Born and bred in the hills of Kentucky, bourbon is America’s only native spirit. Its moonshine and bootleg ancestry have given this husky liquor a rough reputation that has been hard to overcome. But no more. Bourbon is experiencing a renaissance, proving that this home-grown liquor is finally all grown up. Invite a few of your closest friends, break out the jazz, bust out the napkins, and throw a truly unique party that honors the roots of the nation. Bourbon and barbecue—the original American pairing.
Subtle and smoky, filled with complex layers of flavor, bourbon has stood the test of time. Recently, however, we have seen a new breed of distillers inspired by this classic spirit. Craft distilleries are popping up all over the nation, yielding new styles of bourbon that are both classic and modern. To truly tap into this and to make your party a real tasting experience, pick up a few of these small cask creations—be creative. Bourbon is a heady brew, so choose only four or five different bottles and allow your guests to sample a small bit of each one before choosing their ultimate poison.
Bourbon loves good glasses and big ice cubes, but don’t limit your thinking to the classic ideal. Try different shaped ice cubes set in your best cut crystal bowl. Offer small glasses to straight tasters and larger glasses for your mixers; this American classic isn’t fussy about the shape. Encourage everybody to try small sips of many brews instead of getting stuck with one big pour. And for those who find that a straight shot isn’t their style, be sure to offer alternative cocktails—or non-alcoholic of course. Offer cold, spring water and small bites between tastings so that your guests can keep their head while preparing for the main tasting event.
Once everybody has had a chance to pick the bourbon that they like best, offer them interesting ways to create their new favorite drink. The Old-fashioned isn’t old fashioned anymore, especially if you lightly smoke the glass. Make a muddle, add bourbon and bitters to a mixing shaker with ice. Then light a few fragrant cedar chips in a brazier, catch the smoke in the glass and quick tuck it into the rim of mixer to shake, shake, shake. The light taste of the smoke will be captured in the cocktail! Or if your guest prefers a more refreshing concoction, try a fizzy spin on the mint julep. In a large glass, add ice and an ounce of bourbon. Squeeze in a lemon wedge, muddle some mint and then top with spicy ginger beer. This simple cocktail has the light taste of summer and is a great way to clear the palette for an amazing meal.
When bourbon meets barbecue, you have a smashing taste sensation! Sweet meets smoky on both fronts and the subtle heat of the sauce heightens the gentle bite of the alcohol. You can have your guests each bring a unique bottle of their favorite barbeque sauce to create a fun, interactive event. Suggest they find sweet and spicy Chicago-style sauce, or a rich and tangy Texas classic. Invite them to reach out and discover a native Floridian mustard and vinegar sauce, or dig into the ways of North Carolina’s barbecue tradition. If you have an adventurer amongst you, ask them to investigate Cuban or Caribbean-inspired barbecue sauces. This is an American culinary tradition with roots around the globe, so get creative! Set the sauces out unlabeled in funky bowls and ask everyone to try and pair it with its source. You can even rate the best bourbon and sauce pairings.
Even though a tasting like this lends itself to small, family-style service, you want to remember that not everybody likes to get their fingers dirty. Barbecue can be down-right messy, but not all of it has to be eaten off of the bone. Bourbon stands well with good, smoked meats and a nice slow-cooked pulled pork, chicken or beef can be just the right match. This type of main course has the added benefit of needing to be done earlier in the day, or the day before, which frees you up to enjoy your party. Rich, thick Southern-style cornbread or a hearty macaroni and cheese happily round out the menu and lends the perfect heft to a true barbecue. They can also provide a good solid, food foundation to balance out the strength of the bourbon. Don’t forget to finish off with an authentic bourbon-pecan pie and some good chicory coffee. (With maybe just a little splash.)
This is definitely not a white-tablecloth event, so save the silver for another day. Think casual and laid-back with a twist toward fun. Set up outside when the weather is nice, and for an authentic barbecue-joint feel, lay out long stretches of butcher paper. Spruce it up with bright white plates and simple flowers in plain jars; you can even include some crayons at each setting so that your guests can add their own color to the table. Bring out your fun and bright serving pieces to serve family style. Everyone will surely want to serve themselves so that they can make their own perfect bourbon and barbecue creations—make sure there is enough for seconds as everyone will surely want to try different combinations. You may want to invite your guests to come a little earlier than the norm so that everyone can enjoy the spectacular Southwest Florida sunset as they dine and then chat into the evening by the light of glass lanterns and candles.