Meet the Flavorman
Among the refreshments offered to students at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky, cans of bourbon Coke stand out, first because the drink tastes like a powerful whiskey and cola and second because it's nonalcoholic. It's just a little something flavor maniac Dave Dafoe whipped up for fun.
"I want to flavor the world!" laughed Dafoe, not entirely joking as about 20 students -- ranging from veteran local bartenders to thirsty tourists -- file into a former mechanic's-garage-turned-booze-school known as the Distilled Spirits Epicenter.
Dafoe, founder of a Louisville-based flavor consultancy called Flavorman, runs the ambitiously named, 4000-square-foot center encompassing a classroom, distillery and bottling line. Here, as part of the curriculum of Moonshine U, students can take week-long courses in opening their own artisan distilleries or casual 2-hour "enthusiast" classes exploring topics from Prohibition bathtub gin to pairing bourbon with chocolate.
"This is the unofficial distilling center of the country," said Dafoe, referring to Louisville, home to dozens of pubs and restaurants with over 50 bourbons behind the bar, known as the Urban Bourbon Trail, and the gateway to the nine-distillery-strong Kentucky Bourbon Trail and associated cooperages, label companies and pot distillery forgers.
Anyone with an interest in whiskey could learn a thing or two from Dafoe. The 50-year-old launched Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, developed Jack Daniel's cocktails like Lynchburg Lemonade and helped popularize the entire adult soda category by formulating early editions of Jones Sodas.
Today, he's renowned for his palate, but back in 1986, when he applied for a job at a flavor company and took his first taste test, he was unaware of his gift. The challenge consisted of five soufflé cups filled with what looked like water, with no color or texture. "The first one tasted like an orange," he recalled. "The second tasted like a pork chop. I remember thinking, 'That is so ridiculous.' But they urged me to say the first thing to mind, and I was right. I got all five."
Working with a flavor chemist, he tasted individual flavor chemicals -- benzaldyhyde, for example, is a cherry-flavor booster produced by a crushed peach pit -- cataloged them in his mind and then applied them to his creations. "You use those almost like a chef," he explained. "It's like making a tomato sauce, then you add the spices. Add a different spice, you get a different outcome. They are called flavor ingredients, but they are the same as spices in cooking."
Beverages like the NA bourbon Coke and gin-and-tonic-flavored soft drinks that are served at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter reveal Dafoe's playful side. Over the years, Dafoe has concocted savory drinks like habanero-spiced mango juice, a canned ham Jones soda as a joke for "The Late Show with David Letterman" and even a fish taco soda ("it was awful"). Lately, he's been playing with the flavor-of-the-moment, pomegranate, but believes the future could belong to the yumberry, an exotic that's "between a strawberry and an apple with a tropical twist."
"I've had a lot of drinks with Dave and his palate covers not only sodas, but he's got an excellent wine palate and his whiskey palate is outstanding," said Joe Heron, president of Crispin Cider, who engaged Flavorman to assist in formulating its hard cider. "That's his art really. Knowing what can work is different than knowing what will work."
Noting the ascent of micro-distilleries and the lack of schools teaching distilling, Dafoe opened the Distilled Spirits Epicenter next door to Flavorman last year. Here, those who have designs on making their own line of ryes, vodkas or gins come to tinker with the 250-gallon pot stills, cookers and fermenters under the tutelage of master distillers and beverage scientists, supplemented by experts from the worlds of distribution, marketing and law. Students have traveled from 13 states, Canada and Vietnam to learn the craft.
Tasting-focused enthusiast classes draw many in the local Louisville bar and restaurant business who can readily detect the difference between Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. Good-humored instructors and the occasional video of a guest instructor over-sampling his own recipes in the name of research keep the sessions light and lively.
"Louisville is this crazy epicenter of liquor appreciation coming from these families who have been in the distilling business forever," said Jacquelyn Zykan, bar director at La Coop and Doc Crow's restaurants, who shook up a few Prohibition-era cocktails for a recent program at the center. "And we like to talk about it while we're drinking it."
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