Taken individually, bourbon and country ham are both quite lovely gifts from nature to humanity, and they have a lot in common. Each starts out as a mundane farm foodstuff (corn, barley, swine) and, with deft handling and time, is converted to a truly special product that’s much sought-after by epicureans. Not coincidentally, the commonwealth of Kentucky is well known as a source of both premium country ham and the finest bourbons.
The reasons that this is not a coincidence are traditional, geographical and meteorological. The heritage of many Kentuckians is based in an agrarian lifestyle, with a hardscrabble environment that required farmers to find a way to preserve their crops and livestock to survive the long, brutal winters. Converting corn to ethanol is a great way to keep your grain from rotting in the silo, and the consumption of some can certainly take the edge off of a chilly December evening. The salt curing and smoking of hams provides a barrier to invading bacteria, which extends the usefulness of a hog long after butchering. Plus, cured ham doesn’t even need to be cooked before you eat it, so it saves fuel.
The geography and climate of Kentucky makes it ideal for aging whiskey and curing ham. Take a look at a globe. (OK, Google it.) The state lies roughly between the 37° and 39° parallels of latitude. Extend those lines around the globe and you’ll encounter the great European ham-making regions that produce jamón ibérico, serrano and prosciutto. It’s almost like the climates of these areas were specifically designed for the curing process.
Hogs are slaughtered in the winter, when there is no longer green pastureland to feed them, so they are often allowed to finish themselves in the forest, dining on acorns and other nuts. (Side effect: This makes them delicious!) After the meat is encased in salt, the hams can be hung and naturally refrigerated by the cold weather. Mild, wet springs encourage the water to be drawn off of the ham and opens the ham up to draw the salt further in and become more accepting of smoke in a smokehouse. During the hot, wet summers, complex enzymatic reactions take place within the meat, developing the complex, funky flavors and firming up the flesh of the ham. Finally, dry autumns allow the flavors to fully develop before the meat is sliced and eaten. These are the reasons why “hillbilly prosciutto” is so different from a typical “city ham” that must be boiled or injected with a brine for a wet cure. Blech.
Similarly, the climate of Kentucky is the key to the aging process of fine bourbon as the heat of summer and the cold of winter draw the whiskey in and out of the charred oak interior of the barrel in an almost tidal fashion. Years of this absorption and release by the wood contribute notes of caramel and vanilla to the previously white whiskey to transform the juice into brown liquor.
So it stands to reason that Kentucky’s two most famous exports that aren’t equine should taste great together, and boy, do they! At last month’s Bourbon Classic in Louisville, noted ham expert Steve Coomes led a bourbon- and ham-tasting seminar for a group of lucky festival attendees. Coomes, the author of Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke, was joined on the panel by Jim Beam Kentucky brand ambassador Megan Breier and Jay Denham, the charcutier at Woodlands Pork and the Cure House.
Unlike other tasting/pairing events where presenters have to try really hard to find a dish to match with a superhoppy IPA or shoehorn a cocktail into a pairing with a spicy pasta sauce, country ham and bourbon really do play delightfully together. In addition to sharing a common heritage and similar aging conditions, ham and bourbon both exhibit smokiness from barrel and barn, sweetness from brown sugar and corn, and mouthfeels that can range from sharp to creamy.
Coomes served as the expert on the tasting panel, with Breier curating the matching bourbons and Denham offering color commentary on each ham based on a previous tasting he had put on with a group of local chefs to prepare for the Bourbon Classic. Thanks to the miracle of mail order and the relatively easy availability of Jim Beam’s portfolio of whiskeys, it should be fairly simple to re-create this little piggy soirée in your own home.
First up was the new Jim Beam Bonded paired with “Surryano” peanut-finished ham from Edwards and Son in Surry, Virginia. Sam Edwards makes his version of a traditional European dry-cured ham using heritage-breed hogs that he selects for marbled meat and a thick, fat cap. The flavor of the pig’s feed particularly comes through in the fat of a ham, and the nutty character of Surryano ham paired wonderfully with the oak and spice of Beam’s Bonded. As a bonus, the tongue-coating fat made the finish of the bourbon last even longer than you would expect from a four-year-old whiskey.
Next up was the cheekily named “Tennshootoe,” an 18-month-aged thin-sliced ham from Bob Woods of the Hamery in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Matched with Beam’s Quarter Cask Signature Craft, a blend of four-, eight-, and 10-year-old bourbons, the Tennshootoe added a lot of spice to the whiskey. A delightful side effect of the traditional saltiness of country ham is that it eliminates the sweetness that corn contributes to whiskey, leaving the spice behind to tickle the tongue. At 86 proof versus the 100 proof of the first pairing, Quarter Cask was a much smoother complement to the creamy texture of the ham.
The third pairing was a spicy shot of Knob Creek Rye served with a slice of 18-month-aged ham from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee. Just about anything benefits from being matched with Allan Benton’s famous hams, but the delicious funkiness of the ham was especially accentuated by the spicy hot rye whiskey, which effectively burned the fat coating off of tasters’ tongue and palates. In a good way.
Nancy Newsom was the first Kentucky ham maker ever to be invited to the Congreso Mundial de Jamón in Spain in 2009. (There is a World Ham Congress, and unlike our Congress, they actually accomplish something there.) They even displayed one of the Princeton, Kentucky, ham maker’s products in their ham museum before she left, so it’s not an exaggeration to say her hams are world-class. Paired with 12-year-old Jim Beam Signature Craft bourbon, Newsom’s ambiently cured prosciutto completely changed the flavor characteristics of the whiskey. Jim Beam’s oldest product exhibits a lot of barrel sweetness when sipped neat, but the creamy ham rounded out the vanilla from the oak and allowed more complex notes of cinnamon and caramel to come through. Together, it was like the essence of Kentucky on one plate.
The final ham/bourbon combination came from Denham and his Woodlands Pork Farm and Booker’s Cask Strength Bourbon. Unfortunately, Denham’s European-style “Mountain Hams” are not available online, so you’ll have to visit him to acquire a leg of this remarkable meat that he ages for two to four years. You’ll also have to bring a pocketful of cash since he gets as much as six times the price of a regular country ham. Denham has a background as a fine-dining chef, so it’s not surprising that he develops amazingly complex nutty and vegetal notes in his hams. He raises all his pigs in pastures and then finishes them in the woods, where he even controls the forage through a complex forestry program. The result is a marbled ham with a thick fat cap that appears on the menus of high-end restaurants across the state.
With so much fat throughout the meat, it takes a strong whiskey, like the 128.9 proof Booker’s that was served, to cut through the unctuousness. Together, the pairing created an umami bomb with earthy notes and hints of tobacco hanging in a smoky barn. Although this final pairing would be difficult and expensive to re-create outside of Jefferson County, Kentucky, if you see any of Denham’s products on a restaurant menu, order up a side of Booker’s for a real treat.
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