If there's one thing that might surpass chef Victor Matthews' enthusiasm for good Southern food, it's his passion for bourbon.
Both have influenced his 10-year ownership of the local Paragon Culinary School and 15-year ownership of the Black Bear Restaurant in Green Mountain Falls. (Fresh mint julep, anyone?) But neither of those experiences has quite the same tie-in to the South and "corn whiskey" as his newest duties as corporate master chef and food and beverage director for Bourbon Brothers Southern Kitchen, the north-end restaurant scheduled to open Monday.
Here you'll find what's believed to be the largest bourbon collection of any Colorado bar or dining establishment, a huge point of pride for Matthews and the team around him. But Bourbon Brothers is designed to be more than an amber-hued trophy case. It's a celebration of a segment of American history that's also recently become part of the craft-culture zeitgeist, and a destination that should help put Colorado Springs on the map for a growing legion of small-batch spirit lovers.
The project is big, but it's a natural for the Kentucky-born, North Carolina-raised and Louisiana-trained chef, who has now called the West home for 15 years. Bob Mudd, CEO of Bourbon Brothers Holding Co., says of him, "In Kentucky, everybody knows Victor Matthews."
And Matthews' excitement is palpable.
"I'm gonna have my Southern restaurant dream — in Colorado."
Roll out the barrels
Perched above Interstate 25 and North Gate Boulevard as part of the new Copper Ridge at Northgate development, Bourbon Brothers Southern Kitchen's 9,000-square-foot, 240-seat building (fondly referred to by Matthews as "Grandma's house") features massive windows and a whitewashed front porch. "If you sat here, that'd be your view," Matthews says from the porch, pointing at Pikes Peak, "and I'd be burying you in Southern love."
Inside, on the east side of the building sits a hall lined with barrels and wooden slats that let lines of light filter through to the floor, much like a traditional rack house. This space leads to another space with more barrels on the ceiling: the Bourbon Room.
Mudd explains that according to the primary suppliers in Colorado, West End Tavern in Boulder has most recently held the most expansive bourbon list. It markets itself as having more than 75 offerings, and at times has crested 100.
"On opening day we'll have 131," says Mudd of Bourbon Brothers. Or, "It may be 132. I just got another bottle from a friend. I was in Louisville last week."
According to Matthews, there are only about 15 main distilleries in the country. But those who live in the South have the opportunity to grab rare, special-edition or small-production bottles, meaning that "competing with Louisville or Lexington is relatively impossible." To stock more than 50 on a bar list, in fact, takes a lot of dedication and time. "To do that," he says, "you have to be very, very serious about bourbon."
Another point of pride for Matthews is that the bar will be able to get "really good bourbon into people's hands for the best prices anywhere." Buffalo Trace is the well offering, at $5 a glass, with Maker's Mark as the premium well at $8. At the high end, there's a Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 23 Year for $56. Matthews says his most distinctive bourbon at opening will be the Hillrock Solera, from New York, which uses sherry casks in the making.
"What our desire is, is to introduce people to the culture of bourbon," explains Mudd. "To present the opportunity for people to learn how to mix with it, to learn how to cook with it. And so it's not gonna be just a restaurant." Mixologists will host ongoing free public trainings, and experts from the South, such as author Bernie Lubbers (known as "The Whiskey Professor"), will visit to share their knowledge with customers.
"I grew up in central Kentucky, and as a function of that, we're trying to create that cultural experience that really is a social experience as much as it is anything," says Mudd, who left 15 years of running tech companies to move to Colorado Springs in 2009 and become chief operating officer of Children's HopeChest, an international orphan care ministry.
Coming on with Bourbon Brothers in November has given him the opportunity to bring here what he most misses about Kentucky: "I'm really focused on having a Southern experience outside of the South."
State of the state
It may seem odd for such an emphasis on bourbon in a land where beer reigns supreme and weed is closing in fast. But the craft liquor business is also growing by leaps and bounds in Colorado, as can be seen in expansion happening around the state.
Last summer, Breckenridge Distillery expanded into a space that took the company from a 320-barrel capacity to 3,700 barrels. Denver's Leopold Bros. is constructing a new distillery, which when complete will house more than 2,000 barrels and may hold 20,000 pounds of sprouting barley on the floor. Even here in the Springs, two-year-old Distillery 291 moved last summer from a 339-square-foot space into the 7,500-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Bristol Brewing Company, next to the Blue Star.
All three of these companies will have product stocked inside Bourbon Brothers; Matthews notes that he plans to carry every Colorado bourbon currently being produced. That means he'll also be carrying product from Loveland's Spring44, where the head distiller is Rob Masters, president of the Colorado Distillers Guild.
"Even just six years ago," Masters says, "when things really started to grow, there's no way any of us thought that we'd have product in a chain restaurant in suburban Colorado Springs. That right there just goes to show that things are on the up and up for craft distilling."
In another good sign locally, the American Craft Distillers Association selected Denver for its inaugural national distillers convention this March. The three-day event offers sessions such as "brand building" and "exporting" among a generous selection of happy hours, "Bloody Mary mornings" and the like. There's also a "Showcase" event where award-winning bartenders will pour "artisan spirits and craft cocktails" of all kinds.
Which will surely be exciting to some, though if it were up to Matthews, the event could skip over the gins, vodkas and whiskeys. As he puts it, "This is America. Drink bourbon or get out." Then he laughs.
"I have a friend who flies an American flag on the back of his truck. He's one of those guys. And he drinks scotch. And I'm like, 'Dude, really? You can't do that. You have to drink bourbon. I will find you a bourbon that tastes just like scotch. If you like Crown [Royal] or whatever, I will find you a bourbon that tastes like a Canadian whisky. I will help you, but you have to drink bourbon.'"
His reasoning? "Bourbon is the only American spirit."
Make mine maize
Details of the history of bourbon vary depending on who's talking, but according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, it began in the 1700s with the first settlers of Kentucky. "Like most farmers and frontiersmen," reads the KDA's website, "they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task. They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from simply rotting, and gave them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier."
As for how it came to be known as bourbon, "One of Kentucky's original counties was Bourbon County, established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia."
From here legend leads the story, with the tale of a Rev. Elijah Craig charring his barrels, either by accident or to sanitize them, before adding the liquor. By the time they reached their destination, their contents had taken on a caramel hue and smoky taste.
In the 20th century, Prohibition took a 200-some distillery industry down to basically nothing, aside from those producing "medicinal bourbon." (Sound familiar?) When repeal happened in 1933, Jim Beam at age 70 re-established his company, though he then had to fight a customer base that had gotten used to Canadian whisky.
Bourbon today is considered a whiskey, aka a distilled grain spirit, just one differentiated by 1964 U.S. law by a grain recipe of 51 percent or more corn, distilled at less than 160 proof. The original color and flavor cannot be altered or filtered. And it's to be aged for at least two years in charred, single-use oak barrels.
"Bourbon is one of really only two liquors that are kinda artisan," Matthews explains, "the other one being single malt scotch in Scotland, where they're seriously looking at the grains. They're goin' through the process painstakingly for years upon years. ... It has the things that bourbon has, that regular whiskey doesn't have.
"For instance, it's got these caramel notes. It's got these smoky, woody notes. It's got a lot of things that would remind you in some ways of wine tasting. And so I'm of the opinion that bourbon is the greatest of all liquors, when it comes to pairing with food."
Food, obviously, will be as important at Bourbon Brothers Southern Kitchen as the bourbon. Mudd explains that the company wants to be known for having a "scratch kitchen" — led by general manager Heather Robinson and executive chef Bon Hewlett, both formerly of Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.
"There's not gonna be anything squeezed out of a bag here," Mudd says. "All of our food, to the degree that is possible, is gonna be fresh, and all of the ingredients, the sauces, the rubs, are gonna be 100 percent made from scratch."
From pork chops and mac and cheese, to the fried seafood platter and the surf-n-turf (which is a petite filet and shrimp and grits), "the menu is gonna change your life," Matthews says. "My goal is to have everybody just freakin' out all the time. Like, 'I can't believe I can eat this!' And then have a drink and go, 'Wait a second. Buffalo Trace is the well here?' Buffalo Trace isn't even in 90 percent of the bars in the state of Colorado."
On top of that, he wants to cater to the "Bourbon Women." As he puts it, "Bourbon has always been a man thing, and that's not cool. ... We need to make bourbon accessible to everyone."
That in mind, he's developed a bourbon-based cocktail list that's about 30 drinks in length. Want a Bourbon Cosmo? Check. Bourbon Lemon drop? Check. Bourbon sweet tea, Bloody Mary or Coke? Check, check, check. Add homemade infusions, syrup and a house vermouth, and the list really is never-ending of what the bartenders — whom Matthews is training extensively to understand and present bourbon in a similar way to wine sommeliers — will be able to concoct.
"My goal is simple," Matthews says. "Affordable drink that'll blow your mind. Added to affordable food that'll blow your mind. Why would you go anywhere else?"