You've heard of a wine sommelier, but bourbons need some lovin', too. And the man behind Southern Hospitality's newest expansion into Denver, chef Victor Matthews, is just the man to bring bourbon to the forefront of the American bar.
"Bourbon is our native spirit," said Matthews in an interview. "You can't be driving around America with an 'I love America' sticker and drink Scotch; it doesn't work like that. If you really love America, you drink bourbon," he said.
Why the love affair with bourbon? For Matthews, it's an affair that began far away from the Rocky Mountains. A "Southern boy" born in Kentucky, he moved to Louisiana and trained to be a chef in New Orleans. After cooking for more than 15 years in New Orleans (and winning several awards), he decided to escape the heat and head to what he knew: the mountains. He settled in Colorado in 1999, and opened the Black Bear Restaurant in Green Mountain Falls, Colo. Black Bear Restaurant, which Matthews described as "little log cabin joint back in the woods," established its name in Colorado and beyond, thanks to five-star training and rave reviews.
While working at Black Bear (and opening Paragon Culinary School in Colorado Springs, Colo.), he met a friend, Gary Tedder, and his nephew, Ryan Tedder. "I knew Ryan before he could legally drink," Matthews said of the now frontman of the band One Republic. While Matthews was establishing Black Bear Restaurant as a fine-dining restaurant (with a killer bourbon program), Tedder was teaming up with star Justin Timberlake on his newest venture, Southern Hospitality. When the pair decided to bring the New York restaurant to Denver, they asked Matthews to get on board to head up the bourbon program. The restaurant is set to start construction this October at the St. Elmo Hotel.
Tha's when Matthews kicked his "bourbon studies" up a notch. He did his research, hosting 20 different tastings and choosing more than 70 bourbons to be on the Southern Hospitality menu. It's the largest bourbon selection in all of Denver, Matthews says. It's his mission to change how the world views bourbon. The first problem: typically, a drinker's first introduction to bourbon is the Jim Bean — what Matthews calls "the low end." "If you're starting people on steak, you don't give them the grizzly crap," he said. "That's not how they learn to love steak. it's the same thing with bourbon: you grab Jim Bean, the normal pour, for anyone who wants to try bourbon, and they immediately hate it."
The second problem? How it's served. Bourbon on the rocks is the killer of any good bourbon. "When [the bourbon] hits the ice, a cold shock releases the off acids and flavors from the bourbon," he says, ruining the true taste. Chilling bourbon, like chilling a red wine, makes it lose its quality. And don't get him started on the abomination of a true bourbon cocktail. Take the Mint Julep: "It's done wrong almost everywhere," he says. Of the many, many Mint Juleps he's tried, Matthews says he's only had one good one out of 20 tried. When it's done right, when the mint balances with the bourbon, it's magical, he says. "Come to Black Bear and I will make you a proper Mint Julep — it will change your life," he says.
Therefore, Matthews has made bourbon education his pièce de résistance, at Southern Hospitality and beyond. Besides the 70-plus bourbons on tap and 24 bourbon cocktails on the menu at Southern Hospitality, Matthews will expand on his bourbon sommelier website, bourbonsomm.com, to certify more bartenders to understand the spirit. "Bourbon needs to be a big deal, because it really is the true American spirit," he says. We can all drink to that.