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The Joy of Soy

By Katherine Tandy Brown

The Bourbon Barrel Foods retail store is located on Frankfort Ave. in Louisville.

If a business developed seat-of-the-pants expects its sales to hit $2 million for the year, the company is obviously doing something right. Celebrating its 10th year in 2016, Louisville-based Bourbon Barrel Foods finds itself in that position for 2015 after a $1.5-million year in 2014. What’s more, founder and President Matt Jamie foresees a future of continued growth. And it all began with his idea to produce a product he knew nothing about: micro-distilled soy sauce.

Matt Jamie
Matt Jamie

Having chucked the pursuit of a master’s degree in exercise physiology at the University of Florida, the Louisville native opened a personal chef business, Home Bistro, in the Sunshine State, despite a lack of culinary training. One evening over oysters and beer with a friend, his desire to create an artisanal product in the gourmet food industry hit pay dirt. He realized that no one was making soy sauce. A lack of product knowledge didn’t deter his dream. Researching online for three years, he taught himself everything about it. He began to see parallels between the process, history and heritage in the soy sauce industry and the bourbon industry.

“Japan has about 1,500 soy sauce microbreweries,” the 44-year-old entrepreneur explains. “Over there, soy sauce production is a lot like beer in Germany, wine in France and bourbon in Kentucky. Different regions have different flavor profiles. I found it intriguing and felt I could build a business around it.”

Six months later, he’d honed in on a “delicious” recipe. So in 2005 the former marathon runner moved back home. Using his own money and help from free resources, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Louisville’s Entrepreneurial Studies Program, he implemented a business plan and opened in 2006.

Already, from its original 14,000-s.f. manufacturing space in Louisville’s Butchertown Market, Bourbon Barrel Foods has grown to 16,000 s.f., plus a leased 5,400-s.f. warehouse down the street. In January 2014, the company opened a 950-s.f. retail store a mile-and-a-half away on Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill, where its products are sold and new products tested for marketability. Its manager, Leanne Doll, formerly of Doll’s Market, serves as the business’s community relations specialist, creates popular gift sets and daily tasting specials.

Now available in a slew of retail outlets nationwide, the product line has grown to include Worcestershire sauce, teriyaki sauce (“Kentuckyaki,” flavored with bourbon and sweetened with Kentucky sorghum), vanilla extract, salts, peppers, paprika, sugars, simple syrups, salad dressings, bitters and cocktail cherries in bourbon. Just this year, Bourbon Barrel launched 16 new products.

Though the Japanese own five or six large soy sauce manufacturers such as Kikkoman in the U.S., Bourbon Barrel Foods is to date the nation’s only microbrewer of soy sauce. With a current staff of 20 fulltime and five part-time employees, the boutique business is hands-on with all processes.

Trucking in local limestone water from a Bardstown spring, the company uses locally grown soft red winter wheat and soybeans and ages the soybean mash in repurposed bourbon barrels. In fact everything Jamie makes is either smoked or aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. That distillery’s owner, Brown-Forman, is one of Bourbon Barrel’s collaborative partners. Some 40 percent of its products are Woodford Reserve and more are being developed.

In addition to a booming online and retail business, Jamie’s venture invites visitors to come, learn and have fun. For the past two years, “Secrets of Louisville Chefs” has been filmed in his on-site performance kitchen, where cooking classes serve as a marketing tool to educate people about the product line. Sometimes the company chef or Jamie himself will lead a class; other times, area guest chefs will do the honors in Bourbon Barrel’s Eat Your Bourbon Chef Series. There’s also the occasional mixology class. All involve ample tastings of what’s being prepared onstage.

In a rentable meeting space, up to 30 people can enjoy corporate dinners that include bourbon-barrel-aged products and such seasonal fare as Bourbon Smoked Sesame Seed Crusted Salmon with Lemon Pepper Olive Oil and Bluegrass Soy Sauce. Don’t start your meeting until the Apple Cake with Bourbon Whipped Cream is served.

“We’ve hosted sales teams from Coca-Cola, GE, Brown-Foreman,” says Jamie. “It’s a great way to get out of the office. We have a cooking demo and then feed ‘em while they relax and meet.”

The room is appropriate for bring-your-own team building.

Looking to the future, Jamie is finalizing plans for his business to grow 150 percent next year. He has three more possible collaborations in the hopper and is exploring the export business. In addition to having a readiness assessment done to make sure the timing is right for this big move, Jamie is being coached several times a month on the export process and is vetting importers, before attending a food show in Japan come March. Plus, more products will be launched.

“With a company like mine, you have to keep releasing things,” Jamie says. “You figure out what works, what doesn’t. You want to remain relevant and exciting in the market. We’ll definitely be growing, square-footage-wise. I don’t think we’ve come even close to reaching our potential.”

He laughs. “There’s so much going on right now, it makes my head spin.”

Prepare to be amazed at the variety of products that a bourbon barrel can flavor. Find out more about those, the Chef Series, cooking classes and corporate dinners at bourbonbarrelfoods.com. Sign up at (502) 333-6103×4.