This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. In honor of Eater's Burger Week, Greene explores the world of Jack Daniel's and whiskey burger sauces.
It's 12:00 am and I am walking in the heart of New York City's Greenwich Village with a friend on one of those stinky sticky wet July evenings that I sort of love and hate at the same time. The "love" part will kick in five months later, when every bar and restaurant is jammed with tourists shoving Century 21 "I found a bargain!" bags and puffer jackets under barstools. I'll yearn for sleepy summertime New York and forget all about the "hate" part: Rats wiggling inside a pile of contractor bags, back sweat, and funk-filled air.
We are logy and non-committal about where to go for a post-shift drink, and so when a fledgling comedian hands us a two-for-one flyer and yells, "COME AND SEE ME PERFORM IN 10 MINUTES! RIGHT HERE!" We shrug, say "why not," and head down a damp set of stairs into a dingy basement comedy club for its evening's last performance. We sit on metal folding chairs and immediately an aging-hippy waiter demands that we must buy two drinks per act. "What whiskey to you have?" I ask. "Jack Daniel's," he says. We each order a double on the rocks, and he shuffles towards a back room in a pair of socks and open-toed slippers to get them. I notice he's wearing a scarf.
Jack Daniel's Is a Trip Down Memory Lane
I'm still not beyond drinking Jack Daniel's. A slithery Hamptons waiter served me a glass of it on a silver tray during a fancy shindig last summer, Pimm Fox talked to me about it while on Bloomberg News just before that, and once when a blind boy mistakenly took my duffle bag out of the belly of a bus in Budapest, a sweet Hungarian woman took me in for the night where she proudly served me Jack Daniel's and fried cheese. She made some phone calls to find my bag. "He's blind," she said over a neat pour. "It turns out that he didn't mean to steal your things."
Jack Daniel's fits in just about everywhere. It's tucked inside Frank Sinatra's coffin, sipped by that funny dog on Family Guy, hand-drawn on the cover of Mötley Crüe's trashy autobiography, and used as toothpaste by Ke$ha. Rustling amongst the pages of your own whiskey memories, Jack Daniel's may have played some small role. A sip yanks a chain of neurons like a hand on a stubborn dog's leash, releasing old memories lodged deep inside the brain's limbic system. Oh shit, I remember when...
But have you also noticed Jack Daniel's whiskey sauce is now slathered all over your hamburger? TGI Fridays cooks up a Jack Daniel's hamburger and the popular sauce is sold at Walmart. TGI Fridays and Jack Daniel's teamed-up back in 1997, well before whiskey was a water-cooler topic. The partnership proved so successful that there's an entire portion of the TGI Fridays menu devoted to Jack Daniel's, and a quick online search reveals hundreds of sites where consumers try to cook a version of it themselves. McDonald's — nearly two decades later — announced the release of its bourbon-flavored "Spirit of the Bluegrass Burger" this month. The chain knows whiskey is hot. Millennials like whiskey. Millennials are money. Marketers now scour opportunities to put the word "whiskey" or "bourbon" on products from soap to sauce. The skeptic in me wants to know, though: Does the type of whiskey ever matter in these sauces? Can you even taste whiskey, let alone a specific brand like Jack Daniel's?
There's an excellent way to test this kind of thing: Lather-up with a bunch of scented whiskey gels or conduct a blind tasting of various sauces. I chose the latter, and then sent an email to renowned Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier asking if she would join me in a whiskey-hamburger-sauce taste test. "I'm busy," Pascaline responded. "I'm visiting Nicole Austin at Kings County Distillery." Nicole is the Master Blender there, whose rye recently won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This was my opportunity to hang with yet another nosing superstar, eating hamburgers and drinking whiskey. "Bring her," I said.
A day later, the three of us were joined by Tommy Tardie, whiskey collector and owner of New York City's Flatiron Room, bartender Christian Molina, a dozen hamburgers, three bottles of whiskey, and six different sauces. I had asked chef Susan Burdian of the Flatiron Room — one of the best hamburger makers I know — to cook for us and keep us on-track for two different sauce tests.
The first test would be to determine, to the best to our abilities, whether the type of whiskey used in a sauce mattered. Chef Burdian was to create a traditional style barbecue sauce with a slight kick, something akin to what you might find in any backyard summer fete. Three sauces would contain different whiskies, one would be made without any whiskey at all. The second test required chef Burdian to re-create the Jack Daniel's TGI Fridays sauce. She cooked one sauce using Jack Daniel's, and one without. Would the Jack Daniel's matter in the Jack Daniel's sauce?
Taste Test One: Does the Type of Whiskey Matter?
Chef brought out four hamburgers labeled A, B, C, and D, covered in four different whiskey sauces. Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey, Four Roses Bourbon, and Laphroaig 10, a smoky, peated Scotch, were cooked into three separate sauces. One sauce contained no whiskey at all. Chef sliced the burgers like pie and we each grabbed warm triangle-shaped samples the minute she brought them out to us.
Nicole was the first to bite into every sample, making her way to "hamburger sample D," and declared "Laphroaig! I found the Laphroaig burger." The rest of us were still struggling to say anything of significance about hamburgers A, B, and C besides "wow these are really good." And "nice balance of sweet and tanginess with a pleasant kick." Nicole's discovery prompted the rest of us to drop whatever sample was in our hand and immediately taste what she claimed was the Laphroaig hamburger.
We all agreed. Pascaline said, "I can really taste the whiskey solids that remain after cooking off the ethanol. There are some phenols in here." Phenols are a type of molecular compound that can affect the taste and mouthfeel of a wine or whiskey. Peat smoke used to malt barley in Scotch Islay whiskies like Laphroaig contain a large number of phenols. The compounds are absorbed by the grain, and are carried right through the entire whiskey-making process and into the bottle. There's a little magic in the idea that we are tasting a bit of earthy, wistful Scotland in every bite. "If you really want to taste whiskey in your hamburger, this is the one to use," Tommy says.
I was rooting for the Jack Daniel's sauce to stand out amongst the four. We smelled and licked sauce-covered toothpick forks and tried to figure out which sauce contained Jack Daniel's. "This one tastes a little sweet, maybe like bananas or vanilla," Pascaline said of hamburger sauce C. Tommy correctly identified it as Jack Daniel's. Truth is, though, on a hamburger we couldn't really tell the difference between the Jack Daniel's and the Four Roses sauces. We used a surgeon's concentration in an attempt to detect different levels of sweetness, complexity, and tanginess as we tasted the sauces "naked." All of us surmised that a higher-proof whiskey or a big, sherry-influenced Scotch might express personality through a barbecue hamburger sauce, the way the Laphroaig did.
Test One Conclusion: Use Laphroaig in a barbecue sauce for maximum impact.
Nicole: "If you want to taste a whiskey, you have to use a big whiskey like Laphroaig. Something like a 21-year-old vintage bourbon could work too. I would punch you for doing that, but it could work."
Pascaline: "The whole idea of a Bourbon sauce is gimmicky if you reduce the sauce extensively. You need a dry extract — the phenols. Something that remains after cooking down. Otherwise it doesn't matter. Also, here's what's interesting: You don't have to like Laphroaig to like the burger."
Tommy: "For the sake of these big-brand partnerships, it's all marketing. The whiskey will be camouflaged too much to make a difference unless you use something big like Laphroaig, and in that case, you are delivering what you say it is — a whiskey sauce."
Test Two: Does Jack Daniel's Matter In Jack Daniel's Sauce?
Chef brought out two more hamburgers and two sauces that resembled the flavor profile of the most popular Jack Daniel's sauce that you'd find at TGI Fridays and Walmart. One sauce contained Jack Daniel's, one sauce did not.
On the first bite of hamburger sample A, I couldn't help myself and blurted, "Agh that's too sweet and sticky!" I actually winced. Everyone agreed it tasted like mall teriyaki sauce. It also gave the same sensation of maple syrup on sausages: fatty, salty, and sweet all at once. Though a diner breakfast delivers a fun experience, on a hamburger it just seemed... wrong. No one liked it. This was the sauce made without the Jack Daniel's.
Adding the Jack Daniel's improved the taste dramatically; the cloying sweetness dropped to a more palatable level and knocked flavors into reasonable balance. Table opinion was tough on this sauce either way, though — the lack of subtlety and overwhelming sense of sugar on the tongue proved a bit much for this group. Despite our lackluster opinion of this meat sauce, we all recommend that if a consumer wants to simulate the popularity of TGI Fridays sauce at home, adding whiskey is important. And for those who don't want booze in their sauce? Don't make this style. Unless of course, you love sugar.
Test Two Conclusion: TGI Fridays-style hamburger sauce requires whiskey.
Nicole: "If you want a slightly different (better) sauce, throw booze in it. Whatever booze, pick a booze, any booze. This needs booze to make it taste okay."
Pascaline: "At the end of the day, you need a good, quality sauce at the base. This isn't it. Any simulation of this sauce requires whiskey to cut its sweetness. My guess is that the oak and tannins are helping."
Tommy: "No consumer ever asks what kind of whiskey is included in the sauce. It's all branding if you ask me. Everyone's riding on the coattails of the bourbon craze. Soon Happy Meals will include mouth harps."
Jack Daniel's and TGI Fridays were onto something way back in 1997: Whiskey used in a sauce does improve taste. The alcohol creates a chemical reaction in the sauce that affects the favor in a dish, even after it cooks off. What also matters is the kind of whiskey used. Big personality whiskies like Islay will change the flavor of a sauce. We also predict that high proof whiskies cooked for less time, aged whiskies with years of wood exposure, or sherry cask-influenced whiskies like the Macallan or Glendronach will affect flavor too. Finally, the person making your food is a significant factor. No amount of whiskey could wreck a hamburger with chef Burdian at the helm — especially after drinking two double-pours of Jack.
Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.