Garden & Gun, Ouita Michel and Woodford Reserve Mark Kentucky’s 225th Birthday
By Richard Thomas
If you are in the Bluegrass and ask around about local celebrity chefs, odds are pretty good that the first name to come up will be Ouita Michel, often referred to in these parts simply as “Chef Ouita.” Starting in 2000 with the Holly Hill Inn in the charming whistlestop town of Midway, Michel has built a chain of restaurants covering a range of themes, from fine dining to comfort food to country-fied deli, all with a heavy reliance on locally sourced foods. Chef Ouita is a multi-time James Beard Award nominee, and once you get past Louisville’s orbit, her name is nearly synonymous with locavore dining in the Bluegrass.
As a Lexington native and recent returnee, my favorite is Smithtown Seafood, where I treat myself to fried oysters and West Sixth brews once or twice a month. Bourbon enthusiasts, however, are likely more familiar Ouita Michel’s work through her eatery at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, Glenn’s Creek Cafe.
That is not her only connection to Kentucky bourbon, however. Her chain of restaurants are almost as infused with bourbon whiskey as the Commonwealth of Kentucky itself, interwoven into the distillery trail. When I learned that Michel and Woodford Reserve were doing the menu and drinks for Garden & Gun’s dinner celebrating Kentucky’s 225th anniversary, it was time to go in depth with her on the drinks part of the evening.
One item can serve as kind of a preview if you intend to stop by Ouita’s latest venture, The Honeywood, as it is the namesake and signature cocktail there. The Honeywood is the creation of Leslee Macpherson, general manager at the restaurant.
1 1/2 oz. Woodford Reserve Rye
1/2 oz. Aperol
1 oz. Gents Smoked Honey Grapefruit Cocktail Mix
1 oz. grapefruit juice
Shake and double strain, serve up in a coupe and garnish with expressed grapefruit peel
“The Honeywood is named for Honeywood Parrish Rouse, who grew up here at Holly Hill Inn,” said Michel. “She drank bourbon every afternoon at 4 pm, straight with a piece of ice! We wanted a balanced drink with finesse—a balance of sweetness and acidity—just a hint of bitterness from the grapefruit.”
As for why Woodford Rye was chosen in place of Woodford Reserve Bourbon for this drink, Michel said, “The spice and balance of the Woodford Rye is a great counter point to the smoked honey and the grapefruit juice.”
In Michel’s opinion, the Honeywood is a great aperitif, and pairs well with foods that are a little salty, especially shrimp salad or shellfish. Having tried it at Garden & Gun’s dinner, I agree. It’s sweet, but the spicy and smoky tangs give it an interesting twist.
Another drink was the “Old Fashioned” Bourbon Punch, a spin on the classic bourbon cocktail.
Equal parts Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and freshly brewed orange pekoe tea
Orange syrup or cointreau
The idea behind “Old Fashioned” Bourbon Punch is to create a sparkling Bourbon drink that uses Woodford Double Oaked, (preferably) Woodford Reserve bourbon-soaked cherries, orange zest and reduced orange juice, along with tea, champagne and a twist of orange. It should be light and fruity- a celebration punch for a special occasion. I found those qualities made it an ideal refreshment for before dinner, what with the early summer heat, and it’s sweet tooth aspect could make for a lovely dessert drink.