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Chef Edward Lee Goes from Brooklyn Kitchens to Kentucky Bourbon

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Chef Edward Lee in the kitchen of MilkWood, a restaurant he founded in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. John Brecher / NBC News

Chef Edward Lee describes himself as "one part Southern soul, one part Asian spice, and one part New York attitude," and his recipes pull from all parts of his background. Raised in Brooklyn and trained in New York, former Top Chef contestant Lee has now spent 10 years in Louisville, Kentucky, building his critically-acclaimed restaurant -- 610 Magnolia, its sister speakeasy - MilkWood, and writing about his journeys and recipes along the way (his book, Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, was published last year.) The multiple James Beard Award nominee is now branching out from the kitchen and into the distillery, blending the unique flavors that inspire his food into his own line of whiskey. In this guest essay, he shares how that project first began, not surprisingly, after a few drinks.

Image: Chef Edward Lee
Chef Edward Lee was raised in New York in a Korean immigrant family, and now calls Kentucky home. His acclaimed cuisine, overlapping flavors pulled from all parts of his background, can now be enjoyed with his own chef-inspired whiskey. John Brecher / NBC News

The best ideas happen over a bottle of whiskey. It relaxes the mind, loosens the tongue and slows the banter just enough to listen at a scholar’s pace.

I’ve been in Louisville 10 years now, and I’ve spent many an evening enjoying this custom. To be clear, I’m not talking about a rowdy fist pumping night of throwing down shots. It’s more of a slow but determined undertaking where the ice has a chance to melt and the cigar burns down to a compact nub of ash.

It was on a night like this in the summer of 2012 when Trey Zoeller of Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon and I conjured up the idea of a chef-inspired whiskey. One that would find a home in the modern cuisine that embraced bolder flavors like smoke and fish sauce and bitter greens and the notion that sweet and savory are not separated by easy lines.

Tasting Bourbon Whiskey 0:57

I wanted a whiskey that was not too precious but not too simple either. One that was not too aggressive but not too pandering. Trey was clever and crazy enough to make it happen. And after a few drinks, anything seems possible.

For a chef to have a hand in blending whiskey is a dream. For me, it was the culmination of a long journey that started in a small tenement apartment building in Brooklyn. It was unlikely for me to become a chef, even more unlikely that I would end up spending a decade in that role in Kentucky. Being able to blend my own whiskey -- to be part of a tradition dating back hundreds of years to the beginnings of the American spirits movement -- was something I'd never imagined would materialize.

I wanted a whiskey that was not too precious but not too simple either. One that was not too aggressive but not too pandering.

In many ways the idea of my name glazed onto a bottle of bourbon means more to me than the contents of the glass or the pleasure we take in emptying the bottle. I marvel everyday at the fact that the humble roots of bourbon, buried deep in small town distilleries in the rolling hills of Kentucky, have now branched out across the globe. The world is a smaller place these days. It gives me goosebumps to think how far and wide the bourbon will travel.

Our first blending was an experiment. I knew, and still know, very little about distilling whiskey. What I do know is flavor and how they harmonize with each other. So we approached the blending as one would approach the creation of a new dish.

Image: Chef Edward Lee and Trey Zoeller
Trey Zoeller, master blender of Jefferson's Bourbon, and chef Edward Lee at Lee's restaurant MilkWood in Louisville, Ky. John Brecher / NBC News

We found barrels with distinct flavor profiles and trying to layer them on top of each other to create a cohesive yet complex finish. We tasted through over 50 barrel samples from ages varying from six to 18 years. We took notes on every blend we tried.

Unlike wine, bourbon is high in alcohol especially when you are tasting barrel proof whiskey at levels of 110 proof and higher. We could only taste a few blends per day. It was a long process.

And to think, all this began at a bar drinking a bottle of whiskey well past my bedtime.

Trey came up with the idea of adding Rye whiskey to the bourbon blend. It gives it spice and a nice punch at the end of a lingering sweetness. We loved it but who else would? We had no idea what to expect. We made 2500 cases and hoped people would buy it. It sold out of the warehouse in a week.

I never imagined Trey and I would be bottling a second run so soon. I never imagined we would be quadrupling production. But here we are, tasting and blending again. And to think, all this began at a bar drinking a bottle of whiskey well past my bedtime.

---Edward Lee

Image: Chef Edward Lee
Edward Lee, founder of the restaurant MilkWood in downtown Louisville, Ky. talks about some fresh pink-eyed peas with executive chef Kevin Ashworth in the kitchen. John Brecher / NBC News