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Bourbon pecan chicken

Labrot & Graham
Historic stone distillery buildings at Labrot & Graham near Versailles, Ky.
I had the great pleasure this week of visiting and enjoying an excellent lunch at Labrot & Graham, Kentucky's oldest Bourbon distillery and also one of its youngest.

How's that? Simple enough: Originally founded in 1812 and housed in stone buildings that date back to the early 1800s, and named Labrot & Graham after the gentlemen who purchased it in 1878, these facilities produced Kentucky Bourbon until Prohibition, but slowed to a trickle after Repeal. Brown-Forman Corp., a Louisville-based beverages company, purchased the property after World War II but closed it in 1968 and sold the buildings not long after that.

Bourbon barrels In 1994, Brown-Forman bought the abandoned buildings back and spent several years and $7 million to restore, renovate and refurbish the distillery. And now its three antique made-in-Scotland copper stills are turning out 32,000 barrels of the firm's flagship Woodford Reserve Bourbon every year. Without getting into a debate about whether this is really a small-batch artisanal distillery or merely an entertaining Disney-style replica of an artisanal distillery run by a worldwide conglomerate, I'll say this: The Bourbon produced at Labrot & Graham is smooth, complex and warming, and wins this Kentuckian's two thumbs up.

But how does all this fit into a food-related context? Simple enough: The company recently launched a serious program aimed at encouraging restaurant chefs - and consumers - to pay more attention to using Bourbon (and Woodford Reserve in particular) as an ingredient in recipes and a drink with meals. They're sponsoring a contest in which professional chefs, mostly from Louisville and Lexington, Ky., will compete for prizes with their recipes for Bourbon-based dishes and drinks. And they've come up with something called a "Culinary Toolkit," an affectionate imitation of Prof. Ann Noble's "Wine Aroma Wheel," a package of seven wheels that offers chefs literally hundreds of flavors they might find in a shot glass of Woodford Reserve, sorted into aroma and flavor categories in the hope of inspiring culinary creations.

Labrot & Graham's Chef David Larson took a good shot at it with a four-course lunch on Monday, featuring a silken Stilton-cheese souffle, a sauteed-shrimp dish on roast eggplant and a corn relish plated with a beurre blanc made with Woodford Reserve, and a Woodford Reserve chocolate cake dessert garnished with fresh cantaloupe slices marinated in "new spirit," the clear, strong Bourbon-to-be that hasn't yet seen white-oak barrels.

This was very fine fare indeed, but it didn't strike me that any of the dishes really showcased Bourbon's characteristic sweet-caramel, smoky and spicy flavors at center stage, so I drove home, plotting a dish that would do that. As a non-professional home chef, I'm not eligible for the contest; but I like to think the result would be a contendah ...

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

4 to 6 chicken thighs
8 ounces brown button mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 1/2 ounces (75 ml) good quality Bourbon whiskey
1 cup chicken broth
2 ounces chopped pecans
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch


1. Trim, salt and pepper the chicken thighs. I removed all skin and visible fat to save calories, but this step is optional. Wash the mushrooms and cut them into thick slices.

INGREDIENT NOTE: I chose chicken thighs for this dish because they're a tasty but relatively middle-of-the-road ingredient that will work well with a wide range of flavors in building a new recipe. But you could certainly substitute other chicken parts. Pork would also be very good with these flavors, perhaps in the form of thick-sliced tenderloin medallions.

2. Put the olive oil and peeled, smashed garlic cloves in a sautee pan over medium-high heat until the garlic starts to sizzle. Add the chicken thighs and brown well on both sides. "Deglaze" with a splash (1 ounce) of the Bourbon, stirring and scraping to get the good crunchy bits off the bottom of the pan. Don't worry if the Bourbon ignites, but quickly douse the blue flame with a pan lid before the flavors burn off. Once the liquid in the pan is reduced to a thick syrup, pour in the chicken broth and another 1 ounce of the Bourbon, and add the sliced mushrooms. Reduce heat to very low, cover tightly and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until the thighs are tender.

3. While the thighs are cooking, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Put in the pecans and cook, stirring gently, until they're brown and aromatic, taking care not to scorch them. Remove from heat and stir in the cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, cayenne and black pepper.

4. Remove the thighs and let them cool a little, leaving the liquid and mushrooms to simmer uncovered and reduce a bit. When the thighs are cool enough to handle, roll them in the seasoned pecans, pressing them in so as many as possible will stick.

5. When the liquid has reduced a bit, you may leave it as is, or if you wish a thicker sauce, make a slurry of the cornstarch and a little cool water, stirring it in gradually until it's the thickness you like. Gently put the pecan-coated chicken thighs back into the pan, and scatter any remaining pecan bits over all. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 ounce of Bourbon over the top, carefully light it with a match to "flame" the dish, and serve.

Just about any starch and vegetable accompaniments will be fine. We added an Asian touch with white rice and crisp-tender steamed baby bok choy cabbages.

MATCHING WINE: At the urging of the good folks at Labrot & Graham, I tried serving this with small glasses of their Woodford Reserve Bourbon. I can't honestly say I'm persuaded: "Straight," over ice and even diluted one-to-one with water, it was simply too alcoholic to make a good table beverage for my tastes. Mixed one-to-four with soda, to bring its alcoholic content down to approximately the same level as table wine, it unfortunately became too dilute, with its caramel character coming to the fore and making it surprisingly reminiscent of a cola drink.

We went back to wine and found, happily, that the sweet Bourbon and aromatic spice flavors made a stunning match with a high-quality Washington State Merlot, the 2000 L'Ecole No. 41 from the Columbia Valley. (For my tasting notes, see

If you're in Kentucky and would like to attend the Woodford Reserve Culinary Cocktail Tour contest and tasting at Louisville's Jefferson Club on Sept. 16, which is a benefit dinner for the American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF), you can click to the full news release with details on my Louisville Restaurants Website,

For a virtual visit to Labrot & Graham (with information on visiting and touring the distillery), see

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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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