Ken Klehm, former owner of the now-shuttered Rocket Club, is the type of person that might bring you a gift of pure absinthe and an authentic machete from a trip to Mexico. It's not carelessness that makes him do such things. Maybe a touch of recklessness, to be sure. But mostly, Klehm's mischievous side is a good part overly intelligent, dangerously curious schoolboy, watching to see what happens when all of the elements of trouble are thrown together. Whether for good or for ill, Klehm sometimes brings these sensibilities to the bar.
What happens if you mix bacon fat with moonshine then throw some absinthe in it? What happens if you steep that fat in top-quality bourbon and then muddle it with peaches?
"Fun with bacon," Klehm says, practically giggling as he plunks a crate of clanking bottles and jars, some filled with brown liquids with fat globules bobbing on the surface, on the bar. He pulls out an old-fashioned soda bottle, a bottle of Patron XO, some half-and-half and a jar of mostly clear liquid, save for a faint cloudiness. In the jar? Bacon-infused corn-whiskey.
Klehm has stopped by my east Asheville home to demonstrate a bit of the new craft that he's picked up to bide his time while he writes resumés and enjoys the peace of life after business ownership. Klehm, perhaps missing the behind-the-bar tinkering at the Rocket Club, has been busy infusing liquor at home with that most delicious and carcinogenic of foodstuffs — bacon.
That jar of bacon-infused corn whiskey is the first to be popped open, and suddenly a bottle of Licor 43 and another of Chambord has materialized. Klehm deftly mixes a drink and proffers one to his cousin Ben Landen, visiting from China. Landen’s been busy lamenting the quality of the bacon in his home country and looks especially excited. The other murky beverage, served appropriately enough in a mason jar, finds its way into my hand.
"What are we going to call this debacle?" I ask, swirling the dark brew around in my glass, eying it with one part anticipation and one part dubious curiosity.
"Delicious," answers Landen.
"Trouble," I correct, taking my own hefty swallow of the slightly silky, sweet and smoky potion.
"That is destructively amazing," agrees Landen.
It's an interesting mix, to be sure — a light wash of impossibly green anise-flavored Mexican absinthe (tell me that doesn't strike fear in the more cautious of hearts), swirled with Chambord (a raspberry-flavored liqueur) and finished with the bacon-infused corn whiskey. It goes down way too easily, lubricated with the fat of rendered Nueski's bacon. This type of thing is either disgusting, or right up your alley. I tend to fall squarely in the latter category.
Add to that, this drink is vaguely reminiscent of breakfast. You drink it, and already are thinking about what you're going to eat to soothe your hangover the next day. Suddenly, I’m at Denny's.
"Eh, I think the absinthe overpowers the bacon in this one…" says Klehm, trailing off and going for the next concoction.
Next, he mixes a bacon-infused Maker's Mark with real Vermont maple syrup and Angostura bitters. Now we're talking. The result is quite sweet with a silky viscosity and a smoky finish — sort of like licking your plate after a breakfast at IHOP. The bacon flavor imparts a decent amount of complexity to the drink.
"When you remove the fat, you get the essence, the flavor of the bacon," Klehm says.
The evening has taken a slightly manly turn, with bacon-bourbon swirling around in snifters, a spread of roasted chicken and baked potatoes and the crunching and oofing sounds of the hard-played Monday Night Football emanating from the TV.
But none of this is gender-specific — the only prerequisite to enjoying this sort of artery-hardening, liver-punishing experience is a sense for the absurd and a taste for bacon and liquor. The infusions, according to Klehm, don’t even require that much attention.
"No patience needed,” he says. “Cook bacon! Put fat (approximately 1/2 to two ounces per fifth of liquor) in bourbon. Shake it every half hour or so for eight hours. Stick it in the freezer overnight. In the morning, strain it through a coffee filter. Ta-da!"
"It's way easier than making your own beer," adds Landen.
I ask Klehm what thrills him so about his bacon-infused liquors. "You get the smoke, you get a little bit of the bacon and you get carcinogens — so it's even worse for you!" he says. This, in Klehm’s world, equals good. But how does it taste? "The whiskey settles down in your mouth and down your throat, and the bacon sort of coats the roof of your mouth, so the flavor separates as it sits." I think that means good, too.
Xpress staff writers Michael Muller and Jake Frankel stop by, just in time to sample Klehm's “Sunday Morning,” which includes a bacon-infused XO, Patron's coffee-infused tequila liqueur.
After sampling a half-dozen different bacon concoctions, Muller makes a sour face, plunks his drink down on the bar and declares, "I'm done with the bacon-infused anything. It's too much."
"Well, you're in the wrong place," I say.
"I know," replies Muller, looking downtrodden and searching in vain for anything sans pork, settling, God knows why, on a mouthful of salted scallions and a bite of hard sheep's cheese I keep around solely for grating.
"It's like moonshine — you can't keep drinking moonshine," says Frankel.
"Well, I can," says Muller, looking too sick to drink anything.
The general consensus, however, is that the average person can't, but it's worth a shot. Recipes below.
— Contact food writer Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org.