Jefferson’s Bourbon is a known for making its spirits in “ridiculously” small batches. If you haven’t heard of it yet, just wait. More and more restaurants and bars are turning focus to handcrafted cocktails featuring quality ingredients, and more people are buying small batch bourbons for their home bars.
Named after the inquisitive, experimentally-natured third president of the United States, Jefferson’s has been made by father and son Chet and Trey Zoeller since 1997. In eastern South Dakota, it can be found at just a handful of retailers, like JJ’s, and in select bars and restaurants that take their cocktails seriously.
Four of those restaurants are showing just how serious they are about quality cocktails. Vermillion’s RED Steakhouse and Sioux Falls restaurants Crawford’s Bar & Grill, Tre Lounge and Taphouse 41 are participating in a contest to determine which bartender can make the best signature concoction using Jefferson’s. They receive an aging barrel, Jefferson’s Bourbon and the freedom to let their imaginations run wild.
Judging takes place September 5, but we decided to stop by each establishment early to get to know the players.
Tre Lounge – Patrick Dwyer, Manager
Who’s participating from Tre?
I’ve got six bartenders*. I’ve teamed them up in pairs and they’ve all come up with their own concoction. They took the barrel and Jefferson Bourbon and they infused it with whatever they wanted. They let it sit in there for one or two weeks, then they let the next team go.
(*Only one team will compete against the other restaurants)
What are your team’s strengths?
Two of the bartenders are big bourbon drinkers. They know bourbon. They know what they like in bourbon and they’ve been bartending for a long time. They usually run different cocktail specials that they come up with, so they’re good at creating their own unique drinks. Actually on our drink menu, all of the cocktails and martinis are theirs. They’re pretty creative.
What’s challenging about working with bourbon?
The bad thing is trying to find the right ingredient to fuse it with. You pick the wrong thing and the flavors will be way off. The good thing is it’s bourbon, so you can make a real easy cocktail if you fuse it with the right thing.
Which menu item would you pair with Jefferson’s?
The Smokehouse Burger. It’s got Gouda cheese, barbecue sauce, and bacon. Real smoky flavors.
Why is Tre Lounge going to win?
Because we have the best bartenders in town. They were so enthusiastic about the contest. They’re going to win. They’re pretty smart.
Taphouse 41 – Dan Ogden, Bar Manager
What’s your bartending background?
I’ve been a bartender in town for about seven years. As far as bourbon goes, this is the first bar I’ve worked at that’s had such an extensive list of bourbon. But my dad’s been a bourbon drinker for years. I remember trying my first bourbon when I was ten or 12 years old.
As far as creating cocktails, I’ve always been a creative mind. My mom and sister are artists, so ever since my first bartending job, I remember trying to create cocktails that are fun and unique and no one else has. Bourbon is much more of a classic cocktail kind of spirit. Even with this contest, it’s hard to think of creative ideas, because it’s so classic. In vodka, you can mask the taste, but with bourbon you still want that favor to come through in your drink.
What are some of things to consider when working with Jefferson Bourbon?
The Jefferson products are all very smooth and well-rounded. They’re aged a little longer than most bourbons, which is nice. I think that’s where some of the sweetness comes from. The Very Old is a great product. We go through a lot of it here. It’s easy to sell at a nice price point.
What’s a menu item you’d pair with Jefferson’s?
Our menu is mostly burgers and red meat goes well with a dark spirit anyways. On Thursdays, we have a burger called the Burger Au Poivre, which is a red wine butter sauce with mushrooms, so it’s got that deep, bold flavor, which pairs well with bourbon.
RED Steakhouse – Kirk Phillips, Executive Chef/General Manager
What do you like about making cocktails?
I nerd out behind the bar. That’s my fun time. Creating food is fun, but the bar is relaxing.
Talk about your personal cocktail making experience.
Just like food, cocktails are a balance. It’s all a circle. It needs to have its acid and its base, salty and sweet, really balancing everything out. I think a cocktail is just an extension of food and using quality ingredients in both is just a lot of fun for me.
What are some of your strengths?
I’d say the strength that I bring is I look at this differently than your average bartender in that I use gastronomical ingredients – food ingredients. I’m not afraid to use a bell pepper or star anise or something like that as opposed to someone who might not be familiar with a juniper berry or something along those lines.
A popular drink we used to do was the pineapple mojito. What we would do is take the actual pineapple, carve it up, grill it, puree it and make a syrup of that, so we made an amazing mojito by utilizing the kitchen.
All of our syrups are homemade. We make homemade ginger beer from scratch. And I’m a nerd. I spend a lot of time reading. I like to know where things come from, why they are, what makes them special. We might not have the biggest scotch selection, but our scotch selection is so diverse and unique and each one is there for a reason, and they’re so meticulously put together.
What do you like about working with bourbon?
Bourbon, to me, is America. We have such an affinity for the brown spirits. It’s how we came to be. So I’d say it’s an embracing of our culture. Also, we’re a steakhouse, so it fits. And we’re in South Dakota. We’re in a steakhouse in America in South Dakota, so bourbon it is. We sell a lot of it. All of your trends seem to be going toward brown alcohol. I really enjoy seeing the passion behind it. It’s very much an artisan craft.
What do you anticipate working with Jefferson’s will be like?
Jefferson’s takes a lot of pride in their product. And it’s something we’re proud to have up on our bar shelf. It’s one that I don’t typically mix a lot. It’s one I’d just as soon serve with a sphere of ice rather than putting some other ingredients in to adulterate it. At the same time, I’m going to embrace that. The quality of the base spirit.
What would you pair with Jefferson’s?
Absolutely steak. I’d compare bourbon with a big cab or malbec wine. You want the fatty steaks, something with char that can stand up to age and oak in there. So anything that’s chargrilled with some fat.
Why are you going to win?
I’d say I have a good chance of making a show for the simple fact that I look at it differently than the average bartender. I look at it as an ingredient in a gastronomic way. I’m up for the challenge.
Crawford’s Bar & Grill – Glenn Stallings, Bar Manager
What’s your cocktail creating background?
I always like to experiment and try new things. I’ve been doing barrel aging for a while, so when this opportunity came up, it was a chance to do something fun with a different barrel.
What are some of your strengths as a bartender?
I’ve been bartending for about ten years now. I always try to keep learning new tricks and different ways of making things and keep up with trends.
What do you like about working with bourbon?
I like whiskey. It’s fun to barrel age bourbons. It’s a good starting point to get a good barrel aged cocktail. It mixes well with the oak. It’s an easy, beginner starting base for making mixed drinks.
What is Jefferson like to work with?
It was an easy base to start with, so mixing my other ingredients was really easy. I didn’t have a problem with that product at all. It changes so much when it gets in the barrel. If you’d tasted my original cocktail and what it is now, it’s completely different. It never starts out and finishes the way you’d expect.
Which Crawford’s menu item would you pair with Jefferson’s?
We are a steakhouse, so any of our steaks would go great. I’d say our Ribeye & Mushroom, which is served with mushroom herb risotto.
Why are you going to win?
You never know if you’re going to win a cocktail competition. I’ve been in quite a few and you never know what the judges are going to expect and want, so I never expect to win. It’s just a good thing to do.
Stay tuned for the judging, which takes place September 5. The winning cocktail will be featured in October’s issue of 605 Magazine.
Good luck to all of our participants!