In Kentucky (where I live) and throughout the mid-South, Thanksgiving isn’t all about remembering the most famous of pilgrim potlucks. Many rural people my grandparents’ age—were they alive, all would be older than 100—worked factory jobs during the day and farmed on nights and weekends to make ends meet. Thanksgiving meant a day off work, though farm duties didn’t abate. That meant the last Thursday in November saw the end of fattened sows who’d unwittingly farrowed their replacements in the family drove.
The region’s late November weather was typically cold enough to allow farmers to slaughter hogs, cure their hams and bellies and store them outside for the winter. Smaller parts were sent to the house where women cooked, canned or ground them for sausage. Not much of a day off, and no football either, but if you believe the stories, it was a pleasant, multi-family ritual.
Not surprisingly, bourbon was integral to this effort for several reasons.
- Since no one punched the clock that day, few objected to a drink to start it off, especially on a cold morning.
- Slaughtering hogs typically fell to the men, and, well, men like drinking and working together. And what’s the harm if a nip of bourbon brings a little levity to such a grim duty?
- They lived in the South, where bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were available in abundant supply, so why not partake a little?
Booker Noe, the late Jim Beam master distiller for whom Booker’s is named, used to pay friends a combination of cash and bourbon to have his hogs slaughtered. (He cured and smoked their hams and bacon in a brick smokehouse in his backyard.) His son and current master distiller, Fred Noe, told me once how his father brought a 600-pound sow to be slaughtered, and offered the men more money for what seemed like a larger than usual job. (By comparison, a commodity hog is slaughtered at about 200 pounds.) When the men eyeballed the hog and told him size didn’t matter to the knife, Booker told Fred to fetch the men a bourbon bonus—which they promptly set to drinking.
Unfortunately for the Noes, that evening’s temps didn’t cool as they’d hoped, and Booker feared the warmth would spoil the meat, especially the hog’s huge 45-pound hams. So they hauled its carcass inside the house—and dismembered it on the dining room table of Booker’s wife, Annis. According to Fred, she wasn’t pleased.
“I don’t know that she ever forgave him for that one,” Fred told me a few years ago. “She’ll still say, ‘I remember when y’all brought that hog in here that time … .’ It was holy hell.”
Bourbon also finds its way into our Thanksgiving dishes, sometimes in a contrived approach, such as adding it to a turkey brine. (While a bourbon-marinated turkey may sound cool, alcohol and raw meat do not play well together.)
Other times its naturally occurring vanilla and citrus notes transform ordinary glazes into something ethereal, giving any sugar or syrup reduction a new flavor dimension. If you glaze your sweet potatoes, bourbon is a natural complement, and bourbon-maple syrup reduction is the ideal drizzle on apple, pecan or pumpkin pie.
While some may assume Kentuckians sip bourbon with our Thanksgiving feasts, wine commonly gets the call during dinner. Still, there’s no reason why bourbon on the rocks or a simple cocktail (such as a Manhattan, though made with lower-proof liquor for extended sipping) wouldn’t make an excellent dinner beverage. Again, those citrus and vanilla notes link it easily to any dish accented with sugar, plus a high proof whiskey over ice can stand up to foods that lie heavy on the palate, like stuffing or gravy. Were it me, I’d suggest these:
- Four Roses Single Barrel (made from a B mashbill, which is its highest rye at 35 percent) on the rocks.
- A Manhattan whose brown liquor portion is divided evenly between 90 proof bourbon and 90 proof rye. Readers of this site don’t a recipe.
- Before dinner, the Bourbon Bee (served up) or the Gold Rush (served on the rocks) is a great welcome cocktail. Add 2 ounces bourbon, 1 ounce honey syrup and a ½ ounce of fresh lemon to a shaker with ice; shake a good 30 seconds, strain and serve according to your preference. It’s also smart to batch this cocktail, but make only enough for that day’s consumption.
- After dinner, I’m offering Old Fashioneds, but instead of simple syrup, I use a sorghum syrup made of a 60-40 blend of cold water and sorghum molasses. To my palate, sorghum gives a much better “bottom” and balanced finish to the drink, and it highlights bourbon’s wood and smoke notes.
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....