly with a Cellar Door cinnamon, milk chocolate truffle. Smitten with these pairings and slightly buzzed, we meandered down to the Speakeasy, because dinner hadn’t even begun yet.

The Speakeasy is where we met our new friends, in town for the Bourbon & Beyond festival, as Megan and I found our labeled seats at table one. The creative masterminds behind the collaborative experience were introduced: Chef Bruce Ucan from The Mayan Café, Mixologist Karla Plott from Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Erika Chavez-Graziano, owner and chocolatier at Cellar Door Chocolates. They had clearly worked together to bring complementary flavors that would highlight the bourbon and uplift their own crafts. “We loved the opportunity to share the talents of our Bourbon Hosts, our mixologist, Karla Plott and our partners … with our guests,” said EWBE Event Coordinator, Dabney Clore.

The three-course meal was delectable, thoughtful and paired seamlessly with Karla’s creations. Chef Bruce’s carp ceviche complemented the first, and perhaps most interesting, cocktail: an Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage with porcini mushroom, beet-infused pisco, fino, lemon, cilantro, serrano, angostura bitters and black lava salt. Karla hit all the notes needed to pair with pickled beets and carrots layering the ceviche, as the libation brought a salty, earthy spice to kick off the meal. The headlining cocktail, though, was my favorite: an Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch with fig and black peppercorn, dubonnet rouge, amontillado, vanilla and cherry bark bitters paired with braised lamb. The bourbon-soaked fig at the bottom of this highball glass reminded me of when I used to sneak Luxardo cherries with a toothpick at the end of the service well at a cocktail bar where I worked — it was luxurious in an almost forbidden way. Absolute perfection.

Lastly, for dessert, Karla created an Evan Williams Signature Black Label Atol de Elote — a toasted coconut corn milk with cocoa nib, cinnamon, nutmeg and xocolatl mole bitters, which felt like a sweet, spiced, boozy hot chocolate, of sorts, paired with a delectable dessert sampler, including Cellar Door’s single-origin, Mexican chocolate. My table discussed each course and pairing in awe. Folks from all over the country were delighted by the immersive collaborations and commented on how bourbon seemed unexpected in some but still worked seamlessly. And, isn’t that so true to Louisville, particularly when it comes to our food and drink scene? We’ve got a knack for taking something old, historic and intrinsic to our community and marrying it with contemporary flavors to create something new.

I’m grateful that, despite the weather, these folks were able to enjoy the best that Louisville has to offer, and I’m beyond fortunate to be able to keep experiencing it on the regular.