Spent the weekend in Charlotte, NC visiting a friend and sampling a fine spread of three of my favorite things: Beer, Bourbon, and Barbecue. This was intended to be a quasi-bachelor party for my friend Jason, who’s getting married in about 2 months. The real bachelor party is going to be a weekend of debauchery at Bonnaroo, but at the age of 33 (with a kid and a wife who works for the government), spending 4 days in Middle of Fucking Nowhere, TN surrounded by sweaty, un-showered hippies in 90+ degree humid weather just ain’t my bag anymore, baby. 3 years ago? Absolutely.
Back to the point at hand: the lineup of beer at this festival was fair… I’m happy that a lot of new micro-brews are cropping up in the States, but so many of them just suck. It’s not enough to have a clever, double-entendre name in the brewery world (I’m looking at you, Endo IPA), you also need a know-how of how barley, malt, and hops go together and play off one another to make a well-rounded beer. Not that I’m an expert in brewing beer, but I know a good beer when I taste one.
Bourbons, on the other hand, are a different story. I LOVE bourbon. In my (not so) humble opinion, Bourbon is a long-overlooked spirit, staying in the shadows of it’s more-sophisticated cousin: Scotch. Bourbons are starting to make a comeback, as was evidenced by this festival and its 75+ bourbons. Not all of these are good, mind you… Particular stand-outs for me: Russell’s Reserve 8- and 12-year-old, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, (rî)1, and Jim Beam Black Label. Different mixes for the mashes, different characteristics of the oak barrels, different aging times, and even different parts of the barrel that the bourbon is siphoned from make a huge difference in taste. I am a huge fan of Bulleit, Basil Hayden, Michters, and Bakers. I would put them up against most Scotches in flavor, smoothness, and character. Don’t get me wrong, The Macallan 12, 18, or 25 are amongst the best whiskys in the world, but for the price, bourbon gives a lot more satisfaction for the dollar.
Finally, the barbecue: Carolina barbecue is awesome. 2 distinct types – Eastern Carolina (mustard-based sauce) and Western Carolina (vinegar-based sauce) – were both represented well. I had three chopped pork sandwiches, two were excellent, one was average.
Interestingly enough, my friend Jason had taken me to Charlotte’s “best BBQ joint” the previous night where I had some Texas-style brisket. I was not particularly pleased with it, as they touted it as “finished on the grill with our sauce slathered on”. WHAT? Why, oh why would you ever finish a brisket that has been in the smoker for 18+ hours ON THE GRILL? The whole point to barbecue is “low and slow”. You take tough, fatty cuts of meat (pork shoulders, beef and pork ribs, and beef brisket), rub them with spices (garlic, salt, paprika, black and red pepper, brown sugar, maybe some cumin), put them in a chamber with indirect heat, and let them cook at about 200-225 degrees using hardwoods to fuel the fire for about 8-18 hours, depending on the cut of meat. In this time, the fat melts into the meat, and the connective tissues and tough muscle fibers slowly break down while retaining their moisture, making the meat fork-tender. Finishing this result on the high-heat of the grill essentially reverses this process and makes the meat tough again by shrinking the protein sheaths of the muscle fibers and squeezing out all of the accumulated moisture and fat.
“What does a Yankee know about barbecue?” you may ask. A whole lot, actually. My barbecue cred is actually quite extensive, and most of my knowledge was gained from the Southern contingent of the Boston krewe I used to roll with. We had barbecues almost every Saturday during college football season, and any warm weekend was a good excuse to fire up the smoker. My smoker is in storage at the moment, but I anxiously await its triumphant return when we get to the D.R., and may even try to build a smokehouse in our back yard.
OK, enough of my ranting… It was nice to spend a relaxed, non-hectic weekend with a good friend of mine from college, celebrate the fact that he’s found someone perfect for him, and get out of D.C. for a bit. Congrats to you, Jason – you seem to be doing well, and can’t wait to introduce you to Joan and be introduced to Robyn!