A lot of home chefs dream about having their own brand, with their special recipe for salsa or fudge filling the shelves at the local grocery. But it takes a special person – and a lot of determination and research – to make that dream a reality.
Louisville’s Matt Jamie has done just that with Bourbon Barrel Foods, beginning with the idea for just one specific product and the desire to do something that hadn’t already been done, and growing into a brand of over a hundred products all centered around the slogan ‘Eat Your Bourbon.’ Jamie’s simple mission of barrel-aged craft soy sauce has led to a gourmet bourbon food empire.
Sights Set on Soy Sauce
After dropping out of graduate school in Gainesville, Florida, and working as a chef, Jamie had a realization that while cooking was a passion and had an aptitude for it, it was not going to be a career for him. He began angling for a way out of the kitchen and into the gourmet food industry.
“I had just read an article in Food & Wine about a cheesemaker, and I loved the romance behind that kind of innovation, but I didn’t want to do something that anyone else had already done.
“One night over oysters and beer with a buddy of mine I was like, ‘No one’s microbrewing soy sauce in the US’ and it was like that is just so freaking weird but it just kind of stuck. He reminded me of the idea like a month later, and I dove into it. I researched it.”
Jamie blindly began researching soy sauce online discovering the parallels between it and bourbon, as he concurrently moved back to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
“I continued to research it and started the company in 2006, just realizing the similarities in the process of brewing soy sauce and distilling bourbon, as well as the history and heritage of the two,” said Jamie, “And I felt like it was something I could do. That I could ride the coattails of the bourbon industry, and on this success, they were starting to have.”
Jamie’s research led him right to ingredients that were already being used by one of the world’s most recognizable bourbon brands – just a
“As I was researching soy sauce, I found a grower of non-GMO soybeans 45 miles south of Louisville,” said Jamie. “He also grows wheat, and the wheat he grows is for Makers Mark. It’s a soft, red, winter wheat that we use in our soy sauce. The water that goes into the soy sauce is that limestone-filtered spring water that the distillers believe is so important to their bourbon because it’s a hard water that has body.”
Jamie then set out making soy sauce test batches in his basement, batches he still hangs onto.
“In those basement batches, I cooked soybeans on the stove, and it stunk up the entire house, and I roasted the wheat on the stove,” Jamie recalls. “We have one of those glass top stoves, and I was shaking it around and scratched the hell out of the top of it. Mix those together, and I had brewers’ buckets in the basement. And I still have those batches bottled up. They’re very different from what we make now, but it was the learning process, so they’re important things for me to hold onto.”
Birth of Bourbon Barrel Foods
The brand almost wasn’t called Bourbon Barrel Foods – it was nearly just Bluegrass Soy Sauce. However, like bourbon, making soy sauce takes time, and while Jamie calls Bluegrass Soy Sauce “the genesis of the company,” he quickly realized he needed other products to help pay for the sauce.
“Bourbon Barrel Foods wasn’t even a mention in my business plan, the name of the company was Bluegrass Soy Sauce, but the thing with plans is that they change,” said Jamie. “The research that I did for that set me up to do the things I’m doing for Bourbon Barrel Foods – so it could pay for the soy sauce project. I started doing Bourbon Smoked Sea Salt, Bourbon Smoked Pepper, Barrel-Aged Worcestershire Sauce, and we did a sauce called Kentuckyaki, which is one of my most popular products, and so Bourbon Barrel Foods was born of those things.”
Jamie says while he was waiting for his first homemade barrels of soy sauce to mature, he was walking down an aisle at Whole Foods when he saw something that sparked an idea for another product.
“I was walking down the aisle at Whole Foods and saw a chardonnay smoked fleur de sel, which is sea salt that is about 20 dollars a pound out of France, and they were smoked with chardonnay barrels,” Jamie said his wheels started turning. “I had bourbon barrels at home, and I know how to smoke things, so I found a domestically harvested sea salt from the Pacific Ocean, which is a large crystal, bought some of that, and then smoked it on a Weber grill with barrel staves. I still have some of that salt.”
And because Jamie says that you don’t pass the salt without the pepper in his house, he developed a Bourbon Barrel Aged Smoked Pepper and Bourbon Barrel Aged Paprika.
“We started smoking cracked peppercorns,” Jamie recalls. “The whole corns we found rolled off the smoking trays a little too easily we went with the quarter cracked because they were more stationary, but also because they were cracked, they opened up the oils that are in the pepper, which any moisture in the smoker really sucks in the smoke.”
Jamie says they went on to develop their Barrel Aged Worcestershire Sauce and Kentuckyaki – both of which include bourbon and Kentucky sorghum as a sweetener, and they didn’t stop there.
“I saw an opportunity to really push the gourmet foods part of that Bourbon Country experience,” said Jamie. “We started launching more products and it just happened really and then the company became Bourbon Barrel Foods. We have close to 90 products now and licensing agreements with Brown-Forman brands.”
Partnership & Process
Jamie credits his exclusive partnership with Brown-Forman, whose labels include Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, with helping grow the brand.
“Our partnership is with Brown-Forman and Brown-Forman brands,” said Jamie. “I think I’ve turned down pretty much every brand that’s approached us because my contract won’t let me work with anyone else, and that’s fine. They’re an awesome partner. They’ve been very important to our growth.”
Every Bourbon Barrel Food product is either aged in or smoked with a used bourbon barrel, or includes bourbon as an ingredient, and the barrel or the bourbon always comes from Brown-Forman.
“There’s the barrel-aged aspect of it where all we’re doing is aging in a barrel,” said Jamie. “The barrels we’re using the bourbon has been in there about seven years, and so the wood soaks up the bourbon, so we’re not adding any bourbon to those products that are barrel-aged, it’s just pulling those flavors out of the wood.
“And then the smoking part of it. We’re not actually adding bourbon to anything that we smoke. We’re just smoking with barrel staves that have been in contact with bourbon for about seven years. Oak is culinarily thought of as a very rich wood to smoke with. It burns slowly; it offers that buttery flavor, but it’s unique because that oak that we’re smoking with has that bourbon flavor in it.
“We have some products where we actually add bourbon as an ingredient, there’s not a whole lot of them, but we do do it that way.”
Bourbon Barrel Foods also has barrel-aged bitters, cocktail syrups, and cocktail cherries made specifically for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. Jamie says there’s a secondary market for these barrels.
“For the bitters we barrel age, we have people contact us that want to buy those barrels to age sometimes its beer, sometimes is bourbon that they want to age in the barrels that we’ve done bitters in.”
Journeying to Japan
Despite all of their growth, Bourbon Barrel Food’s soy sauce remains its signature product. It remains the only micro-brewed soy sauce made in the United States and the only soy sauce in the world fermented and aged in bourbon barrels.
While Jamie taught himself the art of soy sauce brewing by spending hours researching and looking up recipes online, he has perfected his craft through several trips to Japan. Jamie said he first made the trip to Japan after being sought out to be on a primetime Japanese television show, Sugoi Desune Shisatsudan.
“A talent search company contacted me out of LA that had been trying to find me for the number one rated show in Japan,” said Jamie. “The premise of the show was to bring someone into Japan that was doing something that was traditionally Japanese outside of Japan.
“I didn’t make my first trip to Japan until we had been making soy sauce for about 10 years. And when I went over there, they felt that was probably the most important part of our story is that we didn’t go over there and then just start making what they had.”
Jamie says there are several critical differences between traditional Japanese soy sauce and his Bluegrass soy sauce.
“Our product is a much bolder flavor,” said Jamie. “We use hard water to make it, and they use soft water. Ours is aged in charred oak barrels; theirs is in Cyprus vats. There was some pushback initially about the hard water. They thought it was too harsh, but I explained to them that’s what we use in this part of the world. That is what makes bourbon great, and that is what makes our soy sauce different and just as tasty.”
Jamie said while the trip was short, a mere two days, the entire experience helped him to tweak his own methods.
“The experience was phenomenal, being on camera recording everything I was learning and witnessing for the first time it was important to us because it only made us better,” said Jamie. “I was on the phone while we were filming talking to my production team, ‘we need to change this right away, we need to do it like this, save this, do it this way.’
“The decision to go [to Japan] at that point was not mine and I believe everything happens for a reason. That was the universe bringing me there to help me get better at what we were doing and to help tell our story!”
As part of the show, Jamie was paired up to work with Toshio Shinko of Yuasa Soy Sauce in Wakayama, Japan, the birthplace of soy sauce. Shinko and his family have been brewing soy sauce for 130 years and have been awarded Best Soy Sauce in the World 15 times. The pair struck up a friendship.
“He has come to visit me twice I have been over there five times,” said Jamie. “Actually, when he came to visit, I brought him to Woodford Reserve. I was going to go again this year but COVID kind of squashed that. I’m going to try to get back next year.”
After his initial trip to film for the television show, Jamie returned to Japan three weeks later for a trade show to meet with importers and continued to build a network of people who has a passion similar to his.
“I toured the Kikkoman factory,” said Jamie, “I went to Wakayama, which is the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce and walked the streets and smelled what was going on there. At one point there were 500 soy sauce breweries in this city. I visited the temple where the monk, that brought Japanese style fermentation from China to Japan, that they built. Seeing that kind of history and witnessing it firsthand where I’d only read about it was enlightening, it was eye-opening. It told me that I was on the right path and that what I had chosen to do was really going to work.
Jamie’s initial vision for a Bluegrass Soy Sauce has now expanded into a line of four different soy sauces.
“We do our Bluegrass Soy Sauce, our double fermented soy sauce it ages 18 months with a secondary fermentation that we call Imperial Soy Sauce,” explains Jamie. “We do a Bourbon Smoked Soy Sauce, so we put trays of soy sauce in our smokers and we smoke it with barrel staves, and then we also do a Small Batch Bourbon Ponzu. And ponzu traditionally has sake in it but we use 100 proof Old Forrester in ours.”
‘Eat Your Bourbon’ Empire Continues to Expand
Bourbon Barrel Foods is more than just their food products. Jamie has expanded his bourbon food empire to include a ‘Eat Your Bourbon’ cookbook which includes a range of recipes featuring his products.
And while all of his products are handcrafted in small batches in Louisville, Kentucky you can visit Jamie’s Flagship Store and Eat Your Bourbon marketplace, located at 2708 and 2710 Frankfort Avenue in Louisville Kentucky.
The Bourbon Barrel Foods Flagship Store and Eat Your Bourbon Marketplace offers a gourmet food experience combining Bourbon Barrel Foods’ products with prepared foods and craft cocktails. You can also purchase Bourbon Barrel Foods products online at bourbonbarrelfoods.com.