When Creative Loafing Tampa Bay was first invited to attend Garrison Brothers Bourbon Dinner as part of Bern’s restaurant family Whiskey Tampa Foxtrot, I was excited but skeptical. I’m registered as a big fan of Executive Chef Chad Johnson, Chef de Cuisine Martin DeJesus and the entire team for special events. I have reported in glowing terms about past WTF major tastings and the wonderful James Beard Sunday Suppers.
But honestly, is it really possible to pair micro craft bourbon with a 5-course fine dining spin on Texas BBQ?
Editor’s note: This is work that disappeared in the mix. Sorry for the delay of two months.
The answer is a surprising and resounding yes. The garden’s creative bartender, Maddie Kaye, who was second place this summer in Bourbon Brawl 2021, starts us all with a Glencairn whiskey glass washed with pecan-infused Cardamaro liqueur and then frozen. This allows the accent to be a slow release of graceful note to Garrison’s Honeydew ($ 90/80 proof) with a Texas star-shaped piece of lemon peel looking up from the bottom of the glass to add a subtle citrus element to our opening cocktail ointment. The honey notes are subtle and the bourbon sings.
Although wine is my main area of excellence, and its match with food is an enduring obsession (see my book, “Drink More Wine” or CL’s digital archives), I’m only a bourbon enthusiast. My experience is mostly Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace (both affordable under $ 30/90 proof), which make fine old-fashioned, especially with amazing Amarena black cherries in the mix. Until tonight, I have not really ventured out into artisanal bourbon to any degree and never into dark spirits from Texas. But a nose is a nose, balance is still balance, and compatible flavors that reinforce each other still apply.
A perfect Florida rock crab claw sits on a base of jalapeño cornbread that the kitchen chokes on smoked honey beurre blanc, the most delicious butter emulsion in the heart of French haute cuisine. It embraces a small ball of crispy vinegar slaw with a small dot of pie, stiffening homemade Paducah BBQ sauce in honor of Chef Johnson’s Kentucky roots. It is paired with Small Batch bourbon ($ 90/94 proof), which is the Garrison’s most available liquor. After all, the Small Batch is overwhelming to me, despite it fitting well into the dish. Little do I know, the rest of the night flight will be a revelation.
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of French cuisine, so it’s with great anticipation that I’m waiting for foie gras; I just never had it as a hot link. These duck sausages are ethereal in a puddle of sweet hot mustard sprinkled with microgreens, pieces of compressed cantaloupe, charred cactus and surprisingly black tahini that tastes like peanut butter. It is paired with one of the most acclaimed bourbons at the tasting, Balmorhea ($ 189/115 proof), a two-barrel nectar that master distiller Donnis Todd calls his “bourbon candy.” It’s no surprise that Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named it this year’s micro-whiskey TWICE. For me, the food is perfect as the burnt brown sugar notes blend perfectly with the dish and I get my credit card ready to snatch a bottle that Charlie Garrison can sign.
Next is the goat barbecue paired with single barrel ($ 110/94 proof); it’s the same little batch of whiskey with some extra age, but from barrels with a distinct personality. The dish combines shredded meat from goat bones wrapped in banana leaves with masa stewed in lard in a delicious pumpkin broth reduction mixed with delicate, fruity guaillot pepper. I’m just delighted at how well the flavors blend together.
In 2020, Charlie slipped and was caught whispering heresy that “this can be better than at home.” How to win the day is Wagyu beef breast, the finest available. It is smoked for two hours, then boiled in a low temperature sous vide water bath for 76 hours, and finished with another two hours in the smoker. It’s like magic, served on top of hominy and turnips. And with a touch of thick sweet fig BBQ sauce to push everything in sync, the match is exquisite with Guadeloupe ($ 200/107 proof), a “dessert bourbon” finished on port wine casks. The lingering finish is sublime.
We end with the incomparable, cult-grown Cowboy Bourbon ($ 250 / 131.3 proof), which comes from Dan Garrison (older brother) and Donnis’ favorite barrels. They are set aside for a few years for further maturation, and the liquid is bottled at barrel strength, uncut and unfiltered, and sold in its own labeled wooden box. Yowzer! But the quirky, sweet pecan pie with pieces of roasted stone fruit mixes with anchovy-colored caramel cooled by ultra-creamy buttermilk ice cream to end our meal with a satisfied (alcohol-enhanced) sigh.
Bourbon evangelist Erika Myers, who represents the brand in Florida from her base in Tampa, teases that Charlie Garrison (younger brother and host) is a charming self-deprecating “whiskey smuggler.” His commentary on each course is a polished standup routine. “We are a dog that caught the bus. I am traveling with insane people. I am here to help him (older brother Dan) reach his sight and keep him out of jail.” The crowd of 40 lucky people sitting at tables under a tent just outside the Garden eats up Charlie’s subtleties with audible good humor. ”When our father grew up, our father always told my brother and me that we had better learn to work for ourselves, because no one else would ever put up with us. Thank God he was right. ”
After dinner is over and I loosen my belt, there is a surprise just for the kick. We get a taste of the rare, limited edition Laguna Madre (average price ~ $ 700/101 proof) aged on expensive Limousin French oak barrels, which are dry aged instead of steamed. The result is subtle and silky soft, instead of the more aggressive oak you can find in cognac.
If you have not already pulled out your calculator, this particular narrative should be clear: Garrison bourbon is a luxury item. But you now have a year to save up for a WTF 2022 ticket if your estimated budget is tight. For $ 275, diners not only enjoyed five beautifully crafted courses that elevated BBQ to fine dining, but they had the opportunity to taste more than $ 1,600 rare bourbon, some of which are simply mostly inaccessible outside of events like this. I went amazed and deeply grateful. As Martha Stewart would proclaim, it is “a good thing.” So if you’re so inclined, sign up for Bern’s WTF mailing list and hop on one of next year’s deals. In the meantime, go to garrisonbros.com and drool.