Turns out bourbon and fine-dining BBQ mix quite well, and you now have a year to save up for Tampa’s ‘Whiskey Tampa Foxtrot’ dinner

But a nose is a nose, balance is still balance.

click to enlarge GARRISON BROTHERS
Garrison Brothers
When Creative Loafing Tampa Bay was first invited to attend the Garrison Brothers Bourbon Dinner as part of the Bern’s restaurant family Whiskey Tampa Foxtrot, I was excited, but skeptical. I’m on record as being a big fan of Executive Chef Chad Johnson, Chef de Cuisine Martin DeJesus, and the whole special events team. I’ve reported in glowing terms on previous WTF grand tastings and the wondrous 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 got lost in the shuffle. Apologies for the two month delay.

The answer is a surprising and resounding yes. Haven’s creative bartender, Maddie Kaye, who was the runner up this summer in Bourbon Brawl 2021, starts us all with a Glencairn whiskey glass washed with pecan-infused Cardamaro liqueur, then frozen. This allows the accent to be a slow-release grace note to Garrison’s Honeydew ($90/80 proof) with a Texas star-shaped piece of lemon zest peeking up from the bottom of the glass to add a subtle citrus element to our opening cocktail salvo. The honey notes are subtle, and the bourbon sings.

While wine is my main area of expertise and its match with food an ongoing obsession (see my book, “Drink More Wine,” or CL’s digital archives), I am merely a bourbon enthusiast. My experience is mostly Maker’s Mark or Buffalo Trace (both affordable under $30/90 proof), which make fine old fashioneds, especially with great Amarena black cherries in the mix. Until tonight, I haven’t really ventured into artisanal bourbon to any extent and never into dark spirits from Texas. But a nose is a nose, balance is still balance, and compatible flavors that enhance each other still apply.
A perfect Florida stone crab claw sits on a base of jalapeño cornbread, which the kitchen smothers in smoked honey beurre blanc, that most luscious butter emulsion at the heart of French haute cuisine. It hugs a small scoop of crunchy vinegar slaw, with a tiny dot of tart, bracing housemade Paducah BBQ sauce honoring Chef Johnson’s Kentucky roots. It’s paired with the Small Batch bourbon ($90/94 proof), which is Garrison’s most widely available spirit. After all the buildup, the Small Batch is underwhelming to me, despite being a nice match for the dish. Little do I know, the rest of the night flight will be a revelation.

There’s no secret that I’m a devotee of French cuisine, so it’s with great anticipation that I await the foie gras; I’ve just never had it as a hot link. These duck sausages are ethereal in a pool of sweet hot mustard dotted with micro greens, bits of compressed cantaloupe, charred cactus, and surprising black tahini that tastes like peanut butter. It’s paired with one of the most acclaimed bourbons at the tasting, Balmorhea ($189/115 proof), a twice-barreled nectar that master distiller, Donnis Todd calls his “bourbon candy.” It’s no surprise that Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named it the micro-whiskey of the year TWICE. For me, the food match is perfect, as the burnt brown sugar notes meld perfectly with the dish and I get my credit card ready to snag a bottle for Charlie Garrison to sign.

Next is goat barbacoa paired with single barrel ($110/94 proof); it’s the same small batch whiskey with some extra age, but from barrels with distinct personality. The dish marries shredded meat from goat legs wrapped in banana leaves with masa stewed in lard in a delectable pumpkin broth reduction laced with delicate, fruity guajillo pepper. I’m just gobsmacked at how well the flavors meld together.

In 2020, Charlie slipped and was caught whispering the heresy that, “this might be better than back home.” How you win the day is Wagyu beef brisket, the finest available. It’s smoked for two hours, then cooked in a low temperature sous vide water bath for 76 hours, and finished with two additional hours in the smoker. It’s like magic, served on top of hominy and turnip greens. And, with a schmear of thick sweet, fig BBQ sauce to nudge everything into synchronicity, the match is exquisite with Guadeloupe ($200/107 proof), a “dessert bourbon” finished in port casks. The lingering finish is sublime.

We conclude with the inimitable, cult worshipped Cowboy Bourbon ($250/131.3 proof), which comes from Dan Garrison (older brother) and Donnis’ favorite barrels. They’re set aside for a couple of years for further maturation and the liquid is bottled at cask-strength, uncut and unfiltered and sold in its own branded wooden box. Yowzer! But the flakey, sweet pecan pie with bits of roasted stone fruit melds with ancho-tinged caramel cooled by ultra creamy buttermilk ice cream to end our meal with a contented (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 charmingly self-deprecating “whiskey peddler.” His commentary with each course is a finely honed standup routine. “We are a dog that caught the bus. I’m on a journey with insane people. I’m here to help him (older brother Dan) get to his vision and to keep him out of jail.” The crowd of 40 lucky folks seated at tables under a tent just outside Haven, is eating up Charlie’s quips with audible good cheer. “Growing 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 concludes and I loosen my belt, there’s a surprise just for kicks. We get a taste of the rare, limited release Laguna Madre (average price ~$700/101 proof) aged in expensive Limousin French oak barrels, which are dry aged rather than steamed. The result is subtle and silky, instead of the more aggressive oak you might find in cognac.

If you haven’t already pulled out your calculator, just this narrative should be clear: Garrison bourbon is a luxury item. But you now have a year to save for a WTF 2022 ticket if your discretionary budget is tight. For $275, diners not only enjoyed five beautifully crafted courses elevating BBQ to fine dining, but they had the opportunity to taste in excess of $1,600 of rare bourbon, some of which is simply mostly unavailable outside of events like this. I left amazed and profoundly grateful. As Martha Stewart would proclaim, it’s “a good thing.” So, if you’re so inclined, get on Bern’s WTF mailing list and jump on one of next year’s offerings. In the meantime, go to garrisonbros.com and drool.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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