In talking craft soy sauce, numerous cities come to mind—Osaka, Yuasu, Tokyo, even San Francisco. Few would naturally think, “Ah yes, Louisville,” yet Derby City is where the United States’ only small-batch soy-sauce maker calls home. “This is a product you’d expect out of California,” admits Matt Jamie, owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods and maker of the increasingly famous Bluegrass Soy Sauce. “It was just something I said out loud when I was drunk and eating oysters,” he explains. “First, I Googled it and didn’t find another maker in the U.S. Then I thought, ‘There must be a reason why no one’s done this.’ But I couldn’t find a reason, so I did it.”
Truth be told, Kentucky seems destined for soy sauce. After all, most top Japanese producers buy their soy beans from farms in Jamie’s neighborhood. A huge underground limestone bed runs the length of the state, filtering rain into the mineral-rich hard water that makes bourbon so distinctive. It’s also great for fermentation—a crucial step in the soy-sauce process.
Then there’s the barrel surplus. State law prohibits bourbon producers from using a barrel more than once. It used to be that barrels were strewn about the state, made into planters or barstools. Now Jamie acquires many of them, which are crucial to his business—he ages his Bluegrass Soy Sauce for about 10 months in freshly emptied oak barrels from Woodford Reserve, which gives it that distinctive Kentucky terroir. The result is a lighter-tasting, yet thicker, more mahogany sauce. And whereas most soy sauces are dark and redolent of tar, Bluegrass delivers a touch of sweetness.
Jamie produces 7,500 gallons in a year, which may sound like a lot until you compare it to the 200,000 gallons that are produced each day by soy giants like Kikkoman. But big-name chefs continue to throw support behind his boozy Americana condiment. The James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Brock has it sitting on each table at his restaurant Husk in Charleston and Nashville. Bryan and Michael Voltaggio use it in their restaurants in Los Angeles and the greater Washington, D.C., area. Chef Edward Lee of 16 Magnolia in Louisville, makes it into a jam with rabbit rillettes in spring rolls.
For the third year in a row, Bourbon Barrel Foods will contribute an ingredient in the $1,000 Mint Julep at the Kentucky Derby, though Jamie is not at liberty to say just what the ingredient is. In that regard, it should be noted that while Jamie is most famous for his soy sauce, he also produces a full line of culinary goods, including spices, sugars, and—a surprise hit—a teriyaki-like sauce called Kentuckyaki. “I never thought I’d get into the catchy-sauce-names game,” he says, “but that one was too good to pass up.”