Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon?
Setting the Table for Tastings, Food Pairings, Dinners, and Cocktail Parties
By Peggy Noe Stevens & Susan Reigler
If you scrunch your eyes looking into the rearview mirror, you might see a speck of a place that we used to know. It’s a place where we used to gather together to celebrate, to mourn, to laugh, to cheer on, and, yes, to party. We would plan and shop and clean, all in anticipation of our friends and family coming over in their Sunday best, or their Saturday casuals, just to hang out, watch a game, drink whiskey, break bread. That speck is getting harder to remember, but one day, we’ll all get back to our gathering days… it’s what we do. It may not be the same as it used to be…it may different we’ll but together in some form or fashion.
Entertainment gurus and Bourbon pros Peggy Noe Stevens (Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee and noted writer) and Susan Reigler (award-winning writer of all things Bourbon, cocktails, and restaurants) want us to be ready for those days of gathering again. Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon? (University Press of Kentucky) is their recently published guide to planning Bourbon-centric parties. Hailing from Bourbon Country (Kentucky, USA), these pros walk us through various elements of the planning process, whether you are hosting a backyard soirée, a Bourbon tasting, or just having friends over who like whiskey. It’s an elegant book with pictures of table and food setups that harken back to a time before #SixFeetApart and #SocialDistancing. A time when our mothers and grandmothers sent handwritten thank you notes, called on the telephone to check on RSVPs, and used the word “doilies”. Here at the Boozedancing Kitchen and Tasting Table, we can rarely find a napkin that doesn’t say “Happy New Year 1996”, so this is a welcomed bit of party planning reading. Of course, we’re a whiskey-centric group ourselves, and reading (and dreaming) of future days of social events around our favorite brown spirits warms the heart, so this new book helps us dream of party days ahead.
It all starts with a simple thought…
The best form of Bourbon etiquette is simply to make people feel comfortable. Whiskey making is about quality and authenticity. Likewise, authenticity plays a big role in your personal entertaining: the best gift you can give to your guests is yourself. Entertaining should be a reflection of your personality, the way you live, the interaction of friends and family—your lifestyle.
It’s tough to argue with this. We’ve all been to events where the host tries to be something they are not. Be yourself, especially in these days where getting back to basics roots us, gives us foundation, and comforts us. And making a comfortable, welcoming place is what we should do as hosts.
Moreover, Stevens and Reigler preach three basic rules…
- Party with a purpose
- Don’t leave your guests guessing
- Create and update the guest list
We could argue the importance of that last one if you’re hosting a very informal, come-as-you-are, bring-whatever-you-want shindig, but the aim for simplicity is well noted. The devil is in the details and planning ahead keeps the guy with the pointy ears and his tricks at bay.
This is a book foremost about planning. Where to put the food, where to seat everyone, how to display the food, whiskey, flowers, and cocktail accessories. It’s about creating the mood, the feeling, the party space that you want. At times it feels like a trip to the heart of Bourbon Country with its glorious backyards of oak trees, magnolias, and verbena canvasing magnificent homes with lush lawns that stretch for acres. The book has images of gorgeous antique decanters, bottle shots, crystal clear glassware, perfectly made cocktails, and mouth-watering food spreads to go with elegant interiors and exteriors. Lofty goals, indeed!
We all need tips, and they are aplenty in this beautiful book…
- Use empty whiskey bottles for pre-batched cocktails or syrups
- Fill serving platters with beds of herbs, nuts, or linen napkins to give those little bowls of light bites a visual “pop”
- Goldfish as party snacks…the actual snack not the actual fish
Life doesn’t have to be complicated, and neither does your party. I like the pretzel Goldfish, by the way.
There’s a deep dive into bourbon tastings that gives the basics on the great American spirit and then heads into the nuts and bolts of hosting your own event. Tasting mats, glassware, facts and factoids are all covered as well as Bourbon choices. It’s a complete round-up of how to prepare and how to entertain your guests instead of, “here are five Bourbons. Drink up, people! And don’t spill anything!” (aka the Fred Minnick method of hosting Bourbon tastings BEFORE he read this book. FYI, he wrote the foreword). One gets the feeling that the goal here is an entertaining evening with a fair amount of education for the guest. Our kind of whiskey tasting, thank you.
Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon? heads into areas that most whiskey party people might not think of; food pairings and cooking with whiskey. As frequent whiskey tasting hosts, Mrs. Satellite Engineer and Yours Truly have paired cheese, chocolates, and various foods with Scotch for friends (and foes). It’s not easy, we dare say. Even a well-seasoned palate can mix two elements together that’ll send a guest running to the closest sink. No, this is art AND science. Our authors walk the reader through the process with various foods to think about in terms of intensity, enjoyment, and balance – our favorite word.
There are cocktail recipes and a short but fine discussion of the cocktail. Many books have expounded on mixology to no end, but that’s not the goal here. Here the aim is to give the Kentuckian view of the cocktail with classic recipes that will make most party folks happy. Here’s a YouTube video of Peggy Noe Stevens making the Porch Swing (page 130 in the book):
And no respectable look at Bourbon Country party planning would be complete without a trip to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. It’s an event that folks in the whole region think about yearlong. It’s like the Indy 500 to Indianapolis, the Rose Parade to Pasadena, the Super Bowl to the host city of the year. Next year’s spectacle and its planning starts before the one at hand is over. Derby parties happen all over, not just in Kentucky, so this chapter is less region-specific than one might think. “…on Derby Day, everyone can be a Kentuckian”. Who doesn’t like a Mint Julep on a glorious Saturday in May? Who doesn’t like wearing a hat the size of an Edsel? These Derby parties can be as formal as one wants, or you can dress up as a horse, either end. Just leave your shoes on the porch.
Of course, the Mint Julep in all of its splendor is a big part of the party. We especially like the Julep variations listed along with a version of the classic. A Peach-Basil Julep sounds refreshing to no end and is now on the must-do-and-drink list.
Now the suggestions and recipes for eats are downright scary. In a good way. Corn pudding, cheese grits, Bibb salad, and something called Burgoo which has no less than twenty-two (22!) ingredients yielding a stew harkening back to frontier days. You might enlist a few sous chefs on the burgoo detail for the all of the quartering, dicing, mincing, chopping, and slicing. You don’t want to be in the kitchen all day! Plus you need someone to keep that glass of Four Roses topped off.
Which reminds us that the book comes to a nice close with stops at various Kentucky distilleries to see how those places entertain. The distillery as entertainment stop is big business and the folks at these whiskey-making facilities offer everything from your indulgent tasting tours to rentals for weddings. One does not live on Bourbon and rye and hand sanitizer, and one day we’ll be able to hit the whiskey trails again taking in the wonderful sights and sounds, inhaling that sensuous smell of whiskey and wood, and drinking those lovely spirits, forgetting to some degree what we’ve all been through while being apart.
Which Fork Do I Use with My Bourbon? was written before social distancing became our norm. It was written when we just washed our hands, without rules and singing. It was written when we would gather in our favorite pubs and our homes with friends and family, just to laugh over drinks after hearty warm hugs. The world is different now, and Ms. Stevens and Reigler’s book could easily be dismissed as antiquated, from a time which we might not see again soon. But we’re more than hopeful, believing that those happier days will come around once more; and all of the good feelings, advice, and recipes the authors write about will be welcomed. Whiskey has brought people together and will once again. This too shall pass, so we better start planning our next party.
Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for sending us a copy of this beautiful book!
Categories: Book Review