Bourbons set up for tasting with a variety of treats. Photos: University of Kentucky Press

Book Review: "Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon?"

Several years ago my wife and I decided to give up beer for Lent. I know, I know, who gives up beer… for Lent… at the start of baseball season and — duh — right before St Patrick’s Day? Well, if not for Lent, I might not have been introduced to Mark — Maker’s Mark, that is — and boy, is he fun!

Thus began my relationship with bourbon. As I became acquainted with Mark and his cousins, I learned about their culture and wanted to become a part of it. For my 50th birthday I chose to go to Louisville, Kentucky, home of Whiskey Row, the bourbon mecca. We started at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center and obtained our official “passport” to drink around the town, and trust me — we earned our t-shirts fair and square. One of my favorite bus tours was City Taste, stopping in at Churchill Downs and The Brown Hotel, home of the Hot Brown, bringing us through the country’s largest display of Victorian mansions and matching famous bites with bourbon cocktails along the way. 

Which brings me to Which Fork Do I Use With My Bourbon? For anyone who hasn’t yet found their way to bourbon, this book is the perfect introduction to my friends Mark, Basil, Jim and Elijah. I am now equipped to host a bourbon tasting in a most funtastical way. 

Authors Stevens (left) and Reigler pause for a toast.

Peggy Noe Stevens, the first female master bourbon taster in the world, and Susan Reigler, a former restaurant critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal, provide a four-prong (see what I did there?) approach to celebrating bourbon. Each tine (again?) of the fork represents a specific focus: Arrangements and Decorations; Eatables; Type of Party; and of course…The Bourbon.

Planning is the key part of any party, and the authors go over every detail from invitation graphics to food pairings. They even suggest seating charts for the headliner and its supporting cast — the bourbon and bitters, syrups and tonics, plates and napkins — and how they can be arranged for aesthetics and flow. In accompanying photos, their beautiful tablescapes burst with character, texture and color. 

We then come to the bourbon tasting — and the decisions. Should you have atomizers for those who prefer to avoid getting too tipsy too soon? Or Glencairn tasting glasses? What foods plays well with bourbon’s flavor notes, caramel, honey and citrus? Start with an arrangement of nuts, cheese and chocolate, try antipasto with a bourbon chiffonade dressing — or both? Finish with the yummy “boozy milkshake” the Entrepreneur or the just-as-delicious Kentucky Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie?

Take-home bourbon tastes in mini-bottles — the perfect party favor.

Party tricks, recipes and, of course, the cocktails, are peppered throughout the book. There’s even a Bourbon Geek’s Guide to Vocabulary. The gals also throw some well-deserved shoutouts to a few of Kentucky’s own distilleries, bringing to life the purpose of the book. 

During the ’70s and ’80s, interest in bourbon dwindled, possibly because kids those days thought of it as Grandpa’s boring after-work drink, or because of the dominance of “white spirits” like vodka and rum. (Maybe it was Tom Cruise’s fault for slinging all those Singapore Slings in Cocktail in 1988.) Then, about 20 years ago, due to some outstanding marketing and the hospitality industry, bourbon came back into vogue, so much so that Maker’s Mark could not keep up with the demand. The company stated, “Demand for our bourbon is exceeding our ability to make it” and determined they would decrease the alcohol content in order to increase their supply. The bourbon faction was outraged and Maker’s reneged. 

So yes, bourbon is definitely not your Grandfather’s or even your Aunt Eunice’s drink anymore; it’s no longer just a drink to be sipped in a paneled smoke-filled room. But we still can. That is indeed the beauty of bourbon. It is a culture, to be enjoyed with two or three friends in a tucked-away boîte like the late, lamented Room 901 in St Petersburg. With a group of folks rooting for their favorite team. With family and friends celebrating the first snowfall, or watching the greatest two minutes of the most celebrated sport, the Kentucky Derby. 

Thanks, Peggy and Susan, for providing a roadmap of suggested routes toward celebration of that old rickhouse tenant, bourbon.