As Southern Hospitality prepares to expand beyond its two New York City locations, the bourbon and barbeque restaurant has enlisted the help of Victor Matthews,-owner of Black Bear Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colo. and bourbon connoisseur.
Southern Hospitality, which was started in part by musician and actor Justin Timberlake in 2007 and recently added Ryan Tedder of rock band OneRepublic as a partner and franchisee, is planning around 10 new units in markets such as Austin, Atlanta, New Orleans Palo Alto, Calif. The first new location will open in Denver, nearby where Matthews owns and serves as dean of the Paragon Culinary School in Colorado Springs.
As corporate advisory chef for the franchise expansion, Matthews will help improve and upgrade the menu, restaurant and operation as a whole as it continues to grow. However, he's most passionate about expanding the concept’s already extensive selection of bourbon and building staff expertise of the increasingly popular caramel-colored liquor.
Matthews recently spoke to Nation’s Restaurant News about the history of bourbon, why it's gaining traction and what enthusiasts and novices alike can expect to find at Southern Hospitality.
How’d you get involved with Southern Hospitality?
I met Ryan [Tedder] probably before he could even drink bourbon. I met his father way back when, and we’ve been friends for years. Then Ryan got involved with Southern Hospitality in New York. When they started wanting to take it national and bring it to Denver, I thought I should get in there and watch their back, being in the restaurant business for 30 years. These guys are busy being rock stars and everything else, but they don’t necessarily know about the restaurant business. We started talking — that was about a year ago — and I’m excited.
I’ve always been told that in order to be bourbon the liquor has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Is that actually true or just something I’ve believed after hearing it enough times?
No, that is not the case. Interestingly enough, there is actually not any bourbon being made in bourbon country right now. The reason there is confusion is because the old Bourbon County was more like a territory, which now is made up of 34 current Kentucky counties. Today, in actual Bourbon County, there is no bourbon being made. It’s mostly made in other counties in Kentucky that aren’t too far away.
The only real requirements for bourbon are that it must be 51 percent or more corn (70 percent is common), and it needs to be aged at least two years in a charred cask, which gives it its caramel color and flavor. The corn is the real distinction because all the other whiskeys are made mostly from barley and rye and wheat. What is interesting is [what happens] when you add those ingredients to bourbon. When you put in rye, it makes it a little spicier. When you add wheat, it’s little rounder and a little sweeter. You are making different bourbons with the additions to the corn, as well as the aging and the other processes.
What do you attribute bourbon’s growing popularity to?
If I were to give you two names of people who saved bourbon after prohibition and World War II, they would be Frank Sinatra and Booker Noe. Frank Sinatra called Jack Daniel’s the nectar of the gods, and everyone loved Frank so everyone loved Jack Daniel’s. Even though Jack Daniel’s isn’t called bourbon. That's not because it doesn’t fit in to the laws of being bourbon; it's because they don’t want it to be bourbon. It’s its own thing — Tennessee whiskey. Booker Noe was part of the Jim Beam family, which is still the leader in bourbon and is the man who Booker’s is named after. He introduced more high-end bourbon, things straight from the cask, things to sip on. Another guy, Elmer Lee, did a similar thing. They got people talking about bourbon again, and now it’s the coolest thing ever.
Of course Southern Hospitality has a bourbon room, and I’m writing a bourbon guide to train all of our staff and make sure everyone is a bourbon enthusiast and master. I think the main [reason] why its popular is the flavor. I love Scotch, but it has a very specific taste. Vodka is kind of used for mixing stuff and doesn’t have a lot of character. Bourbon has the character of caramel, smoke, sweetness; it’s a little spicy. It appeals to the palettes of people.
So it sounds like you train the staff in bourbon the same way another restaurant would train its staff on wine. Is that a fair comparison?
Absolutely. That’s a perfect comparison. We might even call a person, once I’m finished training them, a bourbon sommelier. Its not as complicated as wine — there are only about 70 major bourbons — but it is complicated. You have to know what you're tasting, and you have to know how to sell it. You have to have some questions ready to ask when someone comes in and doesn’t know what they want. I’m going to do nonstop bourbon tastings. The only way to get people to understand it is to have them taste it.
What’s the selection like at Southern Hospitality?
It has always been about 40 to 50, and we’re bringing it to between 60 and 70. Fifty is a good target number, which is almost all the great bourbons. It’s a huge selection.
So somebody that is really into bourbon is more often than not going to find what he or she wants at Southern Hospitality?
Oh man, not only are they going to find what they want, they are going to find ten more similar things that they want to try. That’s why we have these three or five bourbon flights and different groupings like all Colorado bourbons, or single barrel groupings.
You are obviously a purist. What are your thoughts on using bourbon for cocktails?
I, of course, prefer it neat so I can taste everything, but the mint julep is a wonderful thing.
What’s a good starter bourbon for someone who doesn’t know too much about it?
I would say something like a Marker’s Mark, or maybe something from the Jack Daniel’s line. These things are a little rounder, a little smoother. The most important thing is choice. If you were sitting at a bar in front of me tonight I would give you 3 to 5 little sips to see what you like, and go from there.
Contact Charlie Duerr at firstname.lastname@example.org.