Shortly after sidling up to a table at Duffy’s Tavern in Forest Park, owner Joe Sullivan greeted us with a broad smile and deposited an unlabeled bottle on our table.
“That’s the brisket whiskey,” Sullivan announced. “We made it with white corn whiskey and dehydrated smoked brisket from Small Batch and let it sit for 10 days before freezing it and removing the fat.”
We smelled the whiskey, noted its slightly different viscosity, and observed some protein particles floating in the bottle. We would have to wait for a taste, but the mere thought of “brisket whiskey,” with its flavors of ancho chili and garlic, perfectly encapsulated the theme of Forest Park’s latest food-and-drink mash-up.
Smoke, Fat, and Whiskey brought Small Batch Barbecue and Duffy’s Tavern together to deliver a quartet of food and drink pairings to interested folks on Sunday, March 1.
Greg Stinton, owner of Small Batch Barbecue, kicked off the afternoon when he placed his hot link corndog bites alongside Sullivan’s oatmeal bourbon cocktail.
Sullivan steeped Knob Creek rye whiskey with cinnamon and oatmeal before serving it with Orgeat syrup, frothy egg whites and a dash of nutmeg. Orgeat syrup, made from almonds, rose water, orange water and sugar, brought both floral notes and earthiness to the mix.
The cocktail, lovely on its own, only benefitted from the smart corndog pairing. A diminutive version of a regular Small Batch menu item, the corn dog bites smacked of a county fair thanks to sweet hushpuppy batter and house-made, smoked hot link sausages.
“The pairing works because of the sweetness in the hushpuppy batter and the spice in the sausage,” said Stinton. “Both balance out the nuttiness in the drink.”
A smoked Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned served alongside a smoked prime rib slider proved to be the standout pairing of the day. Gentle but notable smoke flavor permeated the cocktail, evoking camping trips and backyard bonfires. Stinton’s prime rib slider, garnished with caramelized onions and creamy Dijon, tasted like a proper Sunday dinner and offered enough richness to temper the authoritative cocktail. The pairing felt indulgent and timeless.
Next up, the brisket whiskey transformed into a “brisketini.” Pickled vegetable garnishes brought a sense of whimsy to the cocktail, finished with dry vermouth. Look, not everyone wants meat in their drinks, but as far as bold choices go Sullivan brought undeniable flair to the table with his cocktail offering. A pork and pineapple slider with gouda cheese and house-made bacon jam brought needed sweetness to the savory drink.
“Did you make the bacon jam?” we asked.
“Yes,” said Stinton.
“Shut up!” we said in surprise and appreciation.
“We don’t buy anything we can make ourselves,” replied Stinton.
The final offering, “Grandma’s Candied Whiskey,” featured Wild Turkey spiked with Werther’s candies.
“We chopped up 23 Werther’s candies and added them to the bottle,” said Sullivan, “and from there the whisky did the work.”
The buttery shot paired nicely with Small Batch Barbecue’s cinnamon sugar donuts.
Duffy’s Tavern boasts a laid-back, welcoming, community-minded focus. Sullivan was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans with a straw fedora. He’s got a hipster beard and an ease with people that draws them in. And he’s always ready for a laugh. Duffy’s has a cool young-person vibe while still being a Forest Park neighborhood bar.
Sullivan said he and Stinton came up with the idea for the event after his friend Ed Pogue, who was present to help prepare the beverages, smoked the whiskey at a New Year’s Eve party. It’s actually called “hacking” whiskey, i.e. changing the liquor to add a different taste dimension. In this case, smoke.
Sullivan’s son recently gifted him with the book “Hacking Whiskey” by Aaron Goldfarb, and Sullivan started experimenting. A ticketed event could be a lot of fun, the trio thought, and focused on the slower months in the winter when not much was going on and people needed to get out of the house.
Sullivan and Stinton met 12 years ago. Their work cubicles were next to each other, Sullivan a graphic designer and Stinton a programmer. They became friends and now both own businesses on Madison Street.
Sullivan even convinced Stinton to move to Forest Park, and they live a few houses from each other.
“Now? I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Stinton.
For Small Batch, Stinton added that his goal is to maintain high quality — but also to experiment.
“Monotony is a killer,” he said. He plans to bring the offerings from the pairing event to the restaurant. The prime rib slider may soon be available on Sundays. If it is, do not miss it.
Stinton also talked about the importance of sustainability and moves he’s been making to increase environmental measures at the restaurant. He pointed out that the small plates used to serve the food are compostable.
In response to Stinton’s abilities, Sullivan didn’t hold back.
“That boy can cook,” said Sullivan.
Their friendship brought a unique pairing of food and drink to Duffy’s. Both the environment and the drinks paired perfectly with low and slow barbecue offerings. Here’s hoping these types of collaborations occur more frequently in Forest Park.
Editor’s note: Oak Park Eats and Forest Park Review writers purchased their tickets to this event and contents of this review reflect the opinions of the writers.