Not much more than a decade ago, Bourbon Barrel Foods’ founder Matt Jamie was tossing business ideas around with a friend in Florida over oysters. When one idea to launch the only soy sauce microbrewery in the US was just an inspiration, he could hardly have imagined the heights to which Bourbon Barrel Foods would take him. Not only can Bourbon Barrel products be found in the commercial kitchens of celebrity chefs like Sean Brock and Eric Ripere, Bluegrass Soy Sauce has been featured on Bizarre Foods America, The Science Channel: How it’s Made, and in Southern Living, Esquire, Garden and Gun, and Food & Wine, and has remarkably become a favorite product in the soy sauce world capital of Japan.
Matt shared, “I’ve been fortunate throughout the life of Bourbon Barrel Foods to have some pretty spectacular experiences. Traveling to Japan four times in one year and working with, literally, THE BEST soy sauce brewer in the world is a serious partnership and resource. The importer, distributor, retailers, and consumers love the story that we tell with our soy sauce, as well as the unique taste and the high quality of our product.”
Of course, in most American sushi restaurants, we are accustomed to seeing a couple of mass produced brands. I was curious about the qualities that distinguish Bluegrass Soy Sauce. Matt said, “Higher end soy sauces in Japan age from 12–18 months. I think any time you slow down a process and make it with passion, you get a higher quality product. For me, brewing soy sauce is like tasting wine. I look for color, aroma, texture, mouth feel, and finish. American soy sauce tends to be bolder, and we use it differently in the US than the Japanese do.”
At Bourbon Barrel Foods, slowing the process means annually producing about 7,500 gallons of Bluegrass Soy Sauce. (That may seem like a fair amount until you compare it to Kikkoman’s production of 200,000 gallons per day at five plants worldwide.) Bluegrass Soy Sauce remains the only soy sauce worldwide to be pressed from a mash that is fermented and aged in repurposed bourbon barrels. During its year-long aging process, Kentucky-grown non-GMO soybeans, soft red winter wheat, and limestone-filtered spring water become infused with the mild, smoky sweetness of Kentucky bourbon.
By law, Kentucky bourbon barrels can be used only once to age bourbon. Following that use, they may be sold for other purposes. Due to invigorated interest in bourbon products, barrel prices have skyrocketed and the landscape has shifted. “We get our barrels for Bluegrass Soy Sauce from a local cooperage that buys barrels back from the distilleries after the bourbon has been dumped. The used barrels market is crazy. When I started BBF 11 years ago, the barrels were free. Now, they sell for as much as $200! Our barrels are used for 3–4 years. When they’re done we use them as planters or burn them.”
Bourbon Barrel Foods’ smoked spices include Bourbon Smoked Pepper, Bourbon Smoked Sea Salt, and Bourbon Smoked Sugar. “All of our spices are smoked with 100% bourbon barrel staves—the strips that make up the barrels. They’re slow smoked and have such a rich smoked flavor. When I started BBF, I was using a tabletop smoker . . . maybe 20 lbs. a month. Then it was 200 lbs, and then 2,000 lbs. Today, although they’ve never actually smoked meat, that’s what our smokers are designed to do. They have the capacity to hold up to 1,400 lbs of pork butt each!”
Bourbon Barrel’s Director of Sales, Annie Kuzmicky, agrees that it has been “Great fun to see the growth. Matt and I grew up together, and I believed in his idea so much so that I worked for free for three years, later becoming a part owner in the company. The beginning included lots of long and non-traditional hours. I remember getting a 1 a.m. text from my husband asking where I was and replying with a picture of Matt, Matt’s dad, and me handpacking salt in our hairnets.” Bourbon Barrel Foods currently has 25 employees. Matt confessed, “When I wrote my business plan 11 years ago, I never thought I would employ as many people. It’s a heavy feeling sometimes; lots of responsibility. It’s not only them, but their families.”
But things are going along pretty well by any objective measure, one of them that Bourbon Barrel Foods products can be found in the kitchens of Sean Brock and Eric Ripert. I asked Matt what it was like to know his products are incorporated into their dishes. “Those are some pretty big names and they influence a lot of people with the choices they make. That’s street cred. We work with a lot of top chefs around the country, even the world. Food service is not a huge part of my business but it’s a very important part because chefs drive our retail and wholesale business. We’re lucky to have them as customers.”
What’s next in the cards for Bourbon Barrel Foods? Matt says, “This summer we are introducing a few new soy sauces and are establishing a few more collaborations and licensing contracts.” A past collaboration includes Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries, perfect for garnishing a classic Manhattan or Whiskey Sour, or for topping vanilla ice cream.
Perhaps someday, Matt’s kids will become interested in carrying on the tradition their father has begun. “They have watched Bourbon Barrel Foods grow. They’ve seen what passion and hard work do. They’ve witnessed perseverance and seen success and failure. Honestly, they can do whatever they want. I just hope I’ve raised children that will be useful. Bourbon Barrel Foods is a lot of who I am, but doesn’t have to be who they are. They know the business though; it would be nice to think that some day they would run it after I’m done . . . that’s the romantic in me.”
The Kentucky romantic in Matt also never wants to miss the grand old tradition of the Kentucky Derby. Catch him there each year, and you can guarantee he’ll be sweetening his classic mint julep with Bourbon Barrel Foods Mint Julep Sugar.