Fresh foods and alcoholic beverages have enjoyed one of the longest romances in all of cuisine, dating back to the first time someone, maybe an ancient Greek or Sumerian, discovered how enchantingly fermented grape juice accompanies meat. Perhaps the wine was sour and the tenderloin was tough, but a relationship was born that continues to this day. But why bother with the fussiness of accompaniment? Why not put the hooch right into the meat?

That’s exactly what a handful of processors are doing. Get ready for the new meat ingredient of choice: whiskey.

“It’s just great stuff,” enthuses Lauren Hanna, founder and CEO of Hanna Company, a brand extension licensing company that licenses the Jack Daniel’s brand. “Consumers love it. It’s got this caramel and vanilla flavor that’s just wonderful.” She’s talking about the ribs, brisket, pork loin, pulled pork and pulled chicken Completely Fresh Foods, a Montebello, Calif., processor infuses with Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey. The quality of the pre-cooked, microwavable products “is just amazing,” she assures.

Tony Cimolino, vice president of sales and marketing at Completely Fresh, points out that while the Jack Daniel’s logo, which is prominently displayed on the cardboard product sleeve, might be off-putting to teetotaling consumers, all the alcohol evaporates in processing, leaving only the whiskey’s distinctive flavors of caramel, vanilla and hardwood smoke. Consumers who appreciate the whiskey tend to overlap with fans of motor sports, country twang and rock music. It’s a brand that cuts across demographics, he notes, added to the marketability of the products, which are targeted mostly at the barbecue crowd.

The idea originated in 2003 with Jack Daniel’s, which already had success with its branded barbecue sauce. “From our perspective, Jack Daniel’s has always been a great presence in the barbecue market. Extending the brand into relevant segments that fit the brand equity has been part of the culture at the company for a long time,,” says Hanna. “Moving into premium barbecue meat was a natural.” The meat line has no relationship with Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce; the company started from scratch when it decided to go into meats. In fact, finding the right partner, developing and testing recipes, and creating the right packaging took six years, but the long development period was well worth it, Hanna notes. “It’s a premium product with premium pricing” – $6.49-$8.49 for a 16-ounce tray – “which might seem to be a difficult niche in today’s economy, but we’re very happy with our success so far.” First introduced in southern California, the Jack Daniel’s line is now found in Safeway, A&P, Supervalu, Kroger, Stop ‘n Shop and Target stores. A 32-ounce size is available at Costco nationwide.

Beaming with flavor

Completely Fresh isn’t the only meat processor using whiskey to spice up meat. Windsor Foods in Houston, Texas, partnered with Jim Beam, maker of the famous bourbon whiskey, two years ago with a co-branded chili product sold under the Whitey’s brand. The partnership went so well, according to Brad Kumin, director of marketing, the line has been expanded to include chopped barbecue brisket. “The bourbon adds a really good flavor, plus there’s that wonderful aroma,” he says. “It really fills the senses.” Chopping rather than shredding the brisket gives it a chunky texture, according to Lorena Cantu, barbecue product manager at Windsor. The meat is “smothered,” she describes, with sweet and tangy barbecue sauce heavily flavored with Beam.

The bourbon arrives at the Windsor plant in barrels and then is mixed with other spices and added to the meat. Prior to cooking, the meat has a four-to-five percent alcohol content, Kumin notes, but cooking evaporates the alcohol completely. There’s been some experimentation with other kinds of food, but Windsor has discovered, Kumin explains, “that Beam really works best with protein. It’s just made for beef.” He adds that the company is also exploring meat and poultry uses for Sauza brand tequila, which is owned by the Beam company. The partnership with Beam was arranged through The Licensing Company, which also handles brand licensing for the Kahlua brand liquer, Coca-Cola and Welch’s, among others.

Top-shelf recognition

Both Windsor and Completely Fresh emphasize the benefits of leveraging the brand names of well-known liquors. “Consumers may not know the name Windsor, but they certainly know Jim Beam, and that kind of recognizability is a huge factor in the market when you’re trying to break through,” says Kumin. “It’s like having someone really famous advertising your products for you.” He admits that while the chili was an instant success, growth of the brisket product has been a little slower. “It’s because it’s a barbecue product, and barbecue tastes are really regional. Where one region likes spicy, another likes sweet – and of course everyone thinks their local barbecue is the best in the world. Trying to create a barbecue product that appeals across the board is both a difficult processing challenge and a marketing challenge. I’m really happy we’ve got Beam helping do the work for us.” Both Windsor and Completely Fresh pay licensing fees for use of the liquor brand names on packaging and marketing materials.

“I was actually cooking with Jack Daniel’s before I ever drank it,” says Lauren Hanna with a smile. “I made my own barbecue at home and always used Jack Daniel’s in it. Now I drink it and eat it, I guess you could say. It’s pretty great stuff either way.”

Bellying up to the bar

Beyond the hard stuff, Hillshire Farms boils its Miller High Life Brats in beer of the same name, using a cooking method for bratwurst that goes back centuries in Germany and is also popular among American backyard brat fans. One step removed from the meat, Bull’s-Eye brand barbecue sauce, made by Kraft Foods, recently added a Guinness Draught Beer Blend flavor to its offering. It was probably inevitable, then, that someone would try the reverse: flavoring alcohol with meat. And so: “Bakon Vodka,” which made a splash last year for a microdistiller called Black Rock Spirits.

As an ingredient, certain bar favorites are among the most popular flavors for enhancing meat. “We’ve found over the years that familiar flavors and titles are still king: Teriyaki, butter garlic, barbecue, sundried tomato basil, Greek and Sweet Bourbon still top the list,” says Jay Hall, president of Excalibur Seasoning Co., Pekin, Ill.

One of Excalibur’s more recent and most popular seasoning additions is its Wild Turkey Bourbon Grillin Glaze – a shelf-stable liquid blend consisting of 12 percent Wild Turkey Brand Bourbon along with a blend of other savory seasonings.

Commercial applications for adding such marinades can be a challenge, Hall says. “How to best add a topical is always difficult because it adds another step in processing.

“Some operators shake on a topical or they place the meat in a tumbler after injecting and apply the topical through tumbling,” he adds. “We’ve found tumbling works best if the meat used is no larger than an average fist,” Hall says. “Meat must be injected if it is larger than a fist, as the marinade will not penetrate enough to season all the way through.” •

Steve Bjerklie is M&P’s East Coast correspondent based in Franconia, N.H. He has worked as a journalist covering the meat and poultry processing industry for more than 25 years.