Crafting Soy Sauce in the South: Up Close & Personal with Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods
Who: Matt Jamie
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Occupation: Founder and Owner, Bourbon Barrel Foods
The beginning. Bourbon Barrel Foods began the way most great ideas do: After a few drinks at an oyster bar in Gainesville, Florida, Matt Jamie had a realization. “I said, you know, no one’s microbrewing soy sauce in the U.S.”
Having cooked his way through college, Jamie had recently returned to the kitchen following a stint in grad school when the soy sauce inspiration struck. Though he’d done triathlons for ten years and had been pursuing a master’s in exercise physiology at the University of Florida, one year into the program he realized that he had his profession and his hobby reversed. “Developing food flavor and products comes naturally to me. And I was just realizing that this is where my passion lies, not in running 75 miles a week and biking 300. It was food.”
“I don’t want to do something that’s already been done. Where’s the glamour and romance in that?”
Although he was working at a restaurant at the time, Jamie knew he was never going to be a career chef. However, a perk of his job was that it required him to be aware of food trends, and at the time, the artisanal movement was heating up. “This was in maybe 2003, and there was a back-to-basics approach—you saw coffee roasters opening up in neighborhoods and artisan bread companies, olive oil and balsamic vinegar were getting really popular. I was seeing those kinds of trends and thinking, well, what hasn’t been done yet? I don’t want to do something that’s already been done. Where’s the glamour and romance in that?”
The answer, it turned out, was handcrafted soy sauce. Though he knew nothing about it and had never been to Japan (where small batch soy sauce is commonplace), Jamie thought it might be interesting to pursue. “So, you have an idea like that, and the first thing you do is Google it to see if, in fact, no one is doing it in the U.S. Turns out nobody was. After you figure that out, you ask, well, why aren’t they doing it? I couldn’t figure out a good enough reason not to do it.”
Bringing it home. Jamie began investigating soy sauce production, had his second child in 2005, and moved back to Louisville, Kentucky, where he’d grown up. There, as he continued his research, he found parallels between the manufacturing and production process for soy sauce and the area’s most famous product: bourbon. “They were very similar, both in the way they’re made, but also in history and heritage. Soy sauce is naturally brewed. It’s varying percentages of soybeans and wheat, water is a really important ingredient, we use sea salt, and then there’s the yeast. In bourbon, you’ve got to be 51 percent corn, and it’s fermented in cypress tanks. When it’s done at a smaller level, it’s very similar to what the Japanese cottage soy sauce industry is.”
Part of Jamie’s research involved working with the University of Kentucky Agricultural Economics and Marketing departments. The school aligned him with a farmer in Kentucky who was growing non-GMO soybeans for the Japanese soy and miso market. “So, beans grown pretty much in my backyard are already being grown for the soy sauce industry in Japan. The water in Kentucky is legendary, it’s one of the reasons the bourbon industry is so prevalent here; there’s this limestone bed that runs the length of the state that the water filters through. The water picks up minerals and nutrients, which makes it a very hard water, so it gives bourbon body, which is why the distillers like it. It does the same thing for soy sauce. And the minerals and nutrients that are in the water help the yeast to grow.
“So, we’ve got these non-GMO soybeans being grown in Kentucky, and this [local] water source. The wheat that we use is soft red winter wheat; bourbons don’t typically have wheat in them, but some bourbons that are wheated use a soft red winter variety. And then to complete the story, we age the sauce in bourbon barrels for twelve months to ensure that it’s something very special.”
“I’m a blond-haired guy in Kentucky who makes soy sauce.”
The buzz. From the beginning, the soy sauce had a captive audience, which Jamie chalks up to having a good story to tell. “I’m a blond-haired guy in Kentucky who makes soy sauce. It’s weird. I think that a lot of the attention we were getting [after launching] was based on how interesting the concept was. But it’s one thing to just be interesting and have a product that sounds cool. You’re nothing if you don’t back it up with a quality product.”
A grassroots effort to get the sauce into the hands of chefs was effective, too. Talented chefs enjoy rock star-like status these days, so when they use the product, talk about it, and feature it on their menus, people become familiar with it and more likely to pick it up when they see it in a store. Adding fuel to the marketing fire: In 2008, The New York Times put Jamie and his product on the front page of the Wednesday Food & Dining section. “Since then,” Jamie says, “It’s kind of snowballed.”
Though soy sauce is its claim to fame, Bourbon Barrel Foods is not a one-trick pony. While brewing the first batch of soy sauce in the basement, Jamie knew he had to do something to generate some revenue while it went through the twelve-month aging process. So, he developed products that have a barrel or bourbon country influence to them, including bourbon smoked sea salt, bourbon smoked pepper, and bourbon smoked paprika. They now have more than 30 products in their line, including a barrel-aged Worcestershire sauce, Kentuckyaki (Jamie’s version of teriyaki with bourbon and sorghum in it), and bourbon smoked togarashi. In addition, for the past four years, Bourbon Barrel Foods has been producing a licensed and branded line for Woodford Reserve that includes cocktail and culinary products.
“Louisville is such a small town, that project started at swim practice for my kids. The daughter of the production manager of Woodford Reserve was on the same swim team as my daughter, and I told him that I had a Japanese-owned distillery coming in for a tour and that I thought it would be the perfect segue into the Japanese market.” The production manager told the master distiller at Woodford about the tour, who apparently didn’t like the idea of Jamie partnering with somebody else, and within months a contract was drawn up.
Next up for Jamie is a cookbook, due out at the end of the year, called Eat Your Bourbon. The same title is used for a series of cooking classes that takes place in the theater kitchen located at the Bourbon Barrel Food offices, during which Jamie or a guest chef will create a dish that incorporates a product. Previously a boardroom, the moment Jamie walked through the door of the current offices he envisioned it as a kitchen studio. “I didn’t need a boardroom, but you can imagine the educational hurdle that a company like mine has. So we’re drawing people in to experience what we make, and teaching them how to use it.” All of the appliances were donated by General Electric—their appliance division is local—and the studio also serves as a site for dinner parties and a set for a cooking show.
While chefs have come up with inventive applications for Jamie’s soy sauce, including turning it into jam and spinning it into powder, his favorite thing to eat with it is closer to comfort food: noodles with parmesan, soy sauce, and a little bit of hot sauce, with some butter melted in. “There’s just something about the richness of the butter and soy sauce blended together,” Jamie says. The sauce, he adds, enhances the flavor of everything. “It’s that fifth flavor profile that’s described as umami. It’s meaty, it’s leathery, it’s briney, it has a little sweetness to it. I carry it with me all the time.”
“When I started the company and did the business plan, I never really thought about how many people I would employ. It’s gratifying.”
The next big thing. According to Jamie, the future possibly holds additional retail stores (they opened one in the Butchertown neighborhood back in January, and have had offers to open them locally in Lexington and Bardestown, as well as nationally in locations including Denver, Houston, Dallas, and Nashville); exporting product to Japan (“Can you imagine making soy sauce in Kentucky and selling it to the Japanese?” Jamie asks. “It would be absolutely incredible, and they’re interested”); and, of course, launching new products.
Obviously, Jamie isn’t doing all of this alone. Bourbon Barrel Foods currently employs 22 people, including Jamie’s father, who handles logistics; he grew up with his sales director, who is his best friend; the head of production and all the soy sauce brewing has been with him for years, as has the operations manager; and he just brought a graphic designer in-house who he’s worked with for years. At Bourbon Barrel Foods headquarters, Jamie is the only person in the company who doesn’t have an office. Instead, he sits at a 10-foot farm table in the kitchen and walks around checking in with people desk by desk. “When I started the company and did the business plan, I never really thought about how many people I would employ. It’s gratifying. I enjoy seeing everybody in here.”
MATT JAMIE’S LOUSVILLE MUST LIST
Shop: “Definitely shop on Frankfort Avenue (where our store is). And in the front of our office building, which is located in Butchertown, there’s a great home furnishings store called Work the Metal.”
Eat: “I don’t often crave certain dishes, but Milkwood, a restaurant owned by Edward Lee (one of our local celebrity chefs), does this ramen that is just mind-blowing, and also a pork burger that I crave. It’s absolutely delicious. And Seviche on Bardstown Road is always great.”
Tour: “There’s a new distillery in Butchertown called Copper and Kings, and they distill brandy. They saved an old, rundown building, and put in an incredible experience. It’s a great tour, and showcases our neighborhood really well. There’s a lot of innovation happening in Butchertown.”
Bourbon Barrel Foods // Louisville, Kentucky // 502.333.6103
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